Friday, September 23, 2005

Many years ago I used to work for a company that sold products into libraries, and part of my job was to wander around the world talking about it to librarians. One such trip was to Foobar; little did I realise exactly what the trip would entail. On the surface, it looked straightforward – I would go to Anarka, be met by some local librarians who had arranged a one day talk/demonstration there, then we would go to Bulia, I’d give the second talk and then I’d fly home. However, things would not be as simple as I was expecting…

The arrival. Things started to waver off course on my arrival in Bulia. The internal flight to Anarka took off about 90 minutes after initial arrival, so I had plenty of time. I’d arrived quite late at night, so I wasn’t surprised that the airport wasn’t very full. However, I became slightly concerned when I couldn’t see a flight to Anarka coming up on the board, and the lights in the airport started to go out. After a while, I went up to the Information Desk to ask about the flight. Blank looks from the Information Staff; they didn’t understand what I was asking. I tried again – still no luck. Eventually a cleaner heard me, and understood what I was talking about. Quite why someone who could speak perfect English was working as a cleaner, while some buffoon who couldn’t do anything other than an excellent impression of a piece of cardboard was working behind an Information desk puzzled me, and still does. The cleaner said that I was at the International Airport; to get a flight to Anarka I needed to be at the Domestic Airport, which was on the other side of the city. I dashed out and managed to get a taxi, which got me to the Airport with about 15 minutes to spare (and charged me 10 times the going rate), and I just made my flight. I arrived in Anarka at about 1.30am and left the airport, to be met by about half a dozen guys who all looked like terrorists, though they turned out to be taxi drivers. I got in and told the driver where I wanted to go; it was a hotel called ‘The Best Hotel’. Although the driver spoke a little English, this was actually causing problems… ‘Ah, best hotel – Hilton?’ he asked. ‘No’ says I ‘The Best Hotel. The Best Hotel, not the best hotel’. ‘Yes, Hilton. Or Marriot?’ Clearly we were getting no-where fast. Eventually I managed to locate the address in the piles of paper that I had, and off we went. It will come as no surprise that the only thing that was best about it was the name. I won’t go into details about the state of the room on this one, other than to say it was grubby and wouldn’t even attract a single star in the UK. In fact, the only thing it would attract would be the attention of the local pest control officer.

The meeting. I was met the next morning by the Foobarish Librarians delegation; three women who I would get to know well in the coming days. The first was a rather large lady, who spoke reasonable English, at least to the extent that I could understand some of what she said, and she could understand some of what I said. This did not bode well; how was I going to talk to these people if they didn’t speak much English? The second woman was quite tall and thin. She never spoke, never smiled, never did very much of anything as far as I could tell. The final woman was small and getting on a bit. Neither of them spoke any English at all. The rather large lady explained that they were all related to each other by marriage, and they all worked for the library association. I then got taken on a tour of two or three local libraries, and each time was introduced to the librarian, and it transpired that they would be related to one of the three women; a cousin, or a sister or whatever. It quickly became clear – there was a Foobarish Library Mafia, and I was in the grip of the GodMother and her two cohorts. I asked about other libraries in Anarka and was told that yes, there are some, but none of the librarians were related to any of the 3 women, so we wouldn’t be going to see them. Truly they had a terrifying grip on the local situation.

The next day was scheduled for my first talk, and I turned up at the venue to be met by about 20 librarians. It was almost a family gathering in fact; the three women had obviously invited their extended families along. I was also introduced to my translator; a young lady in second year of university on an English degree – she was the cousin of one of the three women, I forget which. This was fine, except that she didn’t understand any technical terms such as ‘Compact Disc’ (it was a long time ago), or ‘baud rate’ or any of the other terms that we take for granted, so every now and then she would stop me in the middle of my talk and ask me to explain the terms that I was using. I’m pretty sure that she didn’t understand my jokes either, since none of them raised even a smile.

