Hugo Docking

The land of Deep Shadow

(An excerpt from Dustbeard – A radio play I started writing about a lone presenter stuck in an old radio tower on a post-apocalyptic island, with only old archived tapes from the past to keep him company. He uses the tower to broadcast a weekly radio show to the unfortunate inhabitants of the island.)

In a land far away from here, yet somehow, all so close. Small shadows mill and meander. They sit, and work, and dance and dream. They dream in shadows. Somewhere, in one unimportant corner of this shadowy world, a small shadow sits. Shadowy head in shadowy hands it weeps shadowy tears. They fall down it’s shadowy cheek like tiny ink droplets flicked from a shadowy quill onto blank, white paper. If you were to look for this figure, you would not see it for it sits, in a shadowy room, in a shadowy house on a shadowy street. Without this information you would be forgiven for seeing simply a blank black space, and you would think nothing of the oh so faint snivels, and the slow drips of muffled tears.

This figure knows nothing of our world, nothing of colour and of light. Yet we too know nothing of it’s world. We cannot see the intricacies and complexities of the darkness. We cannot see the shadowy roads in this shadowy world, with the shadowy houses and the shadowy streetlights which illuminate the town with deeper darker darkness. We cannot know why this figure is crying. We cannot ask it, as it’s language is so different to ours. It speaks in echoes, and silence.

The figure is deformed and twisted, as deformed as a shadow can be. If it could talk to you, which it can’t, if it could explain with animated gestures, which it can’t, it would say:

“Love. Love took them both away from me. Love equates only to un-love, from which only evil and madness can thrive. The origin of every tragedy is love, and love always ends in tragedy. We were always doomed. And now, I know only shadows.”

Then it would wipe it’s shadowy tear’s with it’s shadowy hand and continue to sit, alone in one unimportant corner of it’s dark, shadowy world.

And darkness was upon the face of the deep

(An excerpt from Dustbeard – A radio play I started writing about a lone presenter stuck in an old radio tower on a post-apocalyptic island, with only old archived tapes from the past to keep him company. He uses the tower to broadcast a weekly radio show to the unfortunate inhabitants of the island.)

It started with the agony of nothing, then the frosty terror, of SOMETHING. Experiencing something, when all you know is nothing, will shatter a sound mind into shrapnel. Everything, everyone we encountered on that first day of something was utterly terrifying. All we knew was fear and pain. Our senses were working but we didn’t understand enough to process the signals that our bodies were trying to send us…

Then for just a split second, our heads snapped up in synchronised horror,  mouths crooked and twisted and aghast as if struck by a sudden brutal divine force, it appeared we remembered everything. And we knew everything. Everything there was to know. Absolute knowledge. And then it was gone, leaving only a vague residue. A floating, half submerged feeling that there was something other than something. That we were someone, or at least used to be. All we had and all we were was a painful, raw, unbaked concept of a concept of memory and life. We stumbled around the island that day, unable to communicate or control the muscles that made our unfamiliar bodies do things. We just stumbled, and roared and moaned and rolled and shrieked.

Eventually we learnt to control our muscles and rise from the dirt and we learnt we had jaws and we started to speak and finally we could use the words that were singing round our minds but we had no idea what they were or where they came from and they were just terrifying sounds but we learnt how to recreate them, and after a while we realised that they were useful and we realised what they meant and that really we always knew. We took the shovels to our minds and tried to dig up anything from our past but we could not dig deep enough. The knowledge we craved remained buried and dormant.

People started to shrivel and die and then we ate them and learnt of the concept of hunger and of food. With full bellies we learnt that there were different types of pain, and some could be relieved, that the pain of starvation could be cured. And then with human flesh in our teeth and caught in our bloody nails we learnt of remorse, for which more flesh could not cure…


Jerry’s Odyssey

Old Jerry screams out in pain. He begs me to stop. He’s not whining anymore, he’s howling.
I don’t let up, I can’t. I ram him into continuing but he’s caving with agony and
desperation. I recoil as I am hit with a thick waft of fear and melting plastic before he
splutters to a halt, throwing us both to the mercy of the rocky mudslide. Locked together
we tumble, as if eternally entangled in some filthy macabre dance that would no doubt be
our last. We skid several meters down the cliff-face before my heels finally grind us both to
a halt. We lie there a while in static embrace, too fearful to move. I breathe deeply, panic
slowly morphing into regret, denial, tears. Stranded in the Vietnamese wilderness. Dusk is
approaching. The first specks of rain hiss as they slap Jerry’s fuel tank with crescendoing
fury. They run off my face and hit the already slippery mud-fest of a mountain that Google
Maps had the cheek to call a road. A storm is coming. I close my eyes and I can feel it in my
gut. The vultures are circling, and they are starving.

