THE FRUIT PALACE – CHARLES NICHOLL

Colombia.  1980s.

1. All journeys are like a dream: you snap awake at the end, wild-eyed and dusty, and try to carry the memory of it into your life, into your book. (p.xiii)

2. At the beginning, when they stopped calling me ´Sir´and brought me in here, I was scared. Then I was angry. Now I am as blank as this room. (p.2)

3. But the night was hot, and these things have a logic of their own. There were risks, of course, but there were undeniable attractions. First, the carrot: $250 on the nail for me, the same for Julio. Second, the story: I was supposed to be some kind of journalist, wasn´t I? Third, the general scenario: suitcases stuffed with bank-notes, lashings of someone else´s cocaine. In short, greed battled with fear, and greed won. ´Why not?´I said, and thus with a handshake I became the smallest of small-time accomplices in the cocaine trade. (p.17)

4. He hunched over the table and hoovered up a line through the bill with a single deep snort. He winced a little and jerked his head back. His nose stuck up like a shark’s fin. He emitted a long, slow hiss of pleasure, as if the cocaine had gone in like a spike and let out all the stale air in him. He opened his eyes but kept staring up at the ceiling. ‘Nice,’ he sighed, ‘nice,’ then ‘Hmmmm,’ and an odd, girlish giggle. He bent back down to repeat the procedure via the other nostril, then pressed some leftover dust off the melamine table-top, and massaged it into his gums. (p.19)

5. He handed me the little pipe. I took a hit, rather smaller than Harvey’s. I felt my nostril scorch, my mouth freeze, my veins hum all the way down to my feet. I had tasted coke before, but this felt lethal. Simple case of motor stimulation, I reminded myself. Heart racing, adrenal secretions, everything hastening to some unknown crescendo. Purely pharmaceutical, or course. Not really on a big dipper at all. Not falling, not flying, not swooping through the room like a white owl over a dark field. (p.20)

6. I smelt again that gut-tightening, high-octane Bogata smell. A pall of fumes, diesel and human, hangs over the shallow dish of mountains in which the city stands. At getting on for 9,000 feet up the oxygen is scarce and the hydrocarbons never seem to burn up. It is said of Mexico City: ‘Fifteen million people, and it smells like they all farted at once.´Bogota is half the size, and doesn’t smell so bad, but there is the same feeling of a vast, corrupt energy sending up a feverish steam into the chill mountain air. (p.25)

7. The huge silver-grey eucalyptus stood sadly amid the mean haphazard developments, the half-finished buildings and fenced-off lots, the flat dull spaces round every airport where the traveller’s hopes disperse. (p.25)

8. It is important to remember that buying cocaine, down at the end user’s market, is a mug’s game. In London today a gram of cocaine, Standard Punter’s Toot, might cost anything between £50 and £70. Prices fluctuate according to supply. London prices are not especially high: the same gram will cost you much the same in New York, Amsterdam or Paris. That gram – one twenty-eighth of an ounce, one basic spoonful of medicine, one long night of fun for four – is not, of course, a gram of pure cocaine. It will have been cut, or ‘stepped on’, probably by different people at different stages of the pipeline. You will be lucky if it is even half cocaine. Much of it will consist of en inert cut, simply there as a market-weight. This might be lactose, mannite, baking soda, talc, borax – anything so long as it looks something like cocaine and has no immediately noticeable side-effects. To make up some of the potency lost by adulteration, most street coke also contains an ‘active’ cut. There are two types of active cut – speed and freeze – and your gram may well have a little of both: a lacing of powdered amphetamine (methedrine, sulphate, etc.) to give it an energy kick; and some synthetic, cocaine-related anaesthetic like Novacaine or Benzocaine (the dentist’s injection) to simulate the mouth-numbing effects of genuine cocaine. Together these cuts, far cheaper and easier to acquire than coke itself, give a crude approximation of the true cocaine high. (p.30)