In the evening the three women had arranged a social gathering, and they picked me up from the hotel. The very small woman was driving, I was given the seat of honour in the front of the car and the very large lady and the very thin tall lady sat in the back. I soon gathered why – the small elderly lady was the most insane driver I’ve ever met. In Foobar the line down the middle of the road isn’t to keep drivers on one side or the other – it’s the line that the drive down. This causes problems when you get traffic coming the other way, and the small elderly woman was expert at playing chicken. She would wait until the very last moment before swerving off to one side or the other, and as she did she would – well, the best way of describing it is that she would cackle. I sat in the front, my briefcase on my lap staring in horror as all these vehicles would miss us by a few inches. The very large lady leaned forward and said ‘She good driver, yes?’ I was tempted to say ‘No, she’s mad. I’m in a car with a mad driver and two insane passengers’ but I just nodded and gripped my briefcase tighter. At one point she needed to take a right turn. Now, in most situations you pull into the middle of the road (no problem here because that’s exactly where she was), you indicate, slow down and wait for the traffic to let you through. This was not the small mad cackling woman’s approach though. She just drove a little faster and at the last possible moment swerved violently to the right – I shut my eyes, heard the screaming tyres of the oncoming traffic and when I opened them again we were hammering down some side road, with no pavements and very few lights. It was at this point I realised that the small mad cackling woman had a hobby called ‘Scare the pedestrians’ – clearly another favourite since ‘Scare the shit out of the passenger’ was becoming boring. Men, women, children and chickens scattered as she drove down the road, and if they didn’t she would swerve towards them until they did. I can clearly recall that we were going down a hill, and almost at the bottom was a police car, pootling along quite happily. ‘Thank God, she’ll have to slow down now’ I thought. How wrong I was. She put her foot down and cackled some more. The two women in the back laughed as well – oh, what jolly japes we were having. At the last moment, as I saw the tail light of the police car getting closer and closer she swerved around the police car and was hammering up the other side of the hill. We reached the brow of the hill, still in the middle of the road, crested the hill and the first thing I could see was the radiator grill of a huge lorry, seemingly just a couple of feet away. She swerved again, still laughing happily and we made it to the venue. It was a few moments before I could actually get out of the car, since my legs didn’t want to work and I had to bite down the scream that had formed in my throat.

Onto Bulia After this social event the plan was that I and the 3 mad women would go onto Bulia for the second talk. I didn’t foresee any problems with this – it’s a very short hop on a plane. However, I then discovered that we weren’t going by plane, we were taking an overnight bus. The bus was actually very impressive, and the upper deck was reserved for smokers, so I sat up there and the Foobarish Women’s Library Mafia sat downstairs. We traveled well into the night and eventually I could see the lights of Bulia twinkling in the distance, but then the bus stopped for no apparent reason. So I sat there for a while, until I noticed that my three companions were now outside the bus, beckoning to me. I got up, grabbed my things and joined them. I can remember standing in the pitch black and watching the tail lights of the bus getting smaller and smaller until they were swallowed in the night. Then a taxi appeared out of nowhere (as if by magic) and we all piled in. Once again I was in the front, and the Foobarish Library Godmother and her two generals squeezed in the back. Off we went, in almost total darkness, save for the very weak lights of the taxi. We drove and we drove, and eventually I noticed that we were driving alongside a fence, which had rolls of barbed wire along the top. We pulled into a stop, where a Foobarish soldier wandered over, waving his machine gun in the air, which is not a sight that instills confidence, I can assure you. The rather large lady hissed at me ‘Show him passport! Show passport!’ which I did. He then went back to his post, lifted the red and white bar and we drove inside the fence and barbed wire mesh. I was somewhat disconcerted by this, given that I was expecting to be in some vaguely reasonable hotel in the middle of a thriving Bulia by this point. The Godmother leaned forward and said in a cheerful voice ‘You don’t know where you are, do you?’ and the two other women cackled. I felt like saying ‘No, but I know where I want to be!’ She then went on to explain that, since my second talk was about scientific matters that it might be fun to hold it in the lecture theatre at Foobar’s nuclear power plant. This explained the fencing, the barbed wire and the solder. Now, I may well be doing the Foobarish a disservice here, in fact I’m sure I am, but the idea of being that close to a power plant, in an area not best famed for its stability was a little on the worrying side.

While I came to terms with this information we drove on into the darkness. After a few minutes we arrived at a building, which was in darkness. The driver tooted his horn, and we listened to the sound ripple out into the night, slowly fading away. The four of them then had a long and animated discussion, and we drove some more. Finally we arrived at another building. Well, I say ‘building’ as though some architectural thought had gone into it. It was actually a square, with windows in it – the type of thing that a small child would draw. Imagine if the Gestapo had decided to branch out into the hotel business – that’s what it looked like. Anyway, we all got out and went inside the building which was, I was assured, a hotel. Why there was a hotel inside the grounds of the power plant I have no idea, but there was. The receptionist appeared to be wearing grey pajamas, though on closer inspection it was a uniform. He had clearly gone to the aforementioned Gestapo school of hotel management, because he threw our keys down on the desk, pointed to our right and grunted.