As far as travel writing goes, this is far from the normal, motivational ‘time of your life’
type story about how great it was to jump into some hidden waterfall in Thailand. It’s
true what they say, while travelling you will probably have some of the best and the
worst experiences of your life. With that in mind, riding a motorbike up the length of
Vietnam is an undertaking you should erase from your bucket list now. Stop reading this
article immediately, take what you’ve already read as a warning and forget you ever
heard about it. It is a mission for only the severely reckless and misguided.

My companion on this inadvisable pilgrimage was Jerry. Jerry is a Yamaha Nouvo.
Nouvo comes from the French word Nouveau, which means new or fashionable. Jerry is
neither new nor fashionable. He is one of the oldest models I’ve seen in South East Asia,
breaks down constantly and is scuffed and bruised to buggery from various crashes.
Also he is an automatic. This is important. Automatics are terrible on hills.

Our nightmare begins at an oddly peaceful juncture. I had been staying in a home-stay
nestled in the incredibly tranquil and remote ‘Ba Bể’ national park. With quite a drive
ahead of me I set off early in search of the natural wonders that exist in Hà Giang
province, up on the Chinese border. I was on schedule, and stopped for a beer at a
beautiful little mom-and-pop shop overlooking a wide-open field with statuesque
turrets of rock darting out from the waist-high crops. It was blissful, serene. If I had died
that night at least I would have had that moment to return to as my eyes closed and my
muddy corpse rolled down to the dirt and the rocks in the valley below.

I paid for my beer and trooped on. The road got worse and worse, turning from tarmac
to dust track to rock and then to mud; slowly thinning until my two wheels barely fit the
breadth of the path. I figured it couldn’t get much worse than this and the road would
improve soon but as I trundled down a rocky cliff edge that a professional mountain
biker would have struggled with, I realised the gravity of my situation. I got to the
bottom and gazed back up the way I had come. My escape route was now sealed. I had
managed the perilous drive down but going back up would be impossible. I had no other
choice than to trudge forward.

Gradually, tentatively, I carved my way along the path, trying to keep it together.
Compartmentalising my journey: ‘just make it round the next bend Hugo, it’ll sort itself
out soon enough.’ It didn’t. Arms rigid, knuckles white, I cruised around a tight corner,
only having to brake suddenly as I nearly crashed into a gaggle of Vietnamese teenage
boys. These were the first humans I had seen for a fair few hours, but their prescience
did not come as a relief. A plume of smoke billowed out of one of their gaping jaws as
they silently regarded me with eyes filled with dull anger and menace. ‘Alright Lads’ I
muttered, as I squeezed my bike past them. We were about as far North as you can go in
Vietnam, and far, far away from civilisation. These were proper countryside kids. They’d
probably never seen a whitey before. Perhaps they’d only heard about us from an
elderly grandparent, who had told them horror stories about the war and the white
devils that invaded, killed maimed and pillaged. Jesus, I thought, maybe they don’t even
know the war has ended, maybe this remote community has been in hiding for
generations. As soon as I got past them they started to chatter. Then they started to
shout. Then I heard engines revving and they were on my tail, screaming like banshees,
hurtling towards me in the early dusk.

