Postcard from Lille, Part 25

Paraguay, Switzerland or Dunkin Doughnuts?

Always Worth saying, Going Postal
Le Jardin Anglais, Geneva.
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

Where should an escaped prisoner escape to? You can’t go to the obvious place as, if it’s obvious, that’s where they’ll be looking for you.  Some other places spring to mind, Paraguay, Switzerland?

On receiving a letter from our local regiment suggesting me ideal for the TA, not being a ‘serve in uniform’ type of chap, I was very tempted to head from our modest north of England county town for Canada or Sweden.

Or how about Dunking Doughnuts? I must say I don’t like donuts. I assume I don’t like the national dish of Paraguay (baby guinea pigs) either. Having said that being, at the time of this tale, posted to the Philippines, it can’t be any worse than lizard or dog which respectively: I got used to, quite enjoyed. As for Switzerland, everything seemed to be boiled in fat. Maybe it was bad luck or perhaps they were trying too hard to please the Arabs?

As a very young travelling gentleman I was occasionally called to Geneva. In those days it still had the feel of one of those ITC Euro-detective series, with Lew Grade in the producer’s chair, his cigar spanning three modest cantons. A badly dubbed Alexandra Bastedo is murdered twice in one series and a Belgian brass band slaughters a half decent John Barry score. In Lake Geneva, a big fountain burst opposite the Grande Hotels along Quai de Mont Blanc, all of the cars were top of the range and Swiss railways ran like a finely tuned thirty-one jewel watch.

There was a train from Paris Gare De Lyon at quarter past seven in the evening which was timetabled to arrive at Geneve Cornavin at three minutes to eleven at night. Opposite the railway station were a row of what, in today’s money, would be thought of as ‘independent’, or perhaps even ‘family run’ hotels, one of which was popular with Arabs. The type of Arab who may well book a room, pay for it and not turn up, allowing it to be let to somebody else, an hour before midnight at a ‘last-minute’ price. The Swiss are picky, meticulous, well organised people, which is very irritating. They are not to be trusted, a law of nature that my father was able to prove from first principles. Therefore, the discount on an unused room wasn’t particularly large and, the Swiss being wary of becoming a battleground for Mitteleuropean  derring-do, you still had to register properly. However, it did take the sting out of the cost and allowed a young gentleman, of modest means, to have more than modest accommodations slap bang in the centre of a somewhat immodestly priced city.

However, the food consisted of everything being boiled in fat. Whether that was the local style, or what a Genevan chef might think the Arabs preferred, I do not know.

Something I’m more certain of is that, completely independently of myself, my father liked to go to Switzerland too, to Zermatt, to walk in the hills. Earlier in his life (as ever) he’d put my modest efforts to shame by being a mountaineer. He would go as far as he could on his motorbike, often astonishingly close to the vertical, and then strike out with ropes and crampons. His other piece of kit was my mother’s travel sewing box. Yes, when he was cut, he would stitch himself up in situ. I can’t compete with that.  By middle age he preferred walking in Switzerland. He would send his luggage separately and it would arrive ahead of him no matter what.

Keen on a challenge, he determined to beat it. He would plan the train times in more detail than his walks and use more maps and charts of the approach to his apartment than maps and charts of an assent to the top of Mont Eigerhorn by footpath and goat track.

A taxi would pick up his luggage while, simultaneously, a faster taxi would take him to the railway station. There, he would take the express to Zurich, having timed the connection so that (as with the taxi) he stepped onto the platform and then on to the fastest connecting train with less than a minute to spare.

Touching the buffers at Zermatt, he’d already be standing next to the carriage door closest to the station exit and would sprint up the hill, despite age, gravity, ice and snow with his knees touching his chin.

Arriving at his apartment, neatly at the door, Swiss Railways Advanced Luggage Department would mock him by having won again, his case already placed there. There was even a suspicion that they’d spent the (rather large amount of) extra time allowed to wipe the leather and polish his case’s brass handles, locks and protective corners. They’d even touch up the cracked and fading stickers from his previous stays.

Rather than being pleased, he just became more irritated.  It used to ‘get on his aggie’, which is a gruesome curse known only to those whose ancestors have tended the gentle rising pasture and shallow river valleys which separate the Debatable lands from the lakes and mountains.

Increasingly suspicious, rather than grateful, my father preferred to conclude (rightly) that there was a law of nature which dictated that the Swiss weren’t to be trusted.

Always Worth saying, Going Postal
Lake Geneva and the Quai de Mont Blanc
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

They say that Carlyle walked from his home to university for the start of each term. In those days, as a thinking gentleman and presumably no great athlete, it would take him two days to get from Ecclefechan to Edinburgh. During that time, he had not much else to do but fall into a rhythm of movement and thought. Likewise, they say that the Emperor Hadrian had a wall built. Not that one, another one at his villa at Tivoli. Shaded from the discomfort of even the hottest part of an Apennine foothills day, he could walk and walk and walk, and think and think and think. Perhaps he was planning a better wall for ‘up the north’ of his empire?

A millennia later Carlyle wrestled with Gothe’s gerundives. A century after that my father, on the high hills above Zermatt, on the difficult route to Lac de Goillet, was oblivious to the Matterhorn. He was unaware that he’d wandered into Italy and was dismissive of the sheer drop onto the Gabelhorngletscher (or some such) only a walking gentleman’s unexpected stumble away.

Rather, he was pondering how to get a case to an apartment door, in the less fashionable concrete-block-that-looks-like-a-chalet end of Zermatt, faster than the duplicitous Luggage Service wallahs of the Swiss Railways, with their damned efficiency.