Off we went down the corridor. We walked and we walked, all the while the nice red carpet getting narrower. I also noticed that in the main body of the hotel all the lights worked. The further down the corridors we went, the fewer the lights worked. At first it was just one or two; by the time we reached our rooms there was one working light to every four that didn’t. I went into my room to recover from the ordeal. Now, imagine a hotel room; any hotel room. This room wasn’t like any of those. It had a wardrobe (minus door) and it had a bed, and a desk. And… that was it. No chair, no television, no telephone, no carpet, nothing. In fact, it wasn’t a hotel room at all; I swear to God that it was a cell. I had ended up in a Foobarish prison, I was sure of it. I heard the three mad women outside my door, talking to each other, and then there was a knock on the door. The large woman stood there and said ‘You like phone wife?’ For one bizarre moment I thought she might be asking if I would like her to connect me to some Foobarish sex line, before I realised that she was offering me a telephone card so that I could go to the payphone in the lobby to ring Jill. I made my way back down the corridor and finally reached the payphone, chastising myself for thinking such nasty thoughts about the Foobarish Library Mafia Godmother. I managed to make the thing work, I heard the ringing tone, then Jill answering. I managed to say ‘I don’t know where I am, but I think I’m ok’ before the card ran out of money and that was that. Clearly the card had been on its last legs (and by this time I knew that feeling) and my two second international call had killed it stone dead. My evil thoughts about certain mad women resurfaced in abundance.

The talk the next day went well, and in the evening there was a reception for everyone who had attended. Now, at this point I should mention that I’d recently turned vegetarian, which was not something the Foobarish people readily grasped. I was sitting opposite the small mad cackling women when a waiter brought me a plate of roast chicken. Now, even if I’d eaten meat I’d have had problems with this, since the poor beast was virtually still alive. I could see the veins in the skin, it was that undercooked. I looked at it with undisguised horror and the small cackling women spoke, for the first and only time in English. She said ‘Es chicken. Es good!’ Clearly she’d learned this phrase at school and had been hoarding it, like some linguistic miser, waiting for the day she could use it. I looked at her and said ‘I’m sorry, but I’m a vegetarian – I can’t eat this’. She cackled again and repeated her phrase – ‘Es chicken. Es good!’ Clearly she had been looking forward her entire life to speaking it and wasn’t about to let the opportunity go to waste. I tried again, trying a different set of words. No use. I simplified again, and realised with horror that I was in an insane linguistic ping pong match with the mad cackling woman. ‘Es chicken! Es GOOD!’ ‘No, es chicken, es no good!’ She began to get irate, or had decided that she was enjoying her newly found ability to converse in the language of Shakespeare and Milton. Her voice went up a notch. ‘ES CHICKEN! ES GOOD!’. This went on for several minutes until the Godmother overheard and came to my rescue. She had a long conversation with the waiter, who snarled at me, snatched the plate away and marched off. A few minutes later he came back with the vegetarian option of the day. Actually it was probably the vegetarian option of the year; I could be wrong, but I’m guessing that vegetarians don’t last long in Foobar. Imagine if you will, a plate of baked beans. Now remove most of the colour, so that they have an ill beige tint to them. Next put a skin on top and reduce the temperature to lukewarm. You’re at least part of the way there. My appetite drained away, but I’d made such a fuss, I thought I had to at least try and eat some of whatever this thing was. I lifted the spoon out, and was alarmed to hear a sucking sound as the spoon was stuck fast. I tried again, a little harder – the sludge was not going to give up without a fight, clearly. Eventually I got the spoon out, with a mass of this stuff quivering on it. For a moment I wondered if it was some experiment from the power plant that had been mislabelled and instead of going to a laboratory for further testing and experimentation had ended up in the kitchen. Casually I scraped the skin off and took a mouthful of gloop. It was like trying to eat wallpaper paste, though to be fair to wallpaper paste, the gloop probably didn’t taste as good. The only way I could swallow this stuff down was with liberal swigs of water. After a few mouthfuls I decided that I’d been polite enough and hid the rest under a pile of lettuce leaves that were attempting to pass themselves off as salad.

