1,217 words for absence

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Lena is a close friend. She’s been my friend for more than 20 years now, so I’m lucky. She’s a beautiful, playful, kind, lovably geeky girl/woman – from Uganda by way of North London’s Jubilee line Big Yellow Storage hinterlands, then Gloucestershire, Cambridge and the Big Smoke.

 

We were flatmates for years – the years of back-to-mines and shared laundry runs. Lena married Rich, another of my closest friends – they have a marriage that’s loving and occasionally complex, just like all the best ones – and our close-knit little group, with Lena at the centre, has shared too many nights out to remember. (On one, she developed an obsession with a trance club’s crowd-roaming bongo player, and kept following him through the crowd like a duckling after its mum. ‘Bongo Man’ is our codeword for getting too wrapped up in something, work, whatever. Which, being Lena, happens often.)

 

What you really need to know, though, the key in a way to understanding everything else about Lena, is that so much about her is hugely, winningly incongruous. She’s a fearsomely intelligent polymath without an ego; the sociable introvert who holds our group together; a source of support and advice who carries her own sadnesses patiently; a Russian-, French-, Italian-speaking, law-firm partnering, multi-instrumentalist whose nature is to look up to people, and who seems genuinely baffled by her life’s big puzzle, which is of course that the rest of us love her so deeply. Her learning sits so lightly on her as to be invisible if that’s what she wants; and she wears her reading glasses with the same slightly amused elegance with which she sports her hangovers. I’ll tell you more about her in a minute. You’ll like her a lot.

 

But what I want to tell you first was how it went the day we buried her. Or at least, how it went for me.

 

As the days pass it sometimes seems as if I wasn’t properly there. (Did it even happen? I still catch myself pretending we just haven’t spoken for a couple of months. That Lena’s out there on the other side of town, waiting for the moment to pop up on my timeline.) But then come the joltingly clear memories.

 

The icy blue sunshine and high, painter’s clouds – refugees from the mountains who still haven’t got the hang of blending in among the towers and flats.

 

My last look up at the side of the spire, doing that falling-back thing it does as it soars away from you. At the streets, thinking how out of joint were all the vans and chattering teenagers and shopping mums. The darkness of the threshold. The church, huge, flooded with light, smelling churchy.

 

Then Lena’s family wandering into the church. They moved to all the right places, but looked like they’d lost their direction somewhere.

 

The light that fell across Lena’s mum, dad, brothers and sister. They nodded, and smiled, and sat, and fell silent. They sat across the aisle from the rest of us; her friends, her husband, her in-laws. I felt ashamed somehow, inappropriate: I couldn’t help them. The girl who had died was their daughter, their baby sister.

 

I couldn’t stop looking across at them. Their grief had her bemused, sad-laughing eyes, and a sort of patient, scholarly attentiveness that I’d seen in Lena a million times. Her sister moved her head with the same listening gesture. I remember thinking how their shoes were all polished. My shoes weren’t polished. I worried at it, tried to think of an injoke between Lena and me that would have justified my lapse, made it OK.

 

When I resurfaced, the church was full.

 

I found myself amazed at how many different Lenas we were burying.

 

All this time, I had known just one. Rich, her husband, knew another. Maya and Sema, her BFFs, each had their own, subtly different Lenas. But here was Lena the baby daughter, childhood classmate, little sister, boss, mentor, steadying family influence, benefactor. Those Lenas were all here, you could feel them filling the church, each with her own companion.

 

And for a moment I felt a strange euphoria, seeing my friend as if she were arriving, really becoming whole, instead of departing. All along, she’d been all this. To so many people. And each of us, even as we claimed her as our own, had merely borrowed a little bit of her for what felt, in the end, like the blinking of an eye.

 

So I tried to keep that in my head, but the vicar was talking. I couldn’t focus. I kept looking at my friends now; the ones who had known, more or less, the Lena I had. I wanted to speak with them about this feeling that we were all together in witnessing something extraordinary, the way you try and seek out others who witnessed the same event, saw the same gig. “You saw that too, right?”

 

Or: That was someone very special, wasn’t it?

 

Here were the university friends and acquaintances, too. Some I’d seen in the 20 years since we graduated, but not many, and not often. (I don’t know why, except there’s something in me, or there was at least, that doesn’t live well in the midst of groups and reunions. That fades with age too.) They were good people. I’d been really fond of them back then, in my spiky-young-man way, and I hadn’t seen them in decades. There we stood, smiling, or crying, or attentive, or stony-faced. Together.