If we return to our story, two and a half decades, seven thousand miles and thirty-four degrees of latitude away, unfortunately dear reader having been caught red handed, I’m doing my thoughtful pacing in a cage in a Philippine prison. I muse my way through the options. My favoured is not being there for much longer. I’ve already decided that after my escape I will head for Dunking Doughnuts, an explanation of which later, but before that I have to decide how to escape and you have to know how I got there in the first place.

Many years after the event, and following a long and bungled investigation, my Filipino business associate Gisele’s close relative, Hubert Webb, son of Senator Freddie Webb, has been arrested and charged with rape and murder, regarding the Vizconde Massacre. This is becoming known as South East Asia’s ‘Crime of the Century’. He is held in the Paranaque municipal jail and myself and Gisele fall into the habit of visiting every week.

Obviously, suspects are innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law, however there co-exists a cold, heartless reality that I must commit to paper.

If Hubert is acquitted, as well as being from a well-established family and having a powerful father, he will also have the status of one victimised disgracefully by the establishment and its legal system. Useful to promote, not only his own ambitions, but also the ambitions of those of who have stood by him.

On the other hand, if convicted, he will spend the rest of his life in jail, those who stood by him will be tainted and, if they have tried too hard to promote his cause, may even themselves be charged with perjury, contempt or obstruction.

Myself and Gisele have found ourselves on a knife edge as we rely upon Senator Webb and his extended family for some of the introductions and permissions which are helpful to our business ambitions.

When they told you there were no free lunches, by God they were right.

If convicted, a life sentence would be carried out at the main jail at Multinlupa which was called ‘New Bilibid’. It had a gruesome reputation and was laid out like a Victorian English prison with wings either side of open avenues spanning out from a small central rotunda. It was packed beyond the rafters and every single spare square inch of space was covered in tin shacks. Have a look at it on the satellite mapping services. Twenty plus years later it doesn’t look much better. Those blocks of countless orange dots that you can see packed in between the buildings are the actual prisoners.

In those days there was no death penalty, a life sentence meant the rest of your natural life. Life prisoners often had their faces tattooed and could therefore be distinguished from other prisoners. As their sentence couldn’t be lengthened and they couldn’t be executed, they had nothing to lose through bad behaviour. Visitors had a visitor’s pass stamped on their hand in indelible ink. There was an apocryphal tale of a charming life prisoner who escrowed having his face tattooed, not because he was a nice chap, but because he planned to escape by chopping off a visitor’s hand and holding it (severed) up his own sleeve as he strolled out of the prison.

In Paranaque, the indelible ink stamp was placed near the palm which seemed no great deterrent to a chopping off.

As well as visiting Hubert we also, as an act of Christian charity, took paracetamol and aspirin to the prisoners as, permanently trapped in the heat and dark, they complained of nausea and headaches. They also went a horrible ‘prison grey’ colour.

Because I’m white, the assumption was that I’d never be searched but one day I was taken aside.

‘You can’t search me, I’m white’,

didn’t work and I was invited to step into a cage with the prisoners and stay there (possibly for ever). The lose pills, wrapped up in my hankie, were taken away to be analysed.

I’m not saying I was there for a long time, but long enough to realise that some of the younger Filipino men have a rather girlish, slight, not unattractive build to them. At that point I realised it was time to escape.

Hubert and his bodyguard (yes, you need a bodyguard in prison) came to see me from their own cage and sympathised. He was even kind enough to invite me for lunch.

You might not recall Mr Grout, but I’m sure you can recall the BBC prison comedy ‘Porridge’. Mr Grout was the gentleman crook who had his own cell with carpet and colour TV and who, at times, dressed a bit like Noel Coward. It is funny because it is true.

Hubert had his own cage, with a table, laptop and mobile phone. These things weren’t quite in their infancy but outside of Manila the cell phone masts were just starting to pop up and the internet was very primitive, close to unusable. Hubert would phone out for his meals as the prison food was dreadful. Other prisoners often had relatives bring food and some consumables in for them. Over pizza, we discussed the court case. Hubert had an alibi, as he was in the United States at the time of the massacre and had the supporting documents. However, the prosecution had trumped that with a witness statement from an alleged acquaintance of Hubert’s, Jessica Alfero, who claimed to have been present at the crime. Other witnesses, previously too terrified, had also then come forward. And witnesses Top Trump an alibi.

Hubert protested his innocence; he wasn’t even in the country at the time and saw it all as being political as his father was a senator and Hubert (despite only being in his late twenties) would eventually be expected to have political ambitions too.

A chap from the Times of London had visited, but had taken the ‘Manila brat pack on the rampage’ angle which was unhelpful.

As for my own predicament, none of the inmates were very enthusiastic about the veracity of the legal system, in fact I’d go as far as to say that not one single one of them was guilty. Some had been set up, others were patsies, some had been tricked, others would do time for other people. If I was there for long enough, all two thousand inmates, one at a time, would have told me they were innocent.

The consensus was that, no matter what the circumstances, I’d be better off not being in a Filipino jail. To paraphrase Lyndon Johnston, to be on the outside yet to be dragged in, rather than on the inside trying to drag myself out.

I went for a head clearing walk, back and forward like a caged animal beside the bars. In the dark and searing heat, I pondered what lucky men Carlyle, the emperor Hadrian and my father had been. I also noted their courage, resourcefulness and determination.

It was also noticeable that the good warders of Paranaque municipal jail weren’t quite as efficient as the Swiss railways in the nineteen eighties and a pathway to Dunkin Doughnuts beckoned.

I took a deep breath, girded my loins, clenched my left fist and waited for the guard’s shifts to change.

To be continued ……

© Always Worth Saying 2019

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