I gunned the engine. What a way to go, I panicked, hacked to death in a grisly valley by
blood-hungry Vietcong juniors. I’m not even a damn Yank; ‘I’m just a Brit!’ I wanted to
scream, but I knew that shouting at them in English would only antagonise them
further. They would never find the body. I would just be another backpacker gone
missing somewhere in Asia. Would they report it? A mystery never to be solved. My
mother wailing on BBC southwest news, pleading for information while my remains are
fed to the pigs? Perhaps I’d end up in a bowl of phở bò. The meat in that broth is
dubious at best. I flew over potholes and mud-clumps in an effort to escape, praying
Jerry, my trusty steed, would not let me down now. One of them bumped my back wheel
and we jolted forward, the bike swaying but not quite tipping. I heard mad cackling
behind me. They were tormenting me. I slammed the accelerator to full throttle and
shot through the wildness as fast as I could, my heart in my throat and brain intoxicated
on a cocktail of frenzied self-preservation and savage survival instinct. Eventually the
shouts and ghastly giggles faded. They had had their fun and given up the chase. Jerry
and I were alone once more. It was soon after this, with darkness looming, that we
trundled over to an ominous dirt track leading up a mountain. This was to be the final
obstacle. I could sense that this harsh slope would lead us back to civilisation, back to
safety and out of this cursed valley. But it wasn’t going to be easy.

I listen to my breath. In, out, in, out. It’s slowing. That’s good. I’m still alive. That’s also
good. If I want that to continue I have to think logically. First step, is Jerry still alive. I free
myself from under him, steady my feet on the slope and try to get him upright. No, I can’t,
too heavy. He skids down another few meters. My bag is on Jerry’s luggage rack, all my
worldly possessions; they’re weighing him down. Take it off. I inch back down to the bike,
kneel behind it and slowly unhook the bungees. I heave the bag off and place it to one side.
Right, try again. I get him upright. The engine starts. Good. I don’t need my bag, I can get
more clothes; maybe he’ll be all right with some of the weight gone? No. He struggles up a
few inches, wheezing and gasping for breath, then the stench of burning plastic comes
back tenfold. Dammit. Okay Hugo what are your options. You walk up with just your bag;
abandon Jerry. No, you don’t know what’s up there. It could be miles until you reach the
nearest town. Go all the way back the way you came? No. You went down that massive hill
remember? That’s going to be just as bad as this one. Besides you don’t have enough petrol
and there’s nowhere to fill up. Petrol. I hadn’t thought of that. Shit. I’m done for. Keep
breathing. Think. If you can’t go up you have to go down. I think I saw a couple of farm
shacks somewhere along the way. God knows how far. Maybe they have a tool kit or
something? Someone who can help? Bollocks to it, it’s all I’ve got. I push Jerry down to the
bottom. Then march back up for my bag. The rain is starting to pick up. I don’t have long
before the mud-slope becomes a waterfall.

I got to the bottom, pushed the bike a while, but there wasn’t a house in sight. I
collapsed on the ground. Filthy, drained, exhausted. I curled into a ball, eyes wide, hair
matted with dirt, cheek pressed against the soggy ground. I was there for many
moments before the ground started faintly to vibrate… then I heard an engine. I rose
slowly from the ground like a man stranded for years on a desert island, unsure if the
foghorn of a nearby ship is a dream or a mirage. Waving madly regardless, with the
final, desperate hope of a poor, pathetic creature: half-mad, half-dead, and wholly

Apocalypse 9 – The Downright Inadequacy of the Platoon

‘Oh come on! …Oh fuck this. No. No, we’re not doing it again. YOU GODDAM CHINKY BASTARDS I’LL KILL YOU I’M FUCKING OUT OF HERE.’ – And with that the lieutenant was gone. His platoon looked over to see him elegantly thrashing his way back through the Vietnamese jungle. Stopping only once to viciously tug at his clothes, removing everything aside from his vest and tighty-whiteys, in a flurry of crazed embittered energy that seemed to glow and pulsate from his crooked sunburnt form. The man had gone feral. Rabid. He would join, as one, with the forest now. He would have to adapt to survive. Would he become a lone tyrant? The king of all creatures, wreaking havoc on his new kingdom? Or would he take to crawling through the dirt, naked and shivering. Cowering beneath the lowest rung on the ladder of jungle hierarchy, and let the chimps and baboons have their perverted way with him? We discussed this at length over the following few hours, and predicted the latter.

‘I told yoo bru, he was tweakin’ ‘ja bru I knou. His eyes were all over the place. He woz tweakin like a mad fokker’. The Saffer brothers were right. There had been something undeniably ‘off’ about the Lieutenant. As the oldest of our ranks he had held court at the beginning of the day with the frantic confidence of a man with more coke running through his veins than white blood cells. Then, as we left Hanoi, in a minibus headed to the countryside mountain town of Ba Vì, his sharp decline in temperament had been shockingly quick. So, our ranks were down by one. But, the show must go on! So we readied ourselves for another take.

