Kora Kora Kora

And now it's my turn is it? You want my story now? It's quite strange all this, you know. Don't you find that? You never say anything do you? Shall I just talk then? Well? OK? Just take it from here? Ok, then.
Ready? OK.
Right, er, let me set the scene. Come with me. Let me take you back. Back to the beach. Back to the sand that never gets wet. The sea doesn't come this far - high I was going to say, but high is wrong; everything around here is flat, level, not a slope in sight - but the sea still knows its place; it doesn't come too far.
It is mid September.
People stroll out from hotel sun terraces, out to the beach.
People mill at kiosks, taking a mid-morning espresso.
People are slumped out lethargically, the awnings of their deckchairs all concave, though some are sagging more than others. The empty ones next to them are blown uniformly convex by the breeze. They look like blocks of primary colour crudely needled into a tapestry. Gulls quarrel on and above the pilings of the longest breakwater. Sparrows bask in the footsteps of humans. Wasps hover and land in the footsteps of sparrows. One lone dragonfly flaps by at knee level. One lone helicopter rattles above, travelling the length of the beach, inscribing a route exactly parallel with the path at the back of the hotels. Seaweed smells mingle with the coconut smells of sun cream. The scene is animated, but restrained; the very picture of peace.
Hello very cheap very nice five thousand lira five thousand lira souvenire souvenire five thousand lira five thousand lira very nice very cheap hello.
I yell my palindromic refrain from my place in the queue as we come along like rat-run traffic in a suburban street. No respite. One after the other. As one of us fades away, the next slides in, fade and slide, fade and slide, all along the long beach, throughout all of the long day, weaving past in our native garb, looking like the ragged remnants of a returning defeated army, but we are an army of salesmen, displaying beach-towels, carpets, wristwatches, cheap Michael Jackson cassettes - in line, not too close, not too far behind, from one end of the beach to the other, from the North Lighthouse to the South Lighthouse, then back again, homing in on the invisible light that - hopefully - guides us to a full belly.
Hello very cheap very nice five thousand lira five thousand lira souvenire souvenire five thousand lira five thousand lira very nice very cheap hello.
This is the sort of garbage I shout day in day out night in night out in my sleep in my waking always perfecting the act getting the intonation right letting the robot voice take over.
I am always, it seems, toting carved wooden horses or what purport to be traditional African instruments. They are not. I know about these things, and these are just miniaturised tourist rubbish. But what good are these purist objections? To sell, that is the question, perchance to eat.
So, choose your target, choose your target.
The Germans are normally the best targets - more lucrative - they've got cars - no baggage limit for them, so I have taken steps to improve my German.
Hello sehr schön sehr billig fünf tausend lire fünf tausend lire souvenire souvenire fünf tausend lire fünf tausend lire sehr billig sehr schön hello.
But often to no avail.
What can I do in the face of such otherworldly indifference? I can placate, cajole, plead, joke, smile, dismiss, accept, be reluctantly persuaded. I can not scowl, swear, be rude, storm off, shout, stamp, yell or be in any way disruptive. I take no for an answer. I hold my tongue. And keep my nose clean. I know the rules. This is a clean beach. A tidy beach. A quiet beach. Well-ordered. Well-organised. Respectable. No ball games. No radios. No dogs. Only stuffed or carved ones anyway.
So I scrabble in the sand and form numbers for the tourists and let them change the patterns in the sand and obliterate my figures - cutting the ground from beneath my bid - whilst I obliterate what they have done and move the bid upwards and then let them move the bid downwards until someone wins or stalemate is reached and I trudge away - hello very cheap very nice five thousand lira five thousand lira - but all the time I grin, grin, grin with my big white teeth and enter into the holiday spirit, their holiday spirit.

And now it's midday. As we reach the midway point, we stop to change our booty.
We wait in a huddle for our boss to see what's selling and what isn't.
Fighter planes wheel overhead, and, as their noise leaches away, I listen to the polyrhythms of the waves as each one shuffles over each other and sidelines their after echos and preludes the arrival of the next one with low grumbles.
The van has been brought to the tide-line. The boss emerges. He flip-flops out from his beach hotel flip FLUP flip FLUP flip FLUP flip FLUP, his club foot making a deeper impression in the sand than his good one, the sparrows hopping from light footstep to heavy footstep.