 

Inside that church, now deep inside the service – with time slowed to an excruciating thick, dreamlike crawl and nowhere to look but up, down or across – I saw them all clearly for the first time. Not composed for upbeat hellos or wearing expressions of sympathy; not thinking about the clothes or the hairlines or the kids; but naked, and with all their years.

 

Two of my closest, Al and Fi, stood behind me. I couldn’t see them, but I could hear him moving his arm through hers, and her crying softly, just by my left shoulder-blade.

 

Lena’s best friends were speaking; Sema and Kofi read poems, then Maya began her eulogy. They were lightning conductors, drawing all the crackling and confused babble in our minds, the awful mix of emotions, and speaking them out again in a way that couldn’t hurt us. They took it on them, and they fought hard, and it helped.

 

To my surprise, I was ready for the grief, the helplessness and even the guilt. You feel them jostling and bumping into you, trying to get you to look at them. You feel them in your cheekbones and jaw, around your eyes, your chest, your clenched hand. But you are ready. You can stand, and you can fight them fair.

 

What I wasn’t prepared for – and today, looking back, it might even be the dominant note to the day – was an odd kind of tenderness for the people around me in that place. I remembered a story about Neil Armstrong. Standing on the moon, he had looked up and seen the Earth out there in space. For the rest of his life, the feeling never left him. It was of being overwhelmed with love for this tiny thing he suddenly saw as alone, fragile, and infinitely precious.

 

And because I was unprepared, it threw me, in a way that grief could not.

 

I tried not to look that feeling in the eyes, even tried to invite the grief back for a quick go. But that second thing kept creeping over me, in quietly booming waves.

 

It was waiting for me at the cemetery, as handfuls of earth were thrown over Lena, and a bright hailstorm flashed and was gone; it clung to my elbow in the cramped suburban community centre where the wake was held; it slouched at the bar in the dark cocktail club in Soho where the party ended up.

 

I looked at my contemporaries properly for the first time – not the first time that day, but the first time ever. The young women and men – boys and girls, really – I had known at college were all 40 now. They had changed the world in small ways, become notable, achieved what they said they would, or they had not; they had filled out, thinned and thickened.

 

Many had plateaued in the careers they’d dreamed about back then; more had found those careers weren’t for them; others, late bloomers, were still officially biding their time. Some wore the marks of family life, some of fulfilment, some the pristine glow of loneliness. They had suffered disappointments, and sometimes suffered successes more. They had children, divorces, lives, and they looked… Well, they looked beautiful.

 

The saplings don’t see it themselves as the forest grows around them, its slow accretions of bark and scratches transforming them over slow decades. But I saw it now, those same years, scratches, accretions on all of us.

 

The crooked trees were as beautiful as the straight, and the broken as beautiful as the unbroken. The ones I had been close to, the ones I’d hardly known, all stood together. We were together on that tiny, far-away Earth, and one less. How small the differences seemed.

 

As afternoon stretched into evening, the day took on a quiet glow. It ended with the usual sense of drift, the gently mounting sense that there were things to be done elsewhere. Things to be done: for Lena; for her family; for Rich, her husband – and for ourselves, and our families, and for all those we loved but hadn’t spoken with or seen or held in too long.

 

I remember thinking: “Lena will be OK from here.”

 

As if we were dropping her off at home, somewhere safe.

 

I tried, days later, in the stumbling way people try to say the most important thing on their minds, to articulate a strange feeling that comes in small moments amid the dreadful empty powerlessness and loss: that I was happy for Lena. I meant, because she went without knowing. Because she made us all feel like this, and that doesn’t just happen on its own. Because she’s kind, and good, and gone, but not gone at all. Because she is loved.

 

But words got in the way, as ever. And people looked at me and smiled, and said, “But she’s dead.” And I think I laughed at my foolishness, and muttered something about being a klutz. Lena is dead. And I miss her.

 

I’m not surprised I couldn’t explain, not really. These things have a habit of staying where they form, and going with us on whichever bit of our own journey is most private. And if there’s still a little part of each of our love for Lena that remains with us alone and can’t be told, that’s OK too.

 

Still, I thought for a long time about trying again. But it’s something I can’t quite grasp myself. Faint stars always vanish when you try and look at them directly. So I thought perhaps writing it down would help. But even now, after 1,217 words, I’m not sure I’m any closer.

