the royal dragoons

RENNIE AND I went back to England on a fact-finding mission connected with his studies. We took the Ryanair flight into Stansted Airport and then a series of trains, buses, and a rental car until we arrived at the sands of the North Sea coast. We were standing there in a reedy inlet when I first noticed the outline of a large, furry animal in the sands. It was a household cat, but it had been reduced to two dimensions, almost like a carpet. Someone had pressed this cat, as with an iron, or maybe it had been run over by a tank? Up and down the beach, we found other two-dimensional pressed animals and there were some washing up in the waves. I was intrigued by this, but Rennie barely paid any attention to the animals. He wanted to talk about history and nostalgia. In Rennie’s view, nostalgia was eating away the true, tedious work of studying history, the same way that the North Sea was slowly eating away at Winterton Beach. “You’ll notice when you produce any academic work these days,” he said, “that people are no longer interested in the facts, in events, numbers, measurements, or anything concrete that can be defined, no, they want the fluff, the drama, the fucking romance of the era. They only are interested in nostalgia these days, not real history.” We walked along the beach and came to the Royal Museum. Inside there were different kinds of exhibits. One was a life-sized British graveyard that included graves from different eras, ranging from Anglo-Saxon burial mounds right up to the crypts of the Victorian era. Further on, we came to an old industrial mill that was still churning the waters. We went inside, passing through an iron gate. Rennie continued to fume about history. He picked up a large boulder and threw it under the wheel, bringing the whole mechanism to a stuttering halt. “You see this?” he cried. “This is the still-beating heart of British nostalgia!” The pressure on the wheel began to build up and the walls of the mill started to crack. It was like an earthquake. “Come on,” Rennie said. “We’ve got to get out of here before they get the Royal Dragoons after us.” We went back out through the museum, past the cemetery exhibit, and came down a hall filled with tall portraits of the Duke of Wellington and so on. There was a separate back staircase that led down into the staff area of the museum, and we walked through their cafeteria. The Royal Dragoons had already arrived and were filing in, and we passed them as we walked out the door into the sunshine of an English winter day and over towards the car we had rented by the station in Norwich. One of the Royal Dragoons, a beautiful young lady with long red hair, wearing their special red jacket and sash, followed us out and began to pepper us with all sorts of questions. She was a bit shy but seemed genuinely interested in Rennie’s research, but I said we had to go. The Dragoon seemed disappointed, and said she only wanted to know more. “It’s almost as if you’re trying to run away from me,” she said, “as if you don’t like me.” “No, no,” said Rennie. “We just don’t want to miss our flight.” Later, after they found out who had destroyed the nostalgia mill, Rennie and I were both blacklisted from Britain for some time. It was only after the discussions around the Northern Ireland Protocol failed for a 15th time that a magistrate granted the two of us clemency.

bourgeois love

AND THEN I whispered to her, that we are no longer in a cold house in a cold town, and that we are actually beneath a waterfall in a tropical jungle, and she began to purr like a kitten. This was its own kind of love, a sensual love, a true love. Love isn’t only theatre tickets, dresses and ties, dangling earrings, vacation getaways, social media posts, and anniversaries. That’s bourgeois love. Sensual love is another sort of love, an untreated, crude, imperfect and raw love. Just the way I like it.

busy beavers

I WAS UP to my waist in green swamp water. It wasn’t murky or silty and at no point was I scared or did I sense any kind of natural dangers. No water moccasins came swim-slithering by. Instead, I came upon some branches downed in a storm and began tossing them in the direction of some cypresses. A few beavers had taken refuge there and were busy building something. Building, building, busy beavers. I can’t say they were the most endearing of creatures. Big teeth, paddle tails, semiaquatic rodents. They were grateful for the donations though, and went at once to work diving and building and chomping. As for me, it was time to ramble on. I crawled out of the swamps and got on a white bus bound to somewhere. I was interviewing a German scientist in the back. Sandy-haired, looked like a thinner, kinder Dolph Lundgren. He had done his postdoc at Universitäten Neustrelitz. A chemist by training. I went to check my recording device and when I looked back, he had changed appearances and was now African American. I kept blinking at him, but he couldn’t understand what had happened either. Had I been hallucinating? How does that happen? The bus finally arrived to its destination, and I could see the publishing house was having a street party. There were bins of books and long tables covered in white tablecloths. Baskets of calzones and fist-sized falafels. Floppy Neapolitan pizzas with runny melted mozzarella. Women in summer bonnets. The academy instructors were there. Everyone was talking.