He stops, pushing his withered hand slightly behind his back. As always, he has a ready smile.
I look at the downturned curves of his eyes, the pushed-back peak of his baseball cap.
He beckons us to the kiosk with his one good hand to have something to eat.
He gives me a pat on the shoulder for encouragement as I pass.
He's the guy who lets us operate, who buys the stuff, who allows us to survive.
He has dragged us up from the gutter and given us a livelihood.
He has saved us.
This man... This man... I mean...
I tell you man...
He screwed me...
He bled me white.
I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Man, I'm amazed. After all this time. All this time. He can just turn me into a stuttering wreck like that. After all this time.
I can still see him just like that! Gold everywhere. Gold on his fingers and gold in his mouth. Jewellery. Emblem of how much he's made it.
Every piece of jewellery, every particle of gold in his mouth was a meal lost. Stolen from me! He.. I ... He...
Fu... Sorry. Sorry. OK.
Anyway. You can cut that out, can't you?
Thank you.
I exchange my goods and I set off again, glancing across at the hotel where he hangs out.
We tack across the beach again, driven and dragged by the wind, pulled and pushed by the vain quest for punters.
I step into someone else's footsteps and know the marks will remain until they're raked even.
I spot the occasional sail, which looks like it's drowning off the beach, off this sea of black activity and pink inactivity.
I see the spidery pattern of footprints in the sand, the join-up-the-dots web of flow-lines that mark out the routes to the sitting ducks, the sedentary muggers and pickpockets, while we - the real victims - flow between.
Sometimes I wonder what we look like viewed from the top of these four star mansions, from one of those bedrooms with a seaview and a supplement to match. What must it be like to watch this ragged horde scything along this stretched ribbon of a beach, toting their ragged banners? What must it be like to see the pattern we make? A swathe of gaudy colour along the sands. A shifting mosaic of illogical shapes - stars, swastikas, snaking-out fronds from the serpentine sun. Sometimes, I'm sure, we must look like fragments of flags, shuffling across the sand, moving into place, forming and unforming our own different national emblems, creating a montage of recollection of the different countries we come from, a pageant of hawkers, a panoply of colours, except one, except pink. Pink belongs in the deckchairs. They're all so pink, so fat, so bloated. Pink like those unseen observers. Do they hear us? Do our cries pierce the double glazing? Hello very cheap very nice five thousand lira five thousand lira souvenire souvenire five thousand lira five thousand lira very nice very cheap hello. You up there! We're not exotic fish in a fishtank! We're trying to breathe out here. Eat! Breathe! Sleep! That's all we're trying to do!
That's all, but it all comes down to one word: Sell! So come out of your ivory towers and buy!
And this is how I spend my days.
Watching the sun go down.
Watching the sun come up.
Plodding beneath the fiery sun with my feet bare in the sand, in the crumpled particles of earth, and it feels WARM it feels like back home and it feels good to stretch out through the hot air and use the muscles I was given, while the sea laps always to my left on the way there or always to my right on the way back.
I find it always impossible to gauge the changes in the moods of the sea, of the boss, of the punters; sometimes, quite inexplicably, there is a different atmosphere, and the pickings are different, like the sea has uncovered something new: a different species of crustacean for the waders to devour. Not that there are any. The only birds here are these seagulls and sparrows.
The gulls screech and the sparrows hop and twitter.
Not like the slow lazy flap of herons or the stuttering pecking hops of egrets back at home
You know, I sometimes wonder if these sparrows cover as much sand as we do - do they migrate up and down the long strand? The tourists, though, they're territorial - they stay where they belong, in their tethered off marked packages of land - they don't go up and down the beach mingling, talking to strangers. Suits me. Easier marks. Don't want your sitting ducks waddling too far from the stream. Doubles or trebles the work you have to do.
But I keep plodding.
Sometimes a kid yells "There's a black man!" but I say nothing. I know my place - we all know our place - we don't cross frontier of the concrete path between the beach and the sun-terraces of the hotels.
Not even when I have some little time off, to lounge next to the kiosks and chat to the young tourist girls.
Ah, those tourist girls. Ah, those English tourist girls. Always the most interesting, the most inquisitive, maybe the most available. But that's another story.