 

Report: Smuggling, security & the power of cheap – speaking at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs

On 22nd September, I was honoured to be invited to discuss the links between big business, mercenary airmen and terrorist groups at a special event presented by the Transnational Security Committee of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs. The conversation that followed, moderated by CGA Academic Chair Dr Mark Galeotti, took in the disintegrating Soviet Union, the forces and motives directing policy in Afghanistan, Central America and increasingly, East Africa.

 

The high point for me personally was Dr Galeotti’s killer question – one I haven’t been asked before, and when I think about it, I wish I had, because it’s an incredibly fertile way to look at how our world works. He posited a hypothetical set of conditions where it was possible to shut down all rogue air operators and stem the flow of invisible cargo overnight. He then asked, what would our world look like then?

Well, war would get bigger again, for a start. Not just in the sense that smaller groups would find it harder to access plentiful weapons without a superpower ‘backer’ – much as they did in Cold War days – but in that moves like invasions, regime change and reconstruction would come with a far higher tax bill attached, since the grunt work could no longer be outsourced to cost-effective partners-for-hire, but would demand the presence of a far larger standing force.Prices for other things would rise, too. Not just contraband – though the plentiful supply of cheap movers helps keep prices artificially low there too – but everything from bouquets to chickenburgers and parcel post to washing machines.

 

Humanitarian aid, too, would come with a heftier bill attached – again, it would require bodies like the UN to run a far larger standing transport resource – and would be slower in its deployment, since the perma-circling flocks of cheap Russian cargo planes operating in and around the world’s troublespots would have disappeared. Smaller aid outfits would likely be squeezed out of the emergency-response market, since they would not have access to cheap capacity in planes that were already going to Somalia, Pakistan or Haiti, and could neither afford to charter nor run their own plane.

 

No wonder the Q&A with the audience was described as “spirited”! You can read more about the event, and the CGA’s upcoming lecture programme, here.

Extract: Colombia, cocaine and the coastal paradise on a US blacklist

Today, the US finally blacklisted Belize and El Salvador for being major narcotics transhipment hubs – mainly for Colombian cocaine. Anyone who’s been to the former British Honduras, a tiny little country on the Central American coastline, will already know very well how much of it goes down there. Indeed, most are probably wondering, like me, what took the US so long.

For those who don’t – and for everyone interested in the cocaine trade – I’ve decided to post a free extract of my book below, in which I witnessed the workings of the Belize cocaine transhipment trade at close quarters. Read it and weep…

– From the chapter
High Times on the Costa Coca

“It’s just the start of another lazy, sun-kissed day on Ambergris, one of the tiny, sandspit-and-swamp cayes—pronounced keys, like the Florida archipelago they resemble—off the mainland of this Mayan-Caribbean state. Belize is a tiny coastal country nestled between Guatemala and Mexico on the Central American coastline. Accordingly, the former British Honduras is part coastal paradise, part Mayan hill-and-jungle backwater, and projects the kind of quaint, slow-paced charm we all remember from childhood visits to elderly aunts by the seaside. The waters this side of a long coastal reef glow bright blue, and farther out, where the peasant fishermen ply their trade and the occasional launch zips by on its way up the Central American seaboard toward Florida, they are calm and reassuringly hushed. It genuinely is the last place I’d ever expected, quite literally, to fall over the slit and dissolving remains of a twelve-kilo sack of uncut cocaine someone had left lying on the sandspit beach of the long caye during a dawn walk.

If I’d been able to read the local papers for the couple of months before my arrival in March 2003, I might have had an inkling. On a cloudy Wednesday morning in February 2003, Belizean drug-enforcement agents on a tip-off stormed a field on the Mexico-Belize border and stumbled upon a still-smoldering torched aircraft. But if that was genuinely their first clue that all was not entirely as it should be on the sunny shores of this tiny Central American paradise, perhaps it shouldn’t have been. For years, fishermen and farmers up and down the Mosquito Coast have been doubling up as cocaine salvage men, pushing out early in the morning to see what they can rescue from the fields and waters of Belize and neighboring countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Locals here earn a matter of pennies a day—yet a handful or those industrious or well-informed enough have long been living a Central American rewrite of Whisky Galore (Compton Mackenzie’s book and subsequent film about a small Scottish island community onto whose beach fifty thousand cases of scotch from a wrecked World War II cargo vessel are washed). Only here, the flotsam comes in the form of shrink-wrapped bales of 100 percent pure cocaine, not bottles of booze.