lost book of erotica

SOMEHOW I CAME to possess an illustrated book of erotica. It was new, or at least some of the illustrations were in color. I was sitting upstairs in an alcove thumbing its pages when Sonja came in. I hadn’t seen her in a while, and was kind of surprised by her appearance. Where had she been all this time? Sonja wore a long bright red dress with a white sweater on top, and seemed quite happy to see me. To be brief, I was quickly seduced. Her yellow hair tangled loosely halfway down her back. I hadn’t kissed a woman who was that beautiful in a very long time, if ever. It felt so good to be kissed. What did she want with me anyway? Then, just as soon as Sonja had appeared, she was gone, but with my book of erotica tucked away under her dress somewhere. I went out into town to find her but she eluded me. The Hanseatic Days Festival was on and the streets were so colorful and vibrant and crowded with sellers and customers. There were antiques for sale, old books, street corner musicians, sauna demonstrations and the like. Someone was roasting a pig. Ruta came by with her new lesbian lover, but I was confused because she used to be married to a man and they had a bunch of children. Was this big switch to be believed or was it just a passing phase? I ignored the both of them and kept looking for Sonja and my illustrated book of erotica. It wasn’t such a great book, you know, but it was mine, and I wanted to find Sonja and kiss her. Miguelito was there and we got to talking by the water fountain. While we were talking, I noticed that another woman was climbing a cherry tree in the park. I watched as she got out on one of the branches, loaded with pink blossoms, saw me from afar, and then toppled and tumbled down into the bushes. I started to dig through the old books on sale nearby, hoping that perhaps Sonja had left the book there, or traded it in for something new. There was an old copy of Kon-Tiki and a Soviet atlas, but I couldn’t find the lost book of erotica. It was Sonja’s to enjoy for now and forever. Wherever she was.

north one-two-five

ONE DAY I was in Lapland with Riho and Alar. They were teaching me how to cross country ski. I couldn’t recall how we had all decided to head up there, but there we were. I had a good set of new skis too, just perfect for freestyle. Riho in particular was a strong skier and seemed to know the terrain quite well. “You just don’t have vistas like these down in Estonia,” he said. He was right. There were long, descending slopes that just went on and on, past lines and lines of pines. It was like butter. The freshly fallen snow billowed up like smoke and it only kept snowing. I was happy there but the following day was less happy. That was the day my daughter and I were driving around Kharkiv pulling Ukrainians from the wreckage of ruined buildings. Another Russian missile strike, the bastards. One woman was trapped up on the second floor and we had to pull her free from the rubble. She was a middle-aged singer in a black dress with red curls. She alone had survived. The poor woman had been living indoors since Christmas and hadn’t taken down her decorations, so they were now strewn about in the rubble, the broken pipes and shards of glass and concrete, the plaster and sheetrock, the blinking ornaments. My daughter wanted to keep rescuing people, but I told her that if we kept going like that, someone would need to rescue us or even worse. Besides, the next morning I had to attend a climate change conference in Stockholm. Some denialists were giving a talk at a posh hotel by T-Centralen, but I was surly and disagreeable and interrupted them. The police were called, of course, and I managed to evade them in the kitchen. But the police went in there too, asking to see everybody’s passports. I stole a white coat and pretended to be the sous chef and made it out the back door, but then realized that I had left the cat in the room — North 125 — and had to go back to get her. When I made it back to the room, I saw four officers standing around the door, pounding on it. I didn’t know what to do so I just approached them. “Excuse me,” I said, “but do you happen to be looking for me?” After I was released from jail, I went to get a coffee at a Chinese restaurant. It turned out the owner had assaulted his girlfriend and also done time for it, though he insisted it had all been in self defense, and that she had attacked him first. He was a young kid, maybe 25, with a baby face, and seemed kind enough. It was hard to imagine he had done it, but I decided to leave anyway. I didn’t want to wind up back in the slammer and, anyway, what kind of person drinks coffee at a Chinese restaurant? I went to find another café and rode my bike all the way down the avenue. I saw posters for the elections everywhere, but there was no café open at that hour. I thought about going back to Lapland instead. Maybe there was a good café up there? Some place with warm pastries and cocoa, hot espresso and hot Sámi women? Maybe Riho and Alar were still waiting for me? The skiing had really been wonderful up north and there was no war.