And now it's night.
We cruise the night-time strip, stopping at open-air bars and restaurants.
You know, sometimes I have known the stickiness of the night to be hotter than the day, made worse by the lights from the shops trying to sell their own tat - cheap masks, so-called Venetian glass.
But now I hang out on the strip and it's COLD so COLD and they're walking around bare-armed and bare-legged some of them.
And sometimes - like tonight - I have to stay still because tonight I have to lay out my blanket for my little pink friends - the clockwork Lambada puppies - and listen to them going da da dee dee dee deedee deedee deedee deedee da...
And then they go da da dee dee dee deedee deedee deedee deedee da...
All night long.
All night long.
Ah, animals.
Animals. Animals. Animals. I am surrounded by cretinous spiteful inanimate animals. They come to haunt me. When I finally get to sleep, I have nightmares about that horse. It seems to snort at me and mock me and I see its dull ebony eyes stare blankly and ebonly in the black ebony night into my hard ebony head. It knows I'm a loser. It knows that until I sell it into slavery, I am its slave - I am chained to it. It is my passport to eating, to survival. I stick it in a bag and hope I get rid of it. At least it's not mine. Give the scumbag his due. I don't actually have to buy this tat.
Sometimes I dream about those pink fluorescent puppies, too, yapping their mindless refrain to their mindless tune whilst their mindless bodies twitch in their mindless little dance and as they kick out their pink little legs, they stare into my eyes with mindless reproach. Their squeaky robot voices mock my own endeavours, mock my very cheap very nice with their da da dee dee dee deedee deedee deedee deedee da... Sometimes I am tempted to set them all off, set them free, let them wobble the streets in a discordant unco-ordinated clamour, every one of the revolting pink little pieces of lapdog slime given their independence, given their liberty to go da da dee dee dee deedee deedee deedee deedee da in their own time, their own way.
Oh, animals.
Animals. Animals. Animals.
I tell you I am about to strangle those puppies, with these musician's hand that their banality mocks so - banally. But wooden horses' eyes and pink lambada puppies' eyes have more compassion than some of these tourists.
But, oh, this wooden horse - I hate it.
This pink puppy dog - I hate it.
This greasy monkey on my back - I hate him! FUCKING BASTARD SCUMBAG! Sorry. cut that out as well, will you? In fact, cut the whole lot out, why don't you? Who wants to know?
Who wants to know?
Who needs it? Don't see the point of any of this.
OK. OK. I'm sorry. Try again. Let's pick up the pieces. Take two. OK.

And now I'm here I wonder how it all happened. Look, man, I could have been a professional musician, you know.
I was a griot - like my Dad - but I couldn't stick it, I had to escape, and now I've come down a caste or two
Yeah, but big deal - I could have been a griot - so what? You're still a caste-slave; you're still feted and enslaved at the same time. You're adored only as long as you do what you're told to do. And I always wanted to do it. Make no mistake about that. All I wanted to do was to play. And I can play, man, make no mistake about that, either.
Ah me, I still remember the day we escaped, so many of us scrabbling in the hold.
I had to get out. I had to escape the parental rules and historical regulations and the whole embedded system of hierarchical politeness.
You couldn't breathe. You couldn't move. I had to get out.
But I couldn't bring my instrument. And that really broke me up. Have you ever seen a kora? Let me tell you about it.
The West African lute-harp, they call it, but what it really is is the king and queen of all instruments.
21 lines of enchanted silver.
A glissando in the air.
A stretch of shining sound so quiet it drowns out all the noise in the world.
Sometimes I feel the 21 strings descend around me, picking up the harmonics of the wind and vibrating every nerve in my brain. These are the nights I don't sleep, in our five in a room sleeping place in a robdog no star hotel in the backstreets far away from the ivory towers where we huddle in the filth and take turns to flick the cockroaches off the window-sill and listen to the plumbing rattling every time somebody uses the bidet to wash away what they've just been rattling the walls of the whole hotel to produce.
And that's the only music I get. Apart from the scream of the gulls and the snarl of exhaust pipes and the da da dee dee dee deedee deedee deedee deedee da......