On a sandy, shark-encircled caye a few kilometers along the Costa Coca just weeks later, I was a passenger on a local fishing boat whose skipper explained to me as he sped right past his fishing waters and into the deeper ocean that it was always worth his while scouting around for the “taped-up plastic sacks of cocaine that the narcotraficantes drop into the water at night.” Sometimes, he explains, the narcos whose job it is to deliver the drugs to the planes come round the coast at night and attempt to rendezvous with the plane’s crew. If they are disturbed, chased by law enforcement, or just paranoid, the easiest thing for them to do is push the cargo over the side, carefully wrapped so that it floats discreetly, in the hope of doubling back and retrieving it when the danger has passed—the big-money equivalent of throwing your joint from the car window. The air trapped in the sacks makes them float, semi-submerged or just below the surface, glinting as the light bounces off the plastic. Often they do return and retrieve their cargo, but there are often stragglers, bales washed away from the rest. These are, says the skipper, “the bales the fishing boats find, mostly. Sometimes from a plane too, though, I think.”

By now it was late morning and my skipper and I were no longer alone: A handful of small dinghies could be seen combing the reef waters and the deeper sea beyond, packed with fishermen hoping to land their own twelve-kilo, plastic-wrapped golden ticket. Up and down the beach, meanwhile, were the sacks that hadn’t made it—punctured on impact with the ground, swept out, torn, and washed up again, their precious contents either a dissolving bubbly residue or gone forever.

Back on land, the caye is awash with the stuff, young teenagers selling cocaine—or a hurriedly home-cut version of what the boats or 4x4s brought in—for as little as ten dollars a gram on jetties, beach bars, and up and down the sand in a way you’d normally be offered cheap souvenir beach towels or hair braids. One can’t help but notice how, among the rows of hovels, rusting pickups, and wooden boats, the occasional spanking-new, tinted-glass Humvee sits incongruously; or the odd rococo home extension with pool among a cluster of poor-but-proud shacks at the end of a dirt road. This is just one of the bizarre local economic glitches—along with a series of microbooms to the cash economy whenever a shipment falls—that attends this particular delivery method to the local arms-for-drugs traders.

The idea of spiriting large quantities of Colombian-grown drugs out of rural Belize by cargo plane is not new. In July 2000, British paratrooper Ken Lukowiak wrote a best-selling account of a successful marijuana-smuggling operation he masterminded from his British garrison in Belize in 1983, using military-transport aircraft to spirit large quantities of grass to Europe. Successful until he was caught by the army and jailed, that is.

Yet the Belizean police do seem incredibly unlucky to keep narrowly missing an arrest despite the tip-offs they receive from local witnesses. Just months later in August 2003, enforcement authorities in Blue Creek, a mile and a half from Quintana Roo, Mexico, arrived just too late once more and found another ditched Antonov. This time the gun was smoking: On landing, the An-12’s wheels had become stuck in the thick mud of the field, crippling it. Just like the Candid team who left their junk plane to rust in Afghanistan after having dropped their generator for the U.S. military, this crew knew what to do. The plane itself had cost just $1.5 million; it was expendable. The cargo wasn’t. Witnesses reported seeing men arrive at the plane by car, pick up the crew and a suspected ten bales of cocaine, and speed off in the direction of the Mexican border . . . where they vanished forever.”

Matt talks about Outlaws Inc. on BBC Radio 5Live

Listen to the first discussion of Outlaws Inc. on Wednesday 1 June’s edition of Up All Night, BBC Radio 5Live’s night-time show – also available on BBC iPlayer. Matt talked to Giles Dilnot about the adventures, investigative work and accidents that informed the book. Once it’s vanished from iPlayer, I’ll try to post a recording of the show here, too. 

The lighter side of Moscow’s customs officials

Tha Cu$tom$ Posse at Domodedovo, yesterday

News from today’s Moscow Times suggests all that glaring and journalist-deporting Russian customs and border officials have been doing recently may just be a front to disguise their real fun-loving side. What other conclusion can we possibly draw from this video, showing a group of Moscow customs men and the mime-along pop video they made in their downtime? Except they actually went and posed with all ‘their’ confiscated goods. Coming only a matter of weeks after the bombing at Moscow’s Domodedovo airport, Prime Minister Putin is said not to be pleased. That’s the thing with music. Timing.

Parental advisory: contains ladies, moderate pimpin’ styles and mild scenes of an R’n’B nature.