I had responded to an add on a Facebook forum asking for pale-faced foreigners to take part as extras in a Vietnamese war film about Ho Chi Minh; the universally revered leader and founder of the communist revolution in Nam. One thing led to another, and now, this unlikely group of expat nomads, outlaws and ruffians (myself included) had bonded over a vague enthusiasm for amateur dramatics and weaponry. Donned in an eclectic wardrobe of one-size-fits-no-one military gear, we were embodying the villainous but cowardly French army being shot at and chased back through the Jungle. It was hot. Humid. The terrain was rugged and we clutched heavy antique weapons, which, we found out later, where the genuine article. They came from the war museum, and the government had generously lent them to the film crew.

At lunch I made small talk with the director in broken English. I found out the guy had made nine other films… all about the life of Ho Chi Minh. The fucker had made NINE essentially IDENTICAL films about the SAME bloke! Why? Simple economics. Vietnam is a poor country. A poor communist country at that. (Ironically EVERYONE here loves the concept of democracy. Even the damn director was banging on about the benefits of having ‘elections with multiple candidates’. I told him that what he was describing was called democracy. He blushed and changed the subject. The grass is always greener I guess.) Vietnam is poor, communist and corrupt. Very corrupt. Films cost a lot of money to make. No one has that kind of money. Except the government. The only films the government will fund are films SPECIFICALLY about their beloved uncle Ho. Vietnamese directors are therefore limited to a borderline inexistent level of creative expression, and, as if in purgatory, are forced to regurgitate the same film over and over again if they wish to continue their career.

After lunch I went back to running around the jungle like a headless chicken, carrying a gun that had probably seen enough bloodshed to make old Colonel Kurtz choke back a tear. My lunchtime chat had put me rather off-kilter and I continued the day with a growing sense of unease. By the end of the shoot I’d lost half my body weight in sweat, cleared a deck and a half of coarse Vietnamese smokes and fought alongside a squad of western nutters for 12 hours to please the whims and fancies of the communist regime. Exhausted, I pocketed my 25 quid earnings and headed for the minibus.

I looked back at the platoon for the last time before we parted. We were a strange and dysfunctional bunch of humans. From the casually but maliciously racist South Africans, who believed that ‘the black’s’, as a collective, were fit for no more than menial labouring jobs due to their inferior brain capacity. To the guy that owned a hostel in a national park, instigating backpacker piss-ups every night in the same bars; numbed to the natural beauty around him by a constant transient stream of strong liquor and intolerable douche-bags. Not forgetting the meth-riddled disgraced veteran who couldn’t hack a couple hours without a fix.

And then there was me. No better than the rest of this stinking shit-heap of fuck-ups and nut-jobs. The term expats did not do us justice, no. Perhaps ‘disturbed drifters’ would be a more apt term. All teetering on the knife-edge of insanity. All running from some twisted daemons. But the most brutal and destructive part of this story is that, although we may have been extras in some shitty Vietnamese war film today, for the rest of the year we are all English Teachers. Vietnam, pay attention! These are the fucked up, dead-eyed slobs that are TEACHING YOUR CHILDREN.

We’ll sell our souls for a few bucks, spend the money on your cheap ‘bia hơi’* that night, drug ourselves with bush-weed before a class; insult your people and joke casually about ‘white privilege’. Then, when we have taken all we can from your country, like flies to shit, we will drift to the next place and repeat the process. Hide your kids. The Tây’s** are in town.


* Bia Hơi – Vietnamese draft beer of the poorest quality. Probably considered carcinogenic by the rest of the world. Cheap as chips.
** Tây literally translates into ‘West’ in English. It is used to refer to a white foreigner, or more specifically a westerner.

“A” is for Angry

(This piece of writing was created for the ‘Boyhood Memories’ project, a collection of true stories from various authors, collated by Peter Clothier. It was published on his blog last October with plans to publish the collection as a book in the future. )


You are six years old. It’s past your bedtime but you can’t sleep, so you’re lying in bed reading a book. You like reading because you are good at it. You have long surpassed the purple level books at school (the highest level books at school), and The Teacher lets you bring your own books in for reading time because she doesn’t quite know what to do with you. You are quietly quite proud of the fact that The Teacher doesn’t quite know what to do with you. You also like that you can take your own books into class because they are far more interesting than the purple level reading books.