After dessert came coffee. Now, I will say this for the Foobars; they make the best coffee in the world. Incredibly strong, thick and with a taste like no other. Most people have it with lashings of sugar, but I liked it just as it came. Besides, it was so strong it destroyed any remaining gloop that was sticking to my teeth. At this point the Foobarish Library Mafia Godmother brought a young lady over to me, and introduced her as some assistant librarian somewhere and mentioned that they were cousins, which by this point was no surprise. I’d seen this particular cousin watching me out of the corner of her eye over the course of the meal, but had thought nothing of it. The Godmother explained that she read coffee grounds, and would I like to have my future told? I was tempted to say ‘Look, all I need to know is do I get out of this alive?’ but nodded and said ‘Oh yes, that would be lovely, thank you.’ The young lady sat down next to me, and the triumvirate sat opposite, watching closely. I finished my coffee, swirled the grounds around, turned the cup upside down and waited. She turned the cup back over and peered into it. The three mad women on the other side of the table started to nudge each other, cackle and talk in hushed Foobarish tones. At that moment I sympathised with the rabbit caught in the headlights. You know there’s nothing you can do, you’re desperate to move, but you’re stuck, and just have to accept what is coming straight for you.

I’m usually pretty dense when women come on to me; I just don’t see the signs at all, and it’s got me into trouble once or twice. However, even I could see what was happening here; the Foobarish Librarians Mafia had decided that stock needed some strengthening, and I was just the person to bring some computing genes into the mix. The young woman looked at the cup, looked at the three women (who by this time had taken on the look of vultures) and said in deep mysterious tones ‘I can see a man. I can see a woman. She has long dark hair…’ At this point I noticed that indeed I was a man, admittedly doing a good impression of a rabbit in headlights, but a man nonetheless, and she was a woman. With long dark hair. I tried to rally by saying ‘Ah yes, that would be me and my wife, we were at a party last weekend. Yes. That would be us. Me and my wife.’ The Foobarish Godmother muttered something to the other two – this wasn’t going to plan, so she hissed something at the young coffee grounds reader, who started again. ‘Ah. Yes, I see another picture now. I see a man. And I see a woman. This is a different woman.’ The Godmother was by this point translating to her two mad companions. The silent one smiled, and I was momentarily distracted by how yellow her teeth were, and the small elderly woman just cackled and said ‘Es good. Es GOOD!’

I honestly thought at this point, I was about to die. I was going to be taken off somewhere in the power plant, strapped down, I would be used for breeding purposes and my used body would be thrown into a vat of gloop and fed to the next unsuspecting person the three woman lured into their den of vice. I played my last card and said ‘Ah. Am I dancing with this woman as well?’ The younger lady looked at me and smiled slightly; could I sense the beginning of a line of drool on her lips? She said ‘They may be dancing. They may be…’ and she paused, looked at the Godmother who was translating all of this, ‘They may be doing … something else’. I said. ‘Ah yes. This makes sense. This must be my sister – yes, I must be talking to my sister’. Desperately I was wracking my brains, wondering if I’d mentioned that I didn’t have a sister in any of the earlier conversations I’d had with the Godmother. Clearly I hadn’t, since she relayed this to the others. The young lady tried again, a little more desperately ‘Ah yes, but I can see into the future. You are with another woman here’. ‘Good god’ I thought ‘How many people are there in that cup?’ At this point I looked at my watch and said ‘Good heavens, is that the time? I really must be going back to my room – I have some important work to do’. Drooling woman looked at me and said ‘Would you like some help? I could help you with your work’. I stood up and backed away, knocking over a chair in the process. ‘That’s very kind of you’ I said, ‘But it’s really only stuff that I can do.’ Without another word I fled, back down the corridor, hoping that the gloom would swallow me up. My dreams that night were disturbed, as you can imagine.

The next morning I was put into a taxi for the trip back to the airport and civilisation. The three women saw me off; the tall thin one smiled again, her teeth even more yellow in the sunlight, the large woman said with grim determination ‘You will come back. We will invite you again, and you will return to Foobar.’ The small cackling woman looked at me and cackled some more. At that point I swore that, wherever I went in the future, whatever countries I went to, Foobar would not be on the list.

That’s not quite the end of the story. I was at a conference in England a few years later, and to my horror I saw the three women again. Unfortunately they saw me trying to hide and came over. The Godmother smiled at me and said ‘Hallo… do you remember us?’ I thought of saying ‘How could I forget? You haunt my dreams every night’ but I just muttered something inane, desperate to escape. I managed to make my excuses, but her parting words sent a shiver down my back… ‘You will return. You will come back to Foobar’. I looked over my shoulder as I fled – the Godmother was smiling, but her eyes were like two small lumps of coal, glittering. The tall thin one smiled again as I backed away. As I ran, I could hear the small cackling woman cackling loudly, a sound that I still hear sometimes in the middle of the night, when it’s cold and stormy outside.

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