Postcard from Lille, Part 40

After the Bomb

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Internation Business School
IBS International Business School Budapest campus main building , Ibsbudapest Licence CC BY-SA 4.0

Later on, I was sent to International Business School to brush up, get myself up to date, match my experiences to theory and get some of (what I now know to be) ‘competences and resources’ recognised with a bit of paper.

Being a hands-on, feet on the blood-speckled (rather than blood-soaked) ground kind of chap who hadn’t taken an exam since he was twenty, the first few weeks were baffling. After which, all tuned out to be very interesting and very do-able. Consumer advice, try to get the balance right between the practical and the academic. Do some buying and selling before you go to business school, even if it’s just lemonade from a stall, or mineral water and outsized trousers at a Papal mass. Fortunately, I’d had a quarter of a century’s experience before my sabbatical nine months in a picturesque ancient European seat of learning. It was superb, high marks followed, not necessarily a good thing. My brain enlarged slightly while my head enlarged bigly.

One of the things we looked at was ‘motivation’. Pressure motivates and stress demotivates. A good definition of ‘pressure’ is: you’re trying harder and doing a bit more. A good definition of ‘stress’ is: you’re under so much pressure that your performance is struggling, you are giving up, you are doing less.

Within these definitions pressure is good, stress is bad. As well as studying, I was still involved in business, derring-do and, by this point, had family responsibilities too. Behind every successful mature student, there’s a very surprised family. I fancied a bit of an easier ride, maybe even an (un)deserved extra credit or two because of my circumstances. I had a chat with one of the academics.

He was a carbon copy cut-out soppy leftie. Tree hugger, be-sandaled, so laid back he was almost horizontal. But he understood and was honest about, the research regarding motivation. Having established that I wasn’t a minority ethnic or a single parent, his advice was,

‘For God’s sake man, pull yourself together, get out of bed earlier, try harder. What have you got to complain about? Deadlines are everything in business and derring-do, shift your backside.’

He even managed to shout and brandish a weapon. And he was right. Chastened, I followed his advice. It worked, I made excellent progress on all fronts.

Incidentally, a very large German student took a fancy to me. Imagine the late Helmut Khol in a dress. Terrifying. I nick-named her ‘Gunhild’, which is a bit of an insult to any slender and sophisticated Gunhild’s who might just have just stepped out of Wagner or Mozart. She didn’t quite follow me about, but bumped into me once too often, especially when I was trapped at a work station. She would sit beside me and introduce herself with something like the following,

“Ha! Ve vill be working together again today I see, ho, ho, ho.”

“No, we won’t, ____ off.”

“Ha, ha, the English sense of humour.”

“No, it isn’t, I really mean it.”

“Ho, ho, ho. Vot is das studies today?”

“How we won the war.”

And it was. Reading through ‘pressure’, ‘stress’ and ‘motivation’ took me to some very interesting research from World War 2. Bomber crews were more afraid of flack than incoming fighters, even though an incoming fighter was more likely to be lethal to them. The reason for this was that flack suddenly appeared from nowhere and there was nothing that they could do about it. Whereas, a fighter could be seen in-coming and action could be taken such as returning fire or manoeuvring evasively. A helpless lack of control can be very, very stressful.

Likewise, with car bombs, a sudden unexpected extreme force you can do nothing about. In Ulster, by provenance, for me they were no more than distant thumps. Those less fortunate, confide that they’d prefer a sniper or a mob any day.

In an explosion, there will be no heroics, no evasion, no return of fire. You will be thrown about all over the place and then you will rely upon the kindness of others nearby.

Having staked out and distracted our Papal assassination suspects, one had slipped the net and was in their bomb-making apartment when we raided it. Gisele switched the light on and, in the local style, a forest of wires hanging from the light fitting set off various electricals, causing some of the evil brew in the room to go off. Our suspect hit the exit. I hit the floor via my head.

It would be an exaggeration to call this an ‘explosion’. It was more like a big box of fireworks going off in your front room. Take it from one who found out the hard way, having it indoors, taking a bit of the blast and falling badly, will spoil your Guy Fawkes night.

You’ll have heard that people who have near-death experiences feel themselves drifting towards a peaceful, heavenly, bright light. I must report the opposite. I can recall a deep, deep darkness, blacker than anything you’ve ever seen. There may be two possible explanations for this; A, it wasn’t a near-death experience or B, God was sending me to hell.

Always Worth Saying, Going Postal
Dona Josefa appartments
© Always Worth Saying, Going Postal 2019

I decided I was still alive, as I could still think, but I had no idea what had happened to me or where I was. Then I could feel the shape of my body coming back, the shape of my arms and legs, as if feeling was being poured back into me. I was very, very sore.

Gisele was kneeling down beside me. She told me I was alright. I showed her my hands, which were covered in blood. She said I had a few little cuts about the face.

She put her hands under my armpits and hauled me up until my knees locked. She gave me a push in the back and we staggered to our room, past rattling fire alarms and along corridors and stairways which were filling with smoke.

Within ten minutes I was feeling a lot better. The Dona Josefa apartment bathrooms were basic. There were about four rows of bricks around the bottom of the shower allowing it to be filled with a few inches of water, as if a bath. A hot sugary drink was banishing my mild shock already. Beside the cold and salty end of the bath, Gisele was knelt down wringing the blood out of my clothes. At the hot (baking soda) end, I was sat, giving myself a good scrub. My gun was covered in goo. Gisele stripped it down and placed the parts beside me in a line, like a rubber duck and its ducklings.