9. I found a seat and tried to regain some anonymity. I was sweating aguardiente like a squeezed sponge. The crowd seemed to have thinned a bit: perhaps the bagpipes had driven them away. Looking round I saw, as I had already dimly realized, that virtually all the women were tarts. Some lolled at the bar, some had joined up with groups at the table, and a gaggle of half a dozen of them sat huddled together at the corner table, all eye-shadow and shiny black boots. One of them was staring at me. She said something to the others. They looked round at me and cawed with laughter. I hauled a newspaper out of my jacket: the print swam before my eyes. I looked at the ceiling: the cobwebbed rafters seemed to pulsate to the music. Still the girl was giving me the sultry eye, a plump little chulita in a tight red dress. My eyes kept sidling back to her. She winked and pouted, crossed and uncrossed her legs. She wore stockings that ended just above her knee, her nut-coloured flesh plumping over the elastic, the underside wobbling a little as she crossed her legs. I lit a cigarette, tried to concentrate on the paper. My heart was pumping too fast. Now she was getting up, bringing her chair with her, leaning her hands on my table, black hair falling over her face, black eyes heavy with mascara. She looked older and more brittle than she had a few yards away through the smoke. She had a black patent-leather handbag slung crosswise. The leather had peeled off the strap where it ran down between her breasts. ‘Buenos noches, churro,’ she said. She took some lottery tickets out of her handbag and asked to look at my newspaper: ‘I think it’s my lucky night tonight!’ Someone pushed past the table knocked her, and she fell forward, much further than she needed. Her hand gripped my thigh and her face was a few inches from mine, and she was laughing cheap scent, tobacco and liquor in my face. Then she gave a little squawk of surprise. Someone had grabbed her waist: a gold-sequinned arm. It was Julio Cesar. He sat down on her seat, pulled her onto his lap, and held her there like a recalcitrant kitten. (p.40)

10. Empty windows stared like sockets in a skull. (p.42)

11. He handed me the joint and I took my first hit of basuko. Into the arms of la morenita, the brown-haired girl, sweet little step-daughter to la blanca, the white lady. (p.47)

12. She followed the first stiff hit of coke with a small chaser, and by the time she was laying out the third rail the sloth had gone from her face and hands, and she wasn’t slurring her words any more. She spoke fluent English in a Spanish-Yankee accent. Her voice was lovely. If you closed your eyes she was beautiful, tough and titillatingly foreign. She was Rosalita the mule, the best in the business, who had walked cocaine through the US customs forty-three times and never got caught. Then you opened your eyes and you saw a pale faded woman in a woolen cardigan, huddled beside a single-bar electric fire. I suppose in the smuggling business that’s what you call good cover. (p.73)

13. She raised an inquiring eye at me. My pen hovered foolishly over the notebook. ‘I was pretty then,’ she said, fixing me with a hard look that dared me to mumble that she still was. (p.74)

14. Julio Cesar returned with a muestra. We trooped off in turn to the john. Lavatory clogged with newspaper, spots of blood in the wash-basin, a graffito reading ‘JESUCRISTO NACE – UN PAGANITO MAS’, Jesus Christ is born, another little pagan. Two quick scoops on the knife blade, and out again. All night long there would be people coming out of that john, with a motorized zip in their steps, a new sparkle in their eye, and a lopsided leer on their face which they fondly imagined to be a smile. (p.89)

15. He was very tall, with a streaked bard, black and grey. He was slow, sombre and precise, and brought a breath of chill night air into the booze-heated room. Put a black topper on him and he would have made a cadaverous Victorian gent. Put a skipper’s cap on him and he would have been a dead ringer for Captain Haddock in Tintin. (p.90)

16. The walls shrank in, encrusted with magazine photos. Heavy drapes hung over the window. Another shuttered room in Bogata, another night in the half-lit burrows of the cocaine world. More aguardiente, a production line of sucitos. It was like a treadmill, an aching mechanical task. Mario would brook no refusal: you had to smoke and drink. You had to ride all the way. (p.93)

