|Sunday 19th September 1999: wondering whether maybe I really should steal the knife and fork.|
I first went to Mexico in September 1999. For most of the previous five years I had been nurturing a growing obsession with the country and its history, and had arrived at the point where I just had to go there. A person who can name every aircraft manufactured by Lockheed-Tristar since 1950 in order of suggested tire pressure, yet has never been near an airfield let alone inside a plane, invites mockery, most of which will almost certainly be justified; and so it was with myself. I had begun to form strong opinions on Tlatilco and Zacatenco phase pottery fragments, and thus through the combined power of obsession and the need to maintain some sense of self-respect was I driven to acquire a passport and a plane ticket.
I was thirty-four years old and had never been outside the country of my birth, unless you count Wales; and nor had I ever had any strong desire to visit other lands prior to the whole Mexican thing; which seems peculiar now that I'm living in Texas. In any case, in terms of world travel this was probably the equivalent of flying before you've learned how to walk. I had spent a year or so idly dipping into spoken Spanish without any conspicuous success, and here I was travelling alone to a place on the opposite side of the world where I would almost certainly be kidnapped and bummed, or so just about everyone I knew believed. I lived in South East London and had reasoned that Mexico City would probably be similar in some respects. Whilst I'd probably be useless in a fight, I had done my best to develop invisibility, or at least that level of confidence that allows one to pass through shitty neighbourhoods without drawing too much attention, or looking too much like you're trying to avoid drawing attention.
To leap ahead, Mexico City actually was like South East London in some respects - warmer, with better food, better public transport and a lot more Mexicans - but essentially similar. I didn't have any trouble, but lacking an ability to see into the future, I had no foreknowledge from which to take comfort on the evening of Sunday the nineteenth of September, my last night in England, the night before I popped my international travel cherry. It wasn't that I necessarily anticipated disaster, or anything at all for that matter. I was unable to imagine what the next two weeks would hold. My state of mind was understandably that of someone about to make a huge leap into the unknown because that was what I was going to do.
Kind words of advice and understanding came to me that evening when the phone rang and Theban Dang suggested that once on board the aircraft, I might like to steal the knife and fork.
I knew Theban through Andy, the singer and lyricist for UNIT with whom I played guitar and keyboards. Andy worked for the patients' council of a large East London hospital specialising in care of the mentally unwell, and had met Theban in this capacity.
The story had been that Theban, a young Vietnamese man in his early twenties was apprehended one evening by members of Her Majesty's constabulary, some routine enquiry which went horribly wrong when Theban's poor grasp of the English language was taken for belligerence. Being a formidable practitioner of various martial arts, he supposedly put about eight officers in hospital before they got him into the van, then one thing led to another and he was incorrectly diagnosed as mentally ill and binned up, as they say.
Well, that's the version I heard, and it's true that whilst Theban struck me as being one of a kind, he never seemed like someone who might necessarily require psychiatric care. By the time I met him, his grasp of English had improved sufficient for communication, and certainly it was better than my Vietnamese. I'd gone over to see Andy one day, and Theban was there, sitting around drinking tea and cadging cigarettes.
'Will you please explain human evolution to Theban,' Andy pleaded, apparently having run out of patience. It might seem an unusual request, but I'd been reading a bit of Dawkins here and there, and Andy enjoyed discussing that sort of thing, and had been making admirable but possibly doomed efforts to engage Theban with subjects other than fighting and gambling.
'What do you want to know?'
'People they all come from Africa, right?' Theban had an arresting turn of phrase, a haphazard grammar which worked for him by virtue of a sly smile - which may just have been his face in repose - and a friendly tone which nevertheless suggested that even if he was interested, he wasn't going to lose any sleep over whatever it was you were saying. 'Cavemen and that they all come from Africa?'
I nodded and started to dredge up what I'd read of our supposed origins - Lucy, Australopithecus and so on - without much conviction as I wasn't entirely sure this was what he was after.
Andy gave me a sympathetic look that said he had tried his best.
'That don't make sense.' Theban wandered off towards the kitchen, shaking his head. 'Where Chinky come from?'
This was the first time I'd heard an Asiatic person use the term Chinky. It was sort of horrifying and yet funny. I'd only previously heard it used by inbred rural heavy metal fans in reference to takeaway food.
'How do you mean?' I asked. 'I guess Chinese people came from Africa just like everyone else.'
Theban wasn't convinced. 'Chinky not come from Africa. Where Chinky come from innit?'
Andy shrugged. How do you argue with that?
Months later, on the eve of the first day of the rest of my life, I picked up the telephone wondering which of those people I regarded as friends had called to wish me well and tell me not to drink the water.
'Lawrence. Andy say you going to Mexico innit.'
Bewildered, and unable to mistake the speaker for anyone but Theban, I said that this was true.
'Who you fly with?'
'British Airways. The flight is in the morning at—'
'Listen. When you get on plane they give you nice meal innit. Like chicken.'
I said that I didn't know, never having flown before.
He assured me that there almost certainly would be a meal, then went into detail, describing how I might steal cutlery by slipping it into my pocket while the stewardess wasn't looking. This done, I could then ask for more cutlery, innocently adopting the position of having been overlooked when the meals were handed out.
I tried to digest this information, falling silent for a moment.
Theban took my silence for a lack of confidence in his plan. 'They not find out. It easy innit,' he reassured me. 'Put knife and fork in pocket. Say miss I got no knife and fork and you get another innit. They give you it. They know nothing. Then you get off plane when you land and you got knife and fork. They not find out.'
I could tell he regarded this plan as foolproof.
'I er,' - I didn't even know where to begin. 'Why would I want to steal their knife and fork?'
'No,' he insisted. 'You wait for waitress to go away, then you put them in pocket innit. They not find out.'
The conversation carried on like this for another twenty minutes. Theban wasn't taking no for an answer, and God I wish I'd been able to record it. I explained that I already owned several knives and forks of my own, but he didn't really understand why I wouldn't want more. Eventually, keen to get Theban off the phone so that I might sit down and recover, I said I'd consider stealing the British Airways knife and fork if the opportunity arose.
The next evening I was in Mexico City, an entire new world opened up before me. My first flight was amazing, and I'd spent the whole eight hours with my face pressed up against the porthole like an excitable dog on a long car journey, and with all the euphoria, I somehow forgot to steal the knife and fork. Perhaps ultimately it doesn't really matter whether I stole the British Airways knife and fork so much as that I had considered the endless possibilities, even if only just for a second.