talking blues

LAST NIGHT I GOT TO TALK about the blues with Volkonski (the title of our discussion at the Pärimusmuusika Ait was “can a white man understand the blues”). It’s part of a series of discussions where a foreigner discusses the music of their homeland. I chose the blues to represent the US, because, as Morgan Freeman says, the blues is America’s classical music. We listened to Muddy Waters (“Got My Mojo Working“), John Lee Hooker (“Decoration Day“), Howlin’ Wolf (“Little Red Rooster“), Willie Dixon (“Hoochie Coochie Man“), Robert Johnson (“Hellhound on My Trail“) and I insisted on including Jimi Hendrix (“Machine Gun“). We also played “Commit a Crime” off The Rolling Stones’ 2016 Blue & Lonesome album and a tune by Gary Moore. For modern day tastes, I included The Black Keys (“Crawlin Kingsnake“) off Delta Kream (2021).

I was asked about how I found out about the blues. My memory failed me, but on the way home, I remembered watching The Blues Brothers on TV when I was about eight or nine years old, and telling my third grade teacher, Mrs. Vreeland, the next day that I couldn’t do my math homework, because “I was too busy watching The Blues Brothers.” That movie included performances by John Lee Hooker, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and even Cab Calloway (yes, he was still alive). Years later, in high school, a friend and I picked up the “mission from god,” and formed our own soul band (which needs to reform).

During the discussion, we also discussed blues folklore. The West African origins of the word “mojo”, which comes from the Fula language and means “witchcraft,” or what exactly a John the Conqueroo Root is. I also described the concept of a nation sack, where a person, usually a woman, collects some personal items of a man she wants to control, and keeps them in a tiny sack that she carries on her at all times. I also was asked to define the term “Hoochie Coochie Man.” “Hooch” is liquor, and moonshine in particular. “Cooch” is slang for a woman’s sex organs. A “Hoochie Coochie Man” likes drinking and sex. The Estonian translation was “handsa-tussu mees” or “puskari-vittu mees.” A “kõva vend” as Prince Peeter Volkonski said.

The blues were the music of the lower classes along the Delta, the Mississippi River, and later in the northern cities. It was the music of the Hoovervilles made of cardboard and metal houses, of gambling and prostitution, and crime, in general. It was the music of people who didn’t know when they were born, or could barely write. It was called the devil’s music. But, as Volkonski said, you could listen to the gospel in church in the mornings and sing the blues all night.

We agreed that a white man could understand (“mõista” also translates as intuit, or recognize) the blues, but we weren’t sure if a European could ever play it with as much grease, dirt, and soul as Muddy Waters or John Lee Hooker. It gets inside you, but it’s almost impossible to copy. Many have tried, but only few have succeeded. He praised the Stones’ album as being as close to the genuine article as you could get. “It’s almost as if it was recorded by a completely different band,” he said. Volkonski loves this music and spoke passionately about it. He’s a true Blues Brother or “bluusivend.”