17. At some point Mario mentioned something about going to a Turkish bath. This seemed an unlikely idea, but the time for likelihood had past. (p.93)

18. ‘To make the pasta out of coca leaves is very simple. You need some petrol: kerosene is best. You need a quantity of sulphuric acid, and you need an alkali. For alkali you can use lime or sodium carbonate. I used the simplest of all: potasa. Potasa, or potash, is a crude form of potassium carbonate derived from vegetable ash. ‘Most of all, you need patience,’ he added.
‘The first part of the operation is what we call la salada, the salting. Here you sprinkle and mix the potash into the leaves. If you are treating a big volume of leaves, you can do this in a pit lined with plastic sheeting. Otherwise you do it in an oil drum or plastic bucket. When you have salted the leaves you let them stand for a few hours. The potash makes them sweat. It starts to make the alkaloids in the leaf.
‘The second part is la mojadura, the soaking. This is when we pour the kerosene on the leaves, drown the coca. You can also put a bit of dilute sulphuric acid to help break the leaves down. After the soaking you must leave everything to steep for at least a day, better for thirty-six hours. While you wait, the potash is drawing out the alkaloids from the leaf. They float free in the kerosene, which holds them.
‘By the end of the second day you are ready to begin la prensa, the pressing. If you don’t have a press, you use your feet, like they do when they make chicha.‘ (Chica is maize liquor, a traditional campesino hootch now officially outlawed in Colombia.) ‘The purpose of la prensa is to get as much of the kerosene out of the leaves as possible. The kerosene is rich with the alkaloids. The leaves are dead now, black and rotten. You siphon off the kerosene into drums and throw away the leaves.
‘The forth stage is very delicate. This is when we take the alkaloids out of the gasolene and put them in water. This is done by pouring in water and sulphuric acid. Again you leave it, absolutely still, for a day. The acid goes in and takes the alkaloids, and they are dissolved in the water. We call this part of the process la guaraperia. At the end you have the kerosene on the top, and the guarapo underneath. The guarapo is a solution of cocaine and other alkaloids.’ (In ordinary circumstances, guarapo is the name of a drink, either a juice or a liquor, made from sugar cane.)
‘Into the guarapo you pour more potash. This makes the alkaloids precipitate. You see the guarapo go milky-white. This is the first time the cocaine becomes visible. If you have some ammonia this is the best for precipitation.
‘Now you are ready for the last part of the operation: la secaderiathe drying. This is filtering out the precipitate – you can use a sheet – and drying it in the sun or under lightbulbs. You dry it until it is like moist clay. And so you have it: la pasta de cocaina!’ (p.95)

19. I tried to wheedle the process out of him, but in the scrawled scraps of my notes from that night I found only broken phrases –

Potassium permanganate: knocks out the inessential alkaloids by oxidization…

Organic solvents: acetone, ether, benzole, toluol. Toluol best, balsam of tolu, derived from Caribbean tree…

Gas crystals…

Hydrochloric acid bonds with cocaine alkaloid to form a crystalline salt. Snorter’s snow is cocaine hydrochloride. Sometimes other acids used: cocaine sulphate, oxalate, hypochlorate…

Balance. Too much acid, coke will be agrio, sour. Too much carbonate, coke will be jabonoso, soapy… (p.97)

