1. The Triumph of Capitalism
It was the end of the cold war and capitalism had won. Everywhere people were either out of a job or making obscene amounts of money. If you didn’t have a plan and a German car you were nobody.
Because I could tell you were about to leave me, I had to come up with a grand gesture.
We were sitting in the lobby of the American hotel, where the walls are painted gold and the rooms cost three times my annual salary. You were wearing your best dress and I was wearing my new suit and sunglasses because I’d spent the day going to job interviews. I’d been thrown out of the army along with everyone else.
Businessmen were prowling the edges of the room like lions. They were looking for sexy gazelles. They all noticed the way the light reflected off the gold-painted walls and lit up your face.
Spooked, I told you I’d buy you anything you wanted. So you asked for a submarine fleet. It totally served me right.
2. Sergei the Submarine Salesman
I got together with a bunch of likeminded investors. We were men of vision who saw the big picture and we were going to remake the world. We hired a retired submarine Captain called Yuri who drank too much and told us stories of playing cat and mouse with the Americans for forty years under the arctic sea. During a long and distinguished career he’d made more than seventy-two circuits of the globe and been married five times. Then the oligarchs had taken over and stolen everything, including his fifth wife.
We stood in the conning tower of a reconditioned Victor III class submarine fifty miles out to sea off Archangelsk, smoking brutally strong cigarettes in the grey dawn light.
The air was so cold it smelt like iron.
‘She displaces seven thousand tons, and she’ll give you fifty five kilometres an hour at top speed,’ Sergei the submarine salesman was telling us. ‘Power source is two pressurized water reactors. Safe, but don’t stand too close, you know?’
‘What about the crew?’ said Captain Yuri.
‘Usual crew complement is twenty seven officers, thirty five warrant officers and thirty five enlisted men; but you can probably get away with a third of that.’
‘Probably?’ I said.
‘Underwater endurance is ninety days,’ Sergei continued. ‘Armament is two six hundred and fifty millimetre torpedo tubes here and here, and four five hundred and thirty three millimetre torpedo tubes over there… somewhere.’
‘Is his name really Sergei?’ I whispered.
‘Obviously not. No.’
‘If you want something that packs a bit more punch, I know a man with a couple of discontinued Akula-class Typhoons. Can I ask if you gentlemen plan to launch any ballistic missiles?’
We all looked at each other.
I wondered: did we?
3. Leonid’s Broken Heart
We tracked down likely looking crewmembers from Astrakhan to Vladivostok, acting on tip-offs we’d picked up in former navy bars, in towns that were now miles from dried up inland seas. We found desperate men working in the Kazakh oilfields, in the coalmines of Siberia, riding horses on the steppes of Uzbekistan.
We weren’t above the odd bit of press-ganging, when it suited our purposes.
‘Lads,’ Captain Yuri told our unwilling teenage recruits, as we moved silently beneath the surface of the Black Sea, ‘think of this as a gap year. You’ll come home with hair on your chest and thrilling tales of the ladies of the mysterious orient.’
Our First Mate Leonid came highly recommended from the academy in St Petersburg. He was still nursing a broken heart. The love of his life had gone back to Chechnya after the declaration of independence.
‘She never could get the Caucasian dirt out of her hair,’ he said, tearfully.
Every evening he played his guitar and sang love songs that he’d written for her. There were songs about her beautiful eyes, and the dresses she wore, and the long evenings in the mountains, and how difficult she’d found it to adapt to life in St Petersburg, and how he wanted to be a ghost and haunt the dust that rose at her footsteps.
It was depressing stuff.
Eventually we had to ask him to stop for the sake of morale.
Other than that, he was a model submariner and everyone in the crew loved him.
4. The Sex Life of Plants
We took over the abandoned secret submarine base on Simushir Island, five hundred miles north of Japan. The base was built inside the flooded caldera of an extinct volcano. You could have hidden half the Soviet navy in there and nobody would have known.
Fogs rolled in from the Pacific and the Sea of Okhotsk. We walked along the empty beaches and saw brown bears hunting for clams down by the waterline. Inland the streams were so thick with salmon you could walk from one bank to the other without getting your feet wet
It rained all the time.
At night we lay in our cots in the draughty barracks, listening to the wind and the grumbling of the volcanoes up and down the Kuril archipelago. We wrote letters home and played cards and memorised the names of the fifteen different species of sea bird that nested on the island.
The Whiskered Auklet
Steller’s Sea Eagle
The Short Tailed Albatross
The Black Guillemot
The Rhinoceros Auklet
The Horned Puffin
The Fork-Tailed Storm-Petrel
One morning we were surprