Neil Coppen

writings/ plays/ poetry/musings/travel journals and newspaper columns





 A Log Book

26th July -5 August 2013

I cast my eyes up from the jetty and can just make out the wild- haired, top-hatted figure of Phillipus Fogg. He’s standing at the ships prow: palms planted on the railing, one big- booted-foot crossed over the other and a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his cursive smile.

 His faithful Jack Russel- Vlooi sits at his side, a little pissed at having to portion her master’s affection with a new travel companion: a Grey Lourie which now sits and shits upon his shoulder.

I watch Fogg take in the shabby harbour side-city for a final time, squinting into a sun made spectral by the morning mists. 

His imagination pushing now beyond the reaches of the skyline. Beyond the tangle of washing lines and satellite dishes. 

Out to the next continent, the next wondrous wilderness…. uncharted terrain.


He had a nose-bleed one night in his sleep. I found the stain on one of our pillow cases the morning after. At first it seemed the blotch was in the shape of a dancing man but when viewed from upside down it came to resemble a map: a  undiscovered island dissembling into a series of splattered archipelagos.


I first met Fogg at an expedition-planning meeting in Cape Town. Upon our first introduction you might say I found him both enthralling and galling. Certainly I was impressed, impressed by his age (he was 21) and, considering his relatively short time spent on the planet, the vast quantity of information he had managed to cram into his skull.

It seemed he was versed in most subjects: music, travel, mythology, literature, cinema and could talk with genuine authority on them when most his age might  simply regurgitate Wikipedia summaries to impress.

Dostoevsky,Tarkovsky and Miyazaki he would bandy about as if they were mere contemporaries of his and while I greatly admire all these artists, I am cautious to raise them in conversation for the fear of mispronouncing their names.

Fogg spoke with an insight that befitted his title of General Knowledge Quiz runner-up in his final high-school year.

 In that instant, watching him from across the table, I felt like Kerouac might have when first confronted by the cocksure audacity of Cassady.

When our meeting finally concluded (and Fogg had found a reason to disagree with almost 95 % of everything I had to say) I was left with a rather disconcerting urge to scalp him like a hard boiled- egg and consume the content of his brains for breakfast.


He was fond of ellipses.   

 . . .


His boots had once belonged to his grandfather who had spent a large part of his days hunting in South- West Namibia. After his grandfather’s passing, Fogg ensured he never embarked on an expedition without them.  He honoured his ancestor by planting his feet daily in them. This way soles would forever mingle and new generations stroll in tandem with the last.


After days of trekking through the abandoned suburbs and cities we tear away foliage to uncover the lost Monument. We are met by imposing bearded guardians sculpted into the structures four- corners.  

Men resting disillusioned chins on the barrels of their shotguns. What thoughts lie cemented into their skulls we wonder? Do they stand vigil contemplating -for all eternity- whether to pull the trigger or not? Are they concerned that the splatter of their granite brains might sully the monuments exterior.


Inside our torches scan walls to reveal a chronicle of this odd tribe’s history. Embroidered hangings transform their tales into primitive pixels. Each tapestry resembling a screenshot from some 80’s video game. Let’s call it Boer–Fighter (Similar to Street- fighter) only with characters gleefully belting natives with over-sized bibles.


Sculpted tableaux’s along the walls depicts the tribe’s journey to the Southern continent: their escape over mountain passes, run-in’s with the coal-skinned savages (an orgy of flesh and livestock he had aptly titled it) and the almighties imperishable promise to them.

It was on this promise that the monument was founded centuries ago. The date of the vow and victory is carved into a cenotaph which is sunken into the floor of the temple. 

Once a year (on the day of the battle) the sun aligns with a hole in the ceiling and pours forth to illuminate the phrase: ‘Ons Vir Jou Suid Afrika’


Earlier that afternoon we had observed a tour-bus slug into the monument parking-lot and unleash hoards of Japanese explorers.  We watched them stumble out one by one, wrestling with a series of sequinned umbrellas which when opened splintered shards of sunlight in every conceivable direction.

I am of the understanding that satellites registered this flash-mob-brolly-refraction from space.


On one of the temple walls we sight a woman, let’s call her Anna Maart. Anna is sculpted into the same tableaux I mentioned moments ago.

Anna has her lap-top open while the men busy themselves, setting up camp in the background. Light from the screen spills across her fretful face as she checks the GPS co-ordinates for the following mornings Drakensberg crossing.  A daunting descent lies ahead.

 Anna pens an email back to the fatherland. Pens a mail back to her loving Ouma who whiles her days away in Holland chain-smoking and cursing God.

 Anna writes of the week’s dismal string of tribulations. She doesn’t imagine her and the kids making it out alive but she dare express this to her husband Willem. Willem with his Boer- maak- a-plan demeanour.  Willem the eternal fucking optimist!


After spotting a Grey Lourie in a tree outside the Monument, Fogg had crouched down to sketch the specimen in his travel- journal (A journal titled: The Motherfucking Essence of Progress). Once the drawing was complete I watched him coax the bird to his shoulder with fig pressed between his concert pianist fingers. Vlooi growled when the Lourie took residence on her master’s shoulder. Shot them both a disapproving eye.


“Go-way….. Go-way” Fogg’s pet Lourie cried out as the Deco Galleon (Queen Anstey’s the First) set sail into the turbulent surf.

“Come back….Come back” I want to yell but resist.

Fogg was seventeen- stories up with his ear-phones in, lost to the swathes of mortar and mist. Besides what chance does a lone human-voice stand against the all-consuming cacophony of Animal Collective?


After his departure I couldn’t quite bring myself to relegate the bloody pillow-case to the laundry basket. I had not the heart to end the man’s dance or lose my secret map to that unconscious island.


 Perhaps I admired Fogg’s ability to never once look back. If he did he might too often see companions and friends left on the shore, staring at their shoes, just a little stupefied with love and awe.


“I’m sure to warn people not to get too attached” he had cautioned me shortly after our first introduction.


… Extended ellipses…


I should have heeded his advice.


Alone I sat (His ship a spec on the horizon) my feet dangling off the edge of the pier. Smoking another cigarette and setting a new date to quit, in-between contemplating the fate of trash-bloated fish eddying around the jetty legs.



When my grandmother was dying I used to hold up her body to the window so she could peer into garden outside. It was here that she trained her eyes on the foliage hoping to sight a flash of the elusive Natal Robin. There was huge excitement at each sighting. She was bed-ridden in those final years, this window was her frame on the world. A mis-en-scene that featured a variety of birds, butterflies and the occasional pack of Vervet monkey’s tight-roping the neighbour’s wall. Lovely as they were they were regulars, entertaining and welcome distractions but not quite understanding (as their counterpart the Robin did) that one is made more desirable when fostering an air of mystery about themselves. The robin with its burning breast, witnessed as a fleeting smudge on green, now that was the ticket, that was the one you waited (mostly to be stood up for). When it arrived in her final days, I held her body up so she could see it and she wept with relief that it had taken the trouble to pay her a final visit. Since her passing I have associated the Natal Robin with her omen, her angel. I am not the sappy metaphysical sort but grief causes one to attach especial significance to creatures or things that ordinarily might not invite a second thought. I have not seen the Robin in the garden since her passing, perhaps once but in retrospect it may well have been a thrush (the robins more deceptive understudy) similar in proportion only with a less officious breast and far more mellow (read less impressive) in hue. Yesterday when grappling with my canine companion Finn, his ear out-turned like a pink hibiscus flower , his body riddled in tumours, that ginger-beer fizz diminished from his princely eyes I glanced up to see the robin just a few metres off. As fast as it appeared it vanished taking with it the weight of terrible uncertainty that has hovered over us for some months. Just the night before was a dream of my grandmother, who although close to my heart, like the robin has been somewhat absent over the last few years from my dreaming thicket. This time it was Guy Buttery and not John Lennon (as stated in her obituary all those years back) who was sitting on the edge of her bed like some benevolent spirit-guide and strumming a plaintive song on his guitar. To my Finn, the noblest beast that ever was and will be, the driver of sheep off Transkei cliffs, an intrepid prince who padded alongside us through a thousand golden afternoons, his less glamorous but nevertheless faithful accomplice Sophie—like a rhino squeezed into a pair of high heels—trotting just a few paw prints behind. So tremendous this loss, so lost now your shadow.

26° 12′ 15.6″ S 28° 3′ 43.7″ E


Below is a short story I wrote for Vaughn Sadies StreetLights exhibition which took place at GoetheonMain (25 May to 2 June 2012). The project explored the city of Johannesburg through its lighting strategies, examining the role artificial light plays in shaping and defining the way people either move through, or occupy, these public spaces.

Under the guidance of editor Libby Allen, ten writers were approached to contribute text-based responses to the multi-faceted project. The departing point being to place themselves for a chosen period of time at the site of their assigned streetlight. The focus of their experience was to meditate on the interplay between light and space.

26° 12′ 15.6″ S 28° 3′ 43.7″ E

Too far from the ground to eavesdrop. You could say I’m not a very reliable narrator, but then who is these days. Words seldom reach me, the traffic too persistent. My stories gleaned from murmurs amongst the exhaust pipes. My pool of light a mise-en–scene of the mundane. A supporting cast which includes pedestrians, hawkers, pavement gamblers, shoppers and stragglers who seldom linger long enough for intrigue to play out.

There are a few principals worth mentioning: my pavement once provided the stage for a man and his finger accordion. He would take his cue from the security door rattling shut over Tazim’s supermarket shop front and then play ‘till sunrise.

There was also a girl who lived in the flat above this same supermarket with her siblings and father. As a child she used to dote on me. Come twilight she would stand in her pyjamas, staring upwards. My underwhelming act of illumination never failed to elicit a gasp. Why me? There’s not much setting us stooped poles apart from one another, not much going for us in the way of idiosyncrasy. What purpose she assigned to this ritual I will never know.

 Perhaps the moment my bulb flickered to life she would make a wish. Children are sentimental like that, granting purpose to random things. She might have imagined that, were it not consecrated by her, a moment might turn tragic. That either the world would end or she would drop down dead. There are no stars here, cities are short on whimsy. I might consider myself a substitute of sorts.

In times less distant, I’ve played moonlight for this girl. Now a teenager, her vigil no longer a matter of life and death. My location more to do with the opposite sex.  She would meet the butcher’s son after sunset, concealed (or so she thought) by the zinc roof extension erected around me.

Her father, never far off, noticed one evening two silhouettes on the street below and stormed the tryst, leather belt in hand. The butcher’s son, clutching pants, went hop-scotching down the nearest alley, petrified. I followed the row from street to flat, watched as it played itself out, a dumb-show of shadows from behind tatty curtains.

The girl corrupted by puberty, her father by unemployment and booze.  He was a terrible insomniac, he began to curse me for his sleepless nights. I could hear him drunk and shuffling around the flat into the early hours. “It’s like it’s always fucking day in this place,” he yelled, before craning out the window and firing a single bullet into my bulb. 

No one came to repair me. The new place down the road gets all the cherry-picking attention these days. The accordion man, undeterred, sought his lime light a little way along, his song an eerie trace of its former self, and the girl quickly discovered how obliging my darkness was with her fledgling desire.

I became redundant, shabby with wheat glue and photostats: an advertising board for muti men and their remedies.  Bold assurances that enemies could be banished, penises enlarged and scorned lovers won back. Telephone numbers by the dozen announcing pain-free abortion with free cleaning- as if that were a discount of some sort.

The last time I recall seeing her she was staring up at me, not in awe or anticipation but with moist eyes and cell-phone in hand.

Letter to Aurora


Dear Aurora

There is one of your play block’s sitting on my writing desk.I found it under the couch in the T.V room the day after you left.

It was lying there with a lonely sheep piece from your farmyard puzzle. Both sheep and block, separated from their respective toy flocks, forgotten amongst tumble weed clumps of dog hair and half chewed hooves. Poor things.

I rescued them both, found them a home on a shelf filled with similar precious oddities: a Saint Christopher that my grandmother kissed before dying, two clay hearts, a collection of wind- up tin toys and a picture of Jill, your great grandmother, grinning with a ciggie and glass of white wine.

It’s been a while since we saw each other. Did I tell you that I started to go a little mad after you left? That I convinced myself that the wooden play- block (the one from under the couch) was a key of some sort. Its letters, numbers and illustrations all signs, parts of a complex riddle.

I thought that if I could solve the riddle, crack the code, a portal might open up and bring us closer. I have had no luck yet, have tried every possible combination, stared long and hard at the sides: the letter O, a picture of an orange, the number 2, the letter B then a picture of a bee and the letter K. What does it mean Aurora? I’m sure the answer is simpler than I make it.

Did I tell you that your Gogo and pop- pop also went a little loopy after you left. Gogo scoured the house and filled your mosaic christening vase with mementos of your stay with us: dominoes, squashed flowers, half- bitten berries, threads of hair, lavender stems, dinosaur shaped pasta shells (wedged and fossilising between lounge pillows) and cryptic doodles left on office paper scraps.

It was, I believe, an attempt to preserve the little you we had come to know. She wanted you, one day (when the vase was broken and its contents spilt) to be reminded of a brief yet formative time when language eluded you and curiosity was your only vice..

Read the rest of this entry »

A body undone


On a hospital slab. Insides out, body parts in plastic bags, cotton wool taped over eyes. The anaesthetist reaches over and touches a braid of his dying patient’s hair.

Admiring the simple tapestry, he meditates on the day when devoted fingers (whose?) combed and collected each thread of fine hair. Each tightly woven braid the product of what? A mother’s love? Aunt’s persistence? Daughter’s reluctance? Hairdressers indifference?

He will never know though he likes to imagine she laughed at least once during the sitting. Laughter in between shrieks of hair wrenched at the root, laughter delirious on some stoep out in the August sunshine.

As he detaches his machine and watches her body  wheeled unceremoniously from the theatre, he focuses again on this head of knitted hair. Zigzagging contours rising from the neckline.

Each braid: three rapids, tributaries tumbling and tied inseparably into one. Unity, he thinks, unity when everything else has unravelled. Unity in a body come so irrevocably undone.

The Misbegots


 A story inspired by Richard Hart’s paintings and first published in his catalogue for the exhibition ‘Kind Pockets’ at the whatiftheworld gallery in Cape Town in 2009

Don’t ask me how it happened, how every man and boy in a community could, one Tuesday morning in June, just drop down dead. That’s right, dead.  Dead while doing whatever it was they were doing. Half way through a sentence or song, mid swing on the golf course or in the playground and well… then there were none. Read the rest of this entry »

A post apocalyptic love story for these dark ages


With the power and water stations long collapsed and no diesel left to fuel their stagnant SUV’s (let alone the standby generators) life had become near unbearable for the powerless Houton couple– Ned and Nancy Van Der Spuy. Shacked up in their three story mansion in a once plush and functioning suburb they were left with little option but to wait, wait until their number (sixty- five thousand) on the immigration list to Aus would be called. Read the rest of this entry »

Christmas Crackers (Harauz Peru)


Christmas Eve is spent on a roof top. This time the Northern Peruvian City of Harauz. These roof tops are pretty much, much of a muchness, littered with washing lines, water drums and crates of empty Inca- cola bottles.

Places where, amongst the flapping sheets, I may conference (in peace and secret) with my past in it’s current carnations .Safe from being overheard (or deemed insane) by the man on the street. Alas the worried eyes of the land dweller and his land locked imagination.

Dues- ex machina is not my Saints chosen mode of transport and I am yet to see them charioting celestial cloud. No clarion overhead announces their coming, rather raucous laughter and the sound of clumsy feet up an iron stair. So accustomed am I too this sound that I need no longer flinch or pinch myself when they appear before me in the flesh. Rather wait, arms akimbo, foot tapping with mock impatience,saying :What took you so long?

Ah Saint Ric- though he might be Nic (for his head is adorned with silly festive hat) and accomplice Rosalind (his complicit elf).

Ric who greets me with laconic tip of cap (need he say more) then sets about perching on roof top ledge, one leg up, sparking a cigarette, then tune on the trusty Accordion.

To begin, a few obligatory Carols (It is after all Christmas Eve and Rosalind the nostalgiac- insists). Santa Rosa who in her unmistakable tipsy thoothless rathp (The voice of bed time stories as distinctive and familiar as Attenborough is to Nature documentaries) sings what words she can remember.Finally with Bony M formalities out the way, and a version of Silent Night so sad that it might silence all others, Riccardo starts up with a ribald range of Gypsy Tunes. (Acquired, so Ros tells me from a recent jaunt/ haunt amongst the Danube dwellers in Eastern Europe)

That’s the spirit- she cries, hiking up her Mettizo skirt (She has come a traditional Peruvian guise the old sport) taking my arm and spinning me in circles .Rosalind- Saint of the vine and wobbly line (and only just adjusting to the continental confusion that comes with omniscience) complains that she cant find a Checkers in the area to purchase her festive poison: a box of white wine. After reminding her which southern side of the globe we reside, she scuttles off and in no time returns with an adeqaute local variation.

Robbed by the wine of all sense, my Saints of all solitude, our eve on the roof top runs wild. Till Riccardo stops his music and Rosalind slips her hand over my eyes .Warm soft hands, familiar lines of fortune guiding me to the ledge. Nearly twelve she says. Nearly time, whispers Ric.

Clackety clackety clack go the fire crackers on the streets below-like a pair of love sick tap shoes clacking in Morse. I watch a sky set on fire. Roaring rockets and whinging wheels . While both guardians lean forward and take turns to kiss my Saint Chris (look at me- then go astray-urges Ric). I mark their faces in the purple flare, the flecks of fire now sparking from their hair. Feliz Navidad, yells the city at once from their roof tops. So I crow back, with all my voice, Pan rousing Never land-Feliz Navidad!

When I next look they have vanished, but not completely. The exit, as with most things in life, more spectacular than the arrival. My eyes trail the scattered stars of their tails, watching them peter out over the tip of a distant cathedral. Then tumble to the Plaza, two smoking canisters (and just so I know where to follow them next) with Made in China printed on the side.

Las Chicas del Helado Canela


Maria grew up on the shores of Lake Titicaca in the town of Copacabana.  One couldn’t really call it a childhood, sitting there like that on corner of the Plazuela Tito Yupanqoi at the entrance of the chapel of candles alongside her sickly grandmother. The two of them huddled under what little shade their battered old brolly offered. And this is how each day went: waking before sunrise, lugging baskets of candles to meet the charity of post-work worshippers, pilgrims or tourists. Customer’s who for a mere twenty Bolivianos (and by lighting a candle at the sacrosanct toes of disproving Santa Marta) were able to atone for their weekly sins.

Of course Maria would have far preferred to be in school, but as her widowed grandmother (and only remaining guardian) was destitute, she had to seize what little opportunities life had granted her. Now the candle business was hardly a lucrative one. It was an industry that depended entirely on the collective guilt of villagers and idle curiosity of passing gringo’s. Self flagellation, fear of eternal damnation were metaphysical afflictions that enabled Maria and her grandmother to turn a daily profit. If it wasn’t for devout locals like Carmen Villajuerte Nuñyez, the village adulteress –who on Monday mornings wracked with remorse scooped up their entire stock in her trembling arms– there might have been no point in enduring the heat at all. But endure it they did and in the face of fierce new candle competition, little Maria was frequently left to watch her future prospects melt into an amorphous wax blob.

 Then one August morning, after setting up their stall, securing the umbrella and laying out the candles, Maria’s grandmother plonked herself resolutely on her stool, clasped her hands over a heaving breast, shut her eyes and entered into cat nap from which she would never again rise from. Poor Maria, just twelve years old and too young to fend for herself was forced to relocate to the Andes metropolis of La -Paz. Here she was to live under the roof and guidance of her twice removed relative Uncle Gorge.

Now Gorge was a failed yet indefatigable entrepreneur who cared little for the child rather recognised her as the pretty new face to head up his latest enterprise: a cinnamon ice -ream business at the entrance to the La Paz bus terminal. Gorge assumed the girl, with her sympathetic simper, unblinking almond eyes would excel as a Helado sales girl. As an incentive let her to keep ten percent of her daily takings, takings she had resolved to save in aid of her future education.

So this was how Maria came to join the infamous stretch of Las Chicas Del Helado Canelo (The Girls of Cinnamon Ice Cream) lined along the intersection to the La Paz bus terminal with hapless Maria’s Helado stand nudging the fringes of the bus terminal Baños. This strip of pavement boasted six pretty chica’s all wilting in a row: Paula, Olivia, Gladys, Rosa, Lidia and now Maria–the only one whose feet, when perched on stool, refused to touch the ground.

Of course Maria had not an inkling of what a tiresome task it would be to try sell Cinnamon Ice-cream especially when armed with a helado’s cart so cost effective that it failed to come with any form of refrigeration. Naturally she was to receive a frosty reception from her rivals - each with their own a luminous little ice berg to pawn before profits were reduced to syrupy puddle.

Uncle Gorge’s convictions that he had perfected the greatest helado canela recipe known not just to the Andes, but to all mankind, did little to inspire hope. To the harried passer by, usually late for their bus, it all looked identical. It seemed then that the chica most likely to be crowned helado’s queen for the day was the one whose physical attributes first enticed the predominantly male clientele.

I arrived at this tragic Helado’s pageant, quite by chance. Lost and nearly late for my bus, the heat of noon insisting I stop to sample an icy treat. But from which chica? Paula, Olivia, Gladys, Rosa, Lidia and Maria— I knew this for their names were neatly announced at the base of their helado’s podiums.

“Sinyora, Sinyora, Sinyora” they called out sweetly, insistently, each coo more enticing then the last. Like Ulysses at the mercy of the helados sirens, I fumble, Ulysess the unfortunate wretch hurled into the chica’s den. Time is at stake, time is a missed bus, time is ice dripping through the hour glass. Which one? Which one?

I scan the competition, first setting eyes on Rosa whose garishly painted face and ample bosom ensures she stands out against her more modest competitors. Then Paula whose middle age, sour pout and slovenly slouch makes me think she might be better off selling lemon Sorbet. Beside her is frigid Olivia– cold as the cinnamon cream she towers over, then Glady’s: pretty enough, but such glaring insistence is off putting as ,might I add, is Lidia’s gum-chewing indifference.

Then at last, beside the baños, amidst the persistent trickling tinkle of the urinals, I sight little Maria: a cinnamon ice cream saint, her plight scrawled all over her anxious little face. Maria who does not haggle, bicker or bitch as the others did. Maria who sits patiently, her stoicism enough to implore me to sate myself to sickness on her horribly sweet heap of cinnamon ice-cream.

So I begin to spoon, shovel as if her salvation depends on it. My teeth ache, head pounds, growing woozy with the concoction of colourant and sugar. In under ten minutes and before the other competitors startled eyes, Maria’s Canela mountain is reduced to a mole hill and I race pink faced to meet my departing bus. From the window I see her eager fingers sifting through my coins. Glimpsing in these grubby copper tokens a future beyond all ephemeral matters of wax and ice.

The Luckiest Man Alive


He did not flinch in bidding Paris his hometown adieu: far too petite, too pretentious to contain his irrepressibly itchy feet. At twenty –two he had just completed his degree at an architectural school (a school whose reputation resided more on the bevy of beautiful international students it attracted than the actual qualification it offered). It had been three frenetic years: waking up with pounding head, missed lectures and one very busy bed.

Ironically it was Cecile, a fellow Parisian: aloof, detached and perhaps the most beautiful of them all who remained consistent in her disinterest. God knows, how from the day of their introduction he persisted. A tenacity, that in the weeks leading up to graduation, with the ensuing parties, (the simultaneous dropping of one’s guard and underwear) naming him the conqueror and Cecile the seemingly insuperable –the conquered.

Not surprisingly her frigid demeanour proved to be a facade, a fortress erected to fend off the advances of such opportunists. In their few months spent together he found her to be dangerously affecting. The cause for a foreign and almost terrifying feeling to creep up on him. However in this instance love, where it should have invigorated felt more like a slow setting concrete poured into this adventurers eager boots. So it was, that not even Cecile (the celestial—he had called her) with her diaphanous skin and near perfect breasts, no not even she could convince him to stay. “Au revoir Mamma, Pappa, goodbye sweet Cecile.” he cried, leaving them- all three- inconsolable at the departure gate. Vanishing out into the big wide world and never once looking back.

A life eater he titled himself. A globe-not trotter –for that is far too tame a stride– rather leaper, blundering intrepidly into the unknown. His quest not just for the continents but for their tribes of women. His noble and over-riding goal: to unite the nations under a single sleeping bag. True to his motto, his French Ce la vie, the one that simply stated: life is for living, the loins for giving.

And so if gobbling life meant a little over indulgence, a spot of indigestion here and there- so be it. Consummate in exploiting his many attributes: rugged charm, handsomeness, and when courtship might require it- trademark French indifference. Almost fluent in several languages, he had devoted himself to mastering one in particular, that spoken with the eyes. Furtive glances: expectant, hungry, hopeful and playful. Looks, which despite their degrees of suggestion offered invitations of an unequivocal kind. With these he lured each fluttering heart to his net, his hammock, bunk or bed and if they happened to linger too long, talk in a collective future tense, he would flee, promptly resume his life as itinerant rouge. It was not that he prided himself in leaving a universal trail of dejected hearts, just that he had grown accustomed to a self-absorbed ethos of the solo traveller: a constitution that never included notions of compromise and commitment. He recognized this as weakness, preferred not to dwell on it, and for most of his twenty years abroad, filling his eyes with impossible wonder, never really had to.

To finance his travels he took odd jobs in translation, everything from Spanish bibles to Swedish porn films. His athleticism and bilingualism allowing him to eventually find employment out in the world´s wildernesses as an adventure guide. Here he received qualifications in deep sea diving, mountain biking, high altitude mountain climbing and river rafting. His job generally involving lugging disinterested (and often decrepit) Europeans about on rather tame adventure excursions.

However after viewing his client’s family photos (which most of them carried in wallets) he’d invite them to send their ´just out of high school´ daughters to take a private tour. So endearing and trustworthy had he proven that they mostly agreed and from such generosity, one might say, he profited in more ways than one.

The girls were generally rich, naive and ravishingly beautiful. More crucially they arrived with a return air ticket. As for the ones that lacked the necessary aesthetics (those whose photographs proved to have been deceptive indications). Well, provided the evening camp fires were burning at a low smoulder (and he was drunk enough) he’d slip into their sleeping bags, warmth, not to mention the end of trip tip, the over-riding necessity at such frigid Andean altitudes.

Of course interspersed amongst his many sexual conquests were the untouched utopias of the world: the ample ruins, lost civilizations, the breathtaking vistas, underwater wonderlands. The luckiest man alive (he would be forgiven for thinking) A life eater, one who has well and truly chewed it up and spat it out. Never sated, still hungry for more.

By the time he had reached forty he had taken a six month contract with a Chilean adventure company, guiding the three- day jeep tour from San Pedro De Attacama across the Bolivian Salt Plateaus. It was while making a return trip to Chile (the first time he had undertaken such a trip alone) that his jeep had unexpectedly spluttered to a halt. With no radio or cell phone reception he was forced to sit it out and flag down the next passing vehicle.

 Surely time like this a blessing, time away from the incessant gabble of tourists. A moment of solitude amidst such a wonder should be savoured not willed away. The first rains of summer had fallen and now the pans 12,000 km circumference held a thin veil of water. At once a featureless salt desert transformed into vast reflective mirror. Earth merging with sky and rendering the horizon non-existent.

Now that he thinks of it, the arrival of forty has come as something of a shock, as has the sight of his reflection in the water. The first indication of grey hairs, fuzz on his ears similar to his fathers. Years of beer soaked abandon accumulated in a well cultivated paunch. On the seventh hour, the perspective (or lack of) begins to confound him. The heat beating down from above and burning up from below. He feels the niggle of emptiness, an increase of thirst. Left with only memory, topsy- turvy reflection to turn to, he tries to recall the past twenty years, searching for an internal island, a raft or refuge of some sort to cling to.

Places, faces (never names) fly through his cluttered head. Ears lobes, hairlines, ankles, belly rings, breasts and Brazilian waxes. Pieces sewn haphazardly together, merging now into an obscure and monstrous whole. A Spanish girl, name unknown (underage),buckets of sangria, cupids catalyst. Su or Lu or Wu the elastic band from Japan (or was it Malaysia?). That doe eyed Israeli girl, The Moroccan switch board operator, Russian dive instructor, Swiss anthropologist, retired Venezuelan beauty queen, spoilt trust fund Californian, Dutch. Italian, Romanian Air Hostesses. The Polish Ambassadors wife, a just engaged Argentinean and recently widowed South African. So it went on and on and on. Useless and empty the lot of them. Then at last, Cecile amidst the crowd, Cecile the celestial, the diaphanous. A burning mirage. At last a memory (albeit distant) to outlast the tug of testicles, the ephemeral ecstasies common to the multitude of others. He wonders where she might be in the world, wonders whose side she sleeps beside, the names of her children.

 Repent, the life eater must and does, wishing now he could vomit it all out- all those hastily torn, badly chewed chunks. Out here, where reflection stirs reflection, where salt meets salt. Doubled over the beat out bonnet of a Toyota Jeep- the luckiest man alive, wailing like a new born baby, confesses to being the saddest fucker to have ever crawled the face of the salty earth.


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