20. I stumbled out, the day glaring, the unremarkable street getting on with its morning chores. Three men tinkered beneath the bonnet of a pick-up truck. I slunk furtively past them, trailing a reek of butt-ends and guilt. A cat rooted a trash-can, arse-up, tail high, its big pink eye staring accusingly at me. My head throbbed wildly. I put my hand over my right eye, where the pain was worse. A wall which should have been 3 feet away came and hit me on the shoulder. I reeled back and trod in a dog turd. On Caracas Avenue, the cars moved with a jagged, deadly rhythm. Each of them seemed specially targeted on my brain. I got myself across, and boarded a southbound bus. Almost immediately I knew I was going to be sick. I lurched down the aisle, knocking an old man’s newspaper out of his hands, and pushed back through the turnstile. The driver put me down, grumbling about people too lazy to walk 100 meters. I dodged up a side-street, gagging at the smell of frying chorizos. The patron saint of losers had put a vacant lot halfway down the street. Rubble, grass, litter. I went to the furthest corner of it down lay down. Now began the purgatorial period: what went down must come up. I vomited, I sweated, I vomited some more. I moaned and cursed. I promised the good Lord I’d give up everything – booze, cigarettes, drugs, damn fool cocaine stories – if only He’d get up these last few dregs of bile from my belly and let me sleep. Finally came the blessed fitful sleep, curled among the litter, knowing at least that I’d nothing for anyone to steal. Only my shirt, and they’re welcome to that. A far backdrop of. At horns and shouts from the street. A mazy fever dream in which I fell, spiralled, disappeared, like a drowning spider down a plug-hole. (p.99)

21. Snap judgements are a reflex action when travelling – often wrong, like this one, but more often the only judgment there is time for. (p.103)

22. I shook hard hands and soft hands and little hands that bobbed and curtseyed. The sun beat down, the beer flowed, and this was Uncle Moises, a sharp-faced man with a limp, con mucho gusto señor, this is Charlie, the Englishman, the friend but not the husband of Lola, and I saw the deep country prejudices shift for a moment, in view of the general well-being, to accommodate this grinning figure who travelled around with other men’s wives. (p.109)

23. I headed swiftly into the coolest and deepest reach of the pool, and there was Lola glistening like a river goddess, laughing that wide, breathless, swimmer’s laugh. (p.112)

24. I found myself leaning on an elbow, looking down into Lola’s face. She must have seen the danger signals. She had seen it a thousand times: men with that hopeful, hopeless, hangdog glint in their eye. She gave a sweet smile, rolled away on to her tummy, and said how much she wished Luke was here – her husband – he did so love river-swimming. (p.112)

25. It is not polite, Lola later explained, for the guest to go into the kitchen while the meal is being prepared. The dark secrets of the kitchen must be preserved. (p.116)

26. We perched uncomfortably on a white sofa. Everything was very polished and just-so, ashtrays too smart for ash, cushions too neat for bottoms. (p.124)

27. An unmarried twenty-one-year-old, middle-class girl is one of two things in Catholic Colombia – a virgin or a whore. (p.125)

28. From Bogota to Medellin is no great distance, about 350 miles, but in the Andes, where one is even less like a crow flying then usual, this means little. The mountains run up through central Colombia like some ridged prehistoric spine, three ranges running roughly north-south, divided by the valleys of the Magdalena and Cauca rivers. Bogota stands over 8’000 feet up in the Eastern Cordillera, Medellin 5’000 feet up in the Central Cordillera, and the only way between them is down the side of one mountain and up the side of the other. Aberto reckoned twelve hours, now the new road was nearly finished. Further north, he said, there are places a finger’s pinch apart on the map that can take you a day’s hard travelling to get between them. (p.148)

29. Inside the shack I could see beds, crumpled piles of clothing, a couple of children, and a pair of feet, presumably papa’s, poking off the end of the bed. The room was windowless. The floor was made of earth. This was poverty: not the hard, bare life of the mountains, not the scruffy indolence of the tropics, but this nondescript struggle on the littered verge of an urban through-road. She brought me my few pesos’ change. I told her to keep it. She shrugged. The feet on the bed stirred and rubbed one another. Nothing to wake early for. The children played in a silent, watchful, listless way, like small animals in a zoo, creatures with no horizon. (p.154)

30. I liked the feel of the place: it had non of the sombre, dark-eaved quality of Bogata. People are often nicest in these ordinary, unlovely cities. They do not expect you to be here, it seems, and so they are pleased that you are. (p.155)

31. He brought trouble into the bar like a smell. (p.155)

32. ‘It’s the first law of jungle travel – where there’s a Shit Creek, there’s someone who’ll sell you a paddle.’ (p.168)

33. When in doubt, move, even if it’s in the wrong direction. (p.169)

34. Inside the school-house, the pungent, turpentinish smell of freshly sized wood made me think of a tennis hut in an English garden: another place, another life. (p.176)

35. It was late afternoon when we rounded the last point and glimpsed the tiny grey mass of Buenaventura, nestling deep in its inlet like an abscess down a tooth-socket. (p.178)

36. Whatever happened to Gus McGregor – last seen heading up the San Juan river in dubious company – remains a mystery. Maybe he’s swinging in a hammock somewhere in the Choco, waited on by nubile Waunana maidens. Maybe he’s up in Canada, hobnobbing with the other McGregors – clan motto, he liked to remember, ‘E’en do, and spare nought’. Maybe is luck, the buenaventura he stretched for so long, finally run out. If you ever see his by-line, pay your penny and read his story. (p.179)

37. All day I wandered the broken city, with that hollow feeling inside which is really fear, but which feels like a sadness. (p.185)

38. ‘Argentino,‘ he said, jerking his head towards the bar. ‘We don’t like them either. You know what we say? If you want to make a few quick pesos, you buy an Argentinian for what he’s worth, and you sell him for what he says he’s worth.’ (p.193)

39. I cut up across the Parque Bolivar, away from the sea, and into the grid of hot side-streets that run up towards the mercado popular. The scrubby, sandy foothills beyond the town looked parched. The streets were pale, bleached with sun, sliced with shadows, the low houses predominantly whitewashed, but here and there daubed with pastels, faded Mediterranean tones of pink, blue and pistachio-green. I bought cigarettes in a tiny tienda with half-filled shelves, briskly served by a boy who hadn’t been born last time I was here. Opposite, an old man was being shaved in a barber’s shop the size of a cupboard, with flyblown old line-drawings advertising James Dean hairstyles. Next door was the Siete Rojo pool-hall, somnambulant figures moving in the dimness inside. (p.194)

40. The man stood in the doorway, sucking reflectively at his teeth, looking out down the bleached street. His greasy hair, flattened back over his head, came down into a fringe of tight greying curls at the back of his neck. The bright rectangle of the door showed a broken dusty sidewalk, the bonnet and bumper of a Dodge pick-up, a cream wall and a pale blue door, and next to it – a new addition to the view – the bright plastic frontage of a ‘Rico Pollo’ fried chicken emporium. The woman came up and nestled against him, put her arm around his broad shoulders. He scarcely moved, just kept on looking down the street, letting her hang off him. She sat down at one of the tables and took the slide out to let her long, coarse, crow-black hair down. The toddler crawled by the counter. There was a guinea-pig running loose, fattening up on café dust before going into the pot. The little bog tried to chase it, but it hid behind a crate of empty beer bottles. The radio suddenly went silent. The man clicked his teeth, said, ‘We must get that shitty radio fixed,’ but neither of them moved. A deep silence fell over the room. Tacked on to one of the shelves was a humorous notice: ‘Credit will only be given if you are over eighty-nine years old and accompanied by your father.’
There weren’t even any ghosts here. La Loca had swept them all away. Now another dreamer leant in the doorway, another chulita combed out her hair, and the town got on with its business, its leisurely stroll past the daily landmarks. It was so quiet in the Progress Restaurant and Stores that I could hear the dry, scaly rattle in the corner, as the guinea-pig snuffled at the corpse of a cockroach. (p.196)

41. He was small, grubby and unshaven, and looked like he had shrunk inside his clothes. (p.208)

42. The smoke licked round my skull, the sun toasted my face. (p.212)

43. She was not beautiful, but she had one of those ripe, pale, faintly corrupt bodies – a touch of the Rubens – that seem to fill the swarthy Latin with anticipations of sexual delicias. (p.218)