You hear voices downstairs. They are raised. One is highly pitched and broken with uncontained sobbing. The other is booming and laced with rage. You would like to know why. This particular occurrence isn’t common, you think to yourself. But, then again, not exactly uncommon, you also muse. However The Boyfriend is being particularly loud tonight and his voice is deep and manly and the bass of the thing is resonating through the house and you are now fully awake.

You realise you have become inquisitive and will not be able to get to sleep until you understand why there is such a commotion going on below you. You try to be quiet as you tiptoe downstairs. You want to ‘eavesdrop’ (which means to listen without the people you are listening to knowing you are there). You use the bannister to take most of your weight so that your feet will be light on the stairs like a cat. However the stairs still creak and the voices go quiet. You are still curious, and you’ve come this far, so you open the door and ask ‘what’s going on?’

The Boyfriend explains that The Mother has taken some of his bread from the freezer. Which, he says, was clearly marked with an ‘A’ in permanent marker. (‘A’ is the first letter of his name, and there should be no confusion as neither you, nor The Mother, has a name that begins with the letter ‘A’.) Even though you don’t see the packet, you don’t doubt that it was permanently marked with the letter ‘A’, as it is not uncommon for The Boyfriend to mark his food with an ‘A’ in permanent marker. You know that anything written in permanent marker is worthy of note, as the mark is permanent, which means that it can’t be undone, and is there forever, or at least as long as there is bread still in the packet.

You don’t quite understand why the boyfriend has to be so ‘stingy’ with his food but the fact that you think that, in itself, is understandable as you are an only child. If, like the boyfriend, you grew up with siblings, you would understand the importance of marking your food with the first letter of your name in permanent marker.

But the process of clearly labeling your food becomes ‘redundant’ if someone who’s name does NOT begin with the letter labeled clearly on the packet in permanent marker decides to help themselves to the contents of the packet ‘willy nilly.’ With this information clarified you now understand why the mother is crying and the boyfriend is shouting and you head back to bed.


But for some reason you still can’t get to sleep…

Why Worry?

(This piece of writing was created for the ‘Boyhood Memories’ project, a collection of true stories from various authors, collated by Peter Clothier.)

My mother’s boyfriend was an intimidating presence. A gruff Northerner who lived an isolated life in a log cabin. Half living space, and half storage space for a mountainous CD collection from times sourly missed. They met on an online dating website when computers barely existed; let alone smartphones, or Tinder. Gone now are the days of Guardian Soulmates and Friends Reunited. I probably know more about the dark ages of Internet dating than any other nineteen year old should, or would care to know.  

This bald Shrek-like character, with a big belly, huge shoulders and a conclusive knowledge of 60’s hits would come round from the deep North at weekends. Then more and more regularly. He would never fail to scare me shitless. This was shortly after my Father (a small, quiet, South African artist) upped sticks and left, and I quickly decided that his replacement was not up to par. There existed a mutual disdain that pulsated between us, and the looks he used to give me when my Mother wasn’t present could kill a restless Bull. He preferred to verbally chastise me quietly, when we were alone together, and warn me not to tell Mum… So I would walk in her shadow in an effort to postpone the inevitable. I remember trying to follow her into the toilet one time because he was angry with me for some reason… and sure enough he took that opportunity to pounce. He was never physical, but I was a sensitive child and rarely ‘naughty’ anyway, so this new form of emotional discipline was rather alien to me.

At some point he found out I was good at writing and tried to inspire my creativity in the only way he knew how; to force me to write a short story or a poem every week for a couple of months on the trot. It was a carrot and stick type scenario. If I didn’t write a story every week I knew there would be hell to pay, and he would sternly remind me when my deadline was closely approaching. He insinuated with death stares and tone of voice alone that if I were to delay, my life would not be made pleasant. However, if I did manage a piece of verse or prose once a week for two months, he would buy me a ‘mighty beanz mega racetrack (TM)’ and by God I was desperate to have my very own ‘mighty beanz mega racetrack (TM)’. So put pen to paper I did.

One summer we were holidaying in a caravan in Wales. I was having a grand old time mincing around fields and tormenting cows from afar, but despite the fact that I was on holiday I was not afforded exemption from my writing duties. My deadline was looming and if I were to get that ‘mighty beanz mega racetrack (TM)’ I would have to get something scribbled down. This was a real weight on my young mind, which was furiously scrambling for excuses, loopholes and get out of jail free clauses. So when I saw a poem on a tea towel entitled ‘why worry?’ hung up on the wall of the B&B, I was both appropriately reassured and cunningly inspired. I read it through a few times, and with the sponge-like mind of a six year old, memorized the whole thing, and wrote it all down a couple of hours later.

It was hailed as my most brilliant work yet.

Shrek was elated that his plan to inspire a young Shakespeare had worked, and when the two months were up, he was proud to present me with my very own ‘mighty beanz mega racetrack (TM)’.

My grandmother, who was always my biggest fan, also found the poem inspired, and entered me into a local young poets competition. I came runner up. I had to stand on a makeshift stage in our local bookshop and read my beautifully insightful poem to a room full of people and proudly accept a book of poetry as my reward. In hindsight the experience taught me a lot about the downsides of living with a lie, and allowing it to snowball out of control and past the point of no return. But at the time I was smiling, saying thank you to the judges, prize in hand, thinking to myself something to the tune of ‘shit cock balls bollocks shit fuck bugger’, as I realised I had made a bit of a mistake somewhere along the line.

My deep dark secret was only discovered when we went back to the same B&B the following year. Shrek got a positive sighting of the same poem entitled ‘why worry?’ on the same tea towel, on the same wall. An awkward intervention style conversation was initiated that day, on a picnic blanket, in a field, in Wales. I was sat down and some stern words were said. I’m can’t remember exactly what they were, but I’m sure certain topics were addressed, explored and indulged. These included, but were not limited to:

‘The Consequences of Lies and Plagiarism.’

‘Trust – Building, Breaking and Rebuilding.’  

‘The Importance of Formal Apologies.’

And of course:

‘Why You Should be Worried…’  

My Mother stayed quiet. I found out later in life that she was actually quite impressed with my ability to memorise the thing, and my keeping it quiet for a year without cracking under the pressure. But Shrek was furious.


I didn’t even use that ‘mighty beanz mega racetrack (trademark)’ more than a few times anyway.

Fear and Loathing in Amsterdam

Suddenly, without warning, I found myself in a small cabin, with half a dozen Girl Scout sorcerers’ speaking in tongues. I glanced around, aware of the danger of revealing my fear. My confusion. They could smell it. It was only a matter of time before these angel fascists would mount their attack on my unwary companions and me. My comrades looked passive, accepting of their unsavoury fate. It was too late for them I knew, and soon I would fall into the same morbid trap. Think Hugo think. Ignore this terrible drug. Assess your surroundings. How did you get here?

The whole room was twisted. Furious bad vibes. Fiendish murmurs. Unholy cackles. Who were these demons of indeterminate age? Both worldly, superior creatures and mischievous youths, pixies. They were passing a bottle of liqueur between them as if it were their first taste of the devils nectar. If their façade of innocence was a true perception then where were their parents? A terrible thought penetrated my hazy consciousness. Where we the villains? Had we stumbled upon a nest of drunken infants? Would the wooden door of this claustrophobic cabin soon be kicked off it’s fragile hinges by foreign agents – to find us cross-legged, knee to knee with doggedly-swaying intoxicated children and assume the worst?

I accepted the bottle of cheap booze from the Girl Scout opposite. Nothing to do now but play along. Act normal. Keep my cards close to my chest, drink the liquor, don’t let them guess my twisted insights. Staggered conversation was being attempted in my peripheral. Laughter. How could my companions be unaware of the severity of this sinister situation? Had their minds be warped by black magic? Or did they simply not understand how badly the events in this cabin could be perceived?

I risked a glance at my closest companion. A stout joint rested between his thumb and forefinger. We shared a brief moment of confusion as we stared at each other wide-eyed and unblinking. It was all we needed to reassure each other that we shared the dark inclinations of the events in this cabin, and we were not alone. I found out the next day that this was not true. He was just super high.