And sometimes, as I flick through the disintegrated sandcastles and cigarette butts, bellowing out my salesman's mantra through sand-gritted teeth in whatever language I think might work - hello very cheap very nice five thousand lira five thousand lira - the kora in my brain - that spectral memory - drags me away like a twenty-one-tentacled octopus to another edge of this sea, to my discarded destiny, to the caste heritage that is stamped right through me like every one of those deckchairs is stamped with the name of the right hotel. Perhaps they're all different castes too - perhaps they should be tattooed on the forehead with the deckchair pattern of their hotels and the number of stars. There's no getting away from it. Even being a wrestler, it's still caste, isn't it? It's still know your position - and do it.
So here I am.
I don't miss my folks back home - I'm too young; eighteen is too young, they tell me - but I often wonder about them; about my father's quicksilver gnarled hands darting across the strings, his even quicker temper, and my mother's unjustified patience in the face of unjustified provocation.
And I also wonder about the unspoken lives of these people as I flog up and down the strandline like a piece of human driftwood, trying to drum up trade with the human flotsam and jetsam in deckchairs who wait for me: are they transfixed by my approach, like creatures in headlights ? Or do they wait in ambush? I have never worked out the psychology of all this, and if I weren't so hungry all the time, I could get quite a buzz out of trying to work it out. But I need to concentrate on the money; I need all the money I can get - I never send it home. Sod the lot of them.

And now this place is closing up.
There are fewer of us, now, standing outside the hotel, huddled in our own cold grey day with the tourists waking up along the strip to their own warm holiday mornings.
Fewer of us waiting for the purr of the van and the flip FLUP flip FLUP flip FLUP as he descends to his own marketplace and makes his way round to the rear doors.
Fewer of us to strut like matadors with brightly coloured beach towels across the muted background of sand and sea and sky.
But still not me. Even here there is a caste system - so I'm stuck with these cursed animals.
Fewer of us survivors to keep tamping down the sand, day by day, like demented grape-treaders, flogging our footsore bodies throughout the day then drifting along the tarmac beach at night, with trash that moves to replace trash that doesn't move.
All along the day.
All along the night.
And all along time...
And all along our lives...
But no. Not my life. I know I have to leave. Every signal tells me.
It is Autumn. There is no change of colour, but it is time to fall, nevertheless.
Here there is no deciduous token of Autumn - they made this place by ripping out the trees, but there are still signs that time is moving on. It is always time to think about going when the wasps arrive.
And this place is emptying.
This place is closing about my feet. Fewer punters, more miles to walk. A hard time coming we are bound to have of it.
The boys in blue from the beach consortium are dismantling the deckchairs and removing the umbrellas as another hotel closes. The peace is disturbed by the whine of their power tools and the parabolic arcing of the slats they remove as they curve over to the same pile in the sand.
Patches of tree-stump forests are created as the denuded tables remain after the deckchairs and umbrellas have gone.
The locals are slowly re-colonising their beach, even though it's Autumn to them. They play boules. They take the still-warm waters.
But now, it rains more often.
The sea still flaps in and sucks out as if it knows no seasonal change, but the rain, though, that's another species of water, that's a very bad business indeed. When it squalls in and dampens this sand that the sea never wets, then we know it's lean pickings.
Rain stops work. No argument.
You see it coming. A swirl of dark cloud swamps over and clamps cuts of the sun in its tentacles.
Then the rain blows in horizontal; it catches in my eyes; the thunder rolls overhead - the air seethes with the crackle of lightning in these parts which are Northern enough to be grey and southern enough to be volatile; the deckchair awnings flap in the wind; the boys in blue swathe the umbrellas in giant yellow covers that look like condoms; the breakers curve over themselves and churn towards the shore, soiling themselves with the sand they whip up, with their bits of captured seabed. The seawater plunges up the gaps in the slats of the breakwater walkways.
My feet are bare but my body is swaddled against the cold, as I struggle to shelter as the whole beach evacuates away from me.
This place is closing around me, so it's time to move on. I know.
I know.
Some other time I'll tell you about the future, about the pitfalls of drinking, about the echoing, grey cold of the tunnels of Finsbury Park Tube Station, but now, I have to go and practise my new trade. End of story for the time being. Catch you another time. Good afternoon. Thank you. Please call again. Cut.

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