44. I spent a lot of time with Renate and Renaldo, shutters open, door open, sliding gracefully downhill. It was the blanco y negro for breakfast, punto rojo for lunch, ron coco for tea. Of these ron coco is not the least. This simple, sweet and deadly drink is prepared as follows: Take a ripe brown coconut, slice off the top, drain some of the milk, pour in a generous slug of rum, white or brown to taste, replace the top, and leave to steep for a day or so. Cocktail books would doubtless recommend it served with crushed ice, but there was no ice at the Corona, and anyway the best way to take ron coco is straight out of the shell, passed round like a pipe of peace, with reinforcements of rum to top it up with comound interest. In Santa Marta they call this way of drinking rum chupando el mono, sucking the money. (p.220)

45. So why am I still sitting here? As the poet says, Video meliora proboque, deterora sequor. I see and approve the good, I follow the bad. Twenty minutes later the three of us were walking back u the beach-drag, past the sailors, past El Molino and the bingo stall, my arm around Mabella’s shoulders, hers around my waist, our hips jostling. (p.225)

46. The stocky shoulders, the ripe breasts, the neat black triangle between her legs – these legs belonged to the puta, but the rest of her was just another undernourished young girl, with her starch-fed belly and bum rounding out in different directions. (p.226)

47. It was not a success, not a nuit de passion to linger in the memory. She lay inert and passive. I lay dutifully active. I pressed and fondled. I mad one or two requests, in the hope of gingering things up a bit, but these apparently were not on the schedule. A ‘fucky-fucky’ was the basic economy model. She was anatomically available, and that was it: a glove of warm flesh to slip into for a few minutes. Perhaps this is what turns on the average Colombian Joe. It didn’t turn me on. I felt limper and guiltier with each minute that passed. It didn’t even occur to me to kiss her. (p.226)

48. Her lipstick looked like last night’s. (p.233)

49. I shot a glance at Waldino, but he seemed to have nestled down into his beard. (p.251)

50. It all linked up. My confused stumblings had actually unearthed a whole pipeline. I could trace my phantom 10 kilos of cocaine all the way – Huanaco leaves from the Yungas of Bolivia, mulched with kerosene and acid into cocaine paste, smuggled up through the jungles of Peru to the Colombian border near Leticia, flown up to the Hacienda Alaska in the southern llanos, elaborated by a German cook into prime cocaine hydrochloride, trucked up in cattle wagons to teh San Felipe slaughter-house in Bogota, distributed through Rafael Vallejo’s Transcarne meat network, offloaded in Barranquilla, driven down the Troncal de Caribe, carried down the trail to Sea Breeze Farm, loaded into a speedboat called La Solucion, ferried by Agaton and Miguelito to the island of Aruba, delivered to a businessman in Oranjestad, packaged up in a cargo of agave essence, nursed across the Atlantic by a bent crewman on a Dutch cargo ship, picked up in a hotel room in Amsterdam, spirited to London via any number of mule-runs, wholesaled, brokered, buffed, diluted, filtered through the ounce-dealers and gram-merchants, thirty thousand grams of one-in-three, sixty thousand hungry nostrils twitching, a hundred thousand toots at the parties that really matter, the suave new soirées where as likely as not you’ll see Malcolm himself, jawing with some beautiful Jewish agent from New York, who’s wishing he’d shut up about this super book on the cocaine trade, and let her get her nose down into that sweet white candy. (p.255)

51. A hooker stared in, cast her hook, got no bites, and walked on. (p.258)

52. I’ve been through this movie before, I thought. Just a few blocks away, just a few years away, talking to someone through a cocaine deal, and one never learns, does one, and here I am again, torqued up on tinto, dust in my throat, and a dim foreboding in my gut that if history really does repeat itself, this rime round it’s tragedy’s turn. But there was no time to grapple with this, because here came Waldino, and a step or two behind him, with Rita on his arm, was the Swede. (p.259)

53. The Swede was about as inconspicuous as a bear at a tea-party. (p.259)

54. They were all the same, gutters of sweat and treachery, filled with con-artists and with peculiarly virulent strains of clap. (p.261)

55. Ariel’s voice was colourless. (p.263)

56. You can almost smell the rats up the taps. (p.278)

57. fsdf

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