dead sea

THE HEADLINE READ, “McCartney Dies! Ringo Last Living Beatle!” and there was a photo of Mr. Starr giving the peace sign. I folded up the newspaper and tossed it back on the counter at the seaside bar. One of the natural attractions was the wreck of a ship more or less on shore, and you could walk out on its rusty deck and look over the edge into the roar of the sea, if you dared. There were other families on the ship’s deck and I noticed, with some concern, how a child dove off into the water and swam back, safely. Of course, my daughter wanted to swim too, and before I could say no, she went over the edge, into that swirling froth. I thought about diving in after her, but soon after she was back on deck dripping wet. On the way back to the hotel, Lata ambushed me. She had been hiding in the bushes. She told me she wanted a baby, but I said it was an impossibility. “Please, please, please,” she said. “I love you.” I told her it was impossible. “If I have any more children, I’ll just die. And that’s the beginning and end of it.” I felt rotten about the whole thing and went back to the hotel room. It looked over a vast swimming pool, but there was something lifeless about it. “Dead Sea,” I quipped to myself. Where was this, anyway? The Bahamas? The Canaries? All these places looked the same. Later, Ramon came by to pick me up. He cruised up in his convertible and off we went. Latrell was in the back seat. He kept putting his legs on me and I kept pushing them off. He was in a bad mood too — was it McCartney’s demise that had rankled everyone? — but Ramon kept telling us that McCartney had really died back in 1966 in a car accident, and it was only his replacement, William Campbell, who had died. Or maybe he had also died and this was just another replacement? How many McCartneys were there? I felt bad for Ringo. He was the oldest one, and now this? What a rare honor, to be the last of a quartet. I’d had enough of dead ships and dead seas, dead heroes and and dead everything. I needed to find another island, to get away for a while. As soon as we pulled up to the little supermercato, I gave them all the slip.

enough space

I WAS IN ENGLAND or maybe Scotland. Some larger UK city with Georgian architecture, but nothing recognizable. I was looking for a cash machine, but there were none around. There was a café toward the ends of one wing, but nothing else there. Just some city folks drinking lousy coffee and an old man selling Cornish pasties. While I was searching, I encountered a young family with two sons who recognized me. They were fans of my work, and I was happy to sign autographs, but they would not quit pestering me. I lost my temper. We were by the main door and I sprinted across the street to get away, into another gold-bricked mansion. This, as I found out later, was the main building of the regional NHS Trust. I did find an ATM and withdrew some crisp banknotes. They had not yet replaced the queen with the new king. Vesta was there waiting. Vesta’s had a hard time of it. She always does. She is a firestorm woman of uncertain circumstances. We began to leave the center together, and I was surprised when she wanted to do it right there at an intersection. There’s a kind of desperation with her that is so satisfying. Many long for comfort, for security. They want to be held and never let go of, preferably by someone with a good-paying job and of sufficient emotional fortitude. Not Vesta. She’s a monsoon, and that only makes it doubly satisfying. “No, no, no,” I told her, “Everyone will see us! Let’s go back to my place.” At my place, we climbed the stairs and went into a closet. There were people downstairs having some lunch. I could hear them eating, but we felt safe and there was just enough space.

stig’s slingshot

IT WAS A SCATTERED and disjointed scene, as are most parties at the Depps’ house. I use Depps, plural, as due to some tinkering with the space-time continuum, or other freak accident, there are now two of them, and they are both the same Johnny. There is a 40-ish Depp, the one who starred in The Curse of the Black Pearl, and then a much older one, the graying, grandpa Depp, about to star in some future, unpenned installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The older Johnny Depp gives the younger one pointers, but they don’t always see eye to eye. Sometimes the younger one listens, sometimes not. Because they host so many events, these discussions are usually around trivial matters, where to place the beer keg, for example, or what kinds of wine to serve. If you remember correctly, there is a back living room with plush couches, a large, open central area, complete with a kitchen and well-lit by skylights, and then another room beyond that, where the boys and girls like to play billiards and there’s even a juke box with records by the Electric Prunes and Amboy Dukes and “Rumble” by Link Wray. Beyond the billiard-juke box room, there is a smaller space. This is where Depp, Sr. and Depp, Jr. keep the wine. The wine room. There’s whiskey in there too. Cognac. The man (or men) likes to drink. Of course, someone had to bring a python to one of these things. It was the night that Stig was over to host another murder mystery. Stig, as you know, carries a slingshot in his back pocket for protection. One can never be too careful. Considering I was stuck in Johnny Depp’s liquor stash, cornered by this tropical snake, I thought it would be an apt time for him to wield it. But he said no. Not only did he only use the slingshot on special occasions, but he didn’t want to get his suit dirty. Then he told me the snake was my problem. Stig turned off the lights, shut the door, and went back to hosting.