Thanks to the narrative genius of Victor Hugo, when you hear the word ‘Quasimodo’, you automatically think of a big eye and a little eye perched above a hunched back. For a while yet, when you think of me, I want you to think of a big scabby bash on the right-hand side of my face, from ear level down to the bottom of my chin. It cleared up remarkably quickly and these days there’s nothing to see. There was a local potion that Gisele dripped onto it and I was fortunate enough to remain active, out in the sun and fresh air, where it quickly healed. The adrenaline-soaked lifestyle did it a lot of good too. If only Mrs Modo had tried that with poor little Quasi, instead of hiding the poor little snowflake in the bell tower of Notre Dame.

Meanwhile, back in the bathroom, Gisele having excused herself, I sat there in my own muck and blood, cheering up but aching from head to toe.

I heard her let herself out of our room and, a while later, I heard her let herself back in again.

‘603 is gutted,’ she shouted to me from the bedroom-lounge, ‘but they think it’s just a room fire, no police, no investigation at the moment, just the door propped shut. I’ve been in and taken some photos.’

Our very efficient friends at the fire brigade had already been upstairs, giving the place a soaking. In the local style, life went on. In a land of typhoons, bombings, volcanoes, earthquakes and coup d’état, a bit of an explosion is a bit of a day off. As if nothing had happened, residents mopped the corridors and their rooms and opened windows to let the smell and smoke out.

Gisele sounded very happy. She told me to close my eyes before she would come into the bathroom.

‘Shouldn’t you close your eyes?’ I replied, sat there naked in a couple of inches of water.

‘Nah’, she replied, ‘nice surprise for you.’

I heard her tiptoe into the room on bare feet and kneel down beside the shower-bath.

‘What you want’, she whispered, ‘what you’ve wanted for a long time maybe’, she added.

There was a silence

‘Hold out your hand, eyes stay closed, touch.’

I held out my hand. She took it and pressed it against something warm and wet.

‘Smooth and curved, my dear friend’, she said.

‘Look for the folds’, she continued in her huskiest voice.

‘You might even feel like kissing it’, she added for effect.

All I could say was, ‘Oh my’,

I moved my fingers across the smooth warm wet shape, looking for an opening. There it was. I ran my finger along it and gasped.

‘I’m sure I can get into it’, I smirked.

‘Am I not perfect?’, she asked.

‘Find my extension, miss.’

In the days before USB there were ‘serial ports’ and I was running my finger along a thin opening between folds of plastic which begged to be connected. It was the terrorist’s laptop. Gisele had just liberated it from their gutted, unguarded room.

It was water damaged and still warm from the ‘fireworks’ but I was sure I’d be able to hack into it.

The special moment was interrupted. There was a commotion outside. Gisele moved to the window and looked through the grill, down the street.

‘Police. Someone is pinned to the ground.’

I stood up, put a towel around myself and stood beside her to see. Suspicions had been raised already. The police were outside. I dried, packed and dressed quickly. We let ourselves out of our room, went down a fire escape and into a neighbouring side street. We stepped back into Quirino Avenue, walking as if a couple, Gisele even put her arm around me. Our precious cargo was in her over-night bag, concealed by her clothes.

The police were still there but had picked the suspect up, tied his hands together with rope scavenged from roadside rubbish, and were waggling their fingers from outstretched horizontal arms, trying to commandeer a passing jeepney.

We tried to get a good look at the apprehended man from a discreet distance.

‘Our bomber didn’t get far?’ Gisele queried.

‘I don’t think that’s him,’ I replied.

We walked on, away from the police and in the direction of my room at the Manila Orchid. We stopped in a doorway.

Gisele called the hotel on her cell phone.

‘Our casino guests left in a hurry,’ she announced.

We faced each other. She put her arms around my neck, I put my hands on her waist as though we were a couple embracing. We had a quick whispered case conference.

‘Our bomber must have contacted the others,’ I realised aloud, ‘I think that was Murad being arrested.’

‘Sent him back for the laptop?’ Gisele wondered.

‘I would say we interrupted Yousef, I didn’t see very well.’

‘They’ve kept Yousef as he knows what we look like, perhaps?’ she said.

Were we overthinking this? We were both frightened, Gisele’s hips were trembling between my hands.

‘They’ll have scattered, frightened,’ I suggested.

‘Or they might be looking for us while we look for them?’ She countered.

Gisele ended the embrace, addressed her overnight bag finding her gun and tucking it under her belt. Mine was still wet and in bits and wrapped in a towel in my blue Berghaus.

‘No heroics Gisele’, I reminded her, ‘the reward is for information leading to capture. We can sell the names and likenesses to the authorities. The laptop is gold dust, we’ll hack it for ourselves for a few days before we hand it over.’

The terrorists couldn’t harm anyone without their bomb factory, I assumed.

‘They need to be captured alive by the authorities, tried by a proper process and waste the rest of their lives in jail. It will be an example for all the Moros,’ I concluded, trying to convince myself of the supremacy of the rule of law, democracy and free markets.

We sneaked back to the Orchid, trying to avoid, rather than capture any suspects that might be abroad. Because of our parked Camry, security was used to allowing us to enter the Orchid via the underground car park. We used the service lift to get up to the 12th floor. By the time we were back at my room, I had not only contacted our hired Arabic Speaker but she had arrived. A dollar an hour was a fortune to her.

Sure enough, the two laptops plugged together and it was a very easy hack, a back-door-trap flash of the BIOS, that got me into it. They say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. In this instance they are wrong. Knowing how to use the technology saved a huge amount of time over the next few days, and that night it got me into bed at a reasonable hour. Shaken by events and wary of our suspects being about the streets nearby, Gisele kipped in my room, on the floor.

Our Arab speaker sat up all night at the desk making notes from my laptop’s green screen which was connected to the remains of the terrorist’s. All was well with the world.

A world which, even all these decades later, dear reader, would have been a much better, safer, different place if only your humble author had fully understood the meaning of that laptop’s contents.

To be continued …….

© Always Worth Saying 2019

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