Hugo Docking

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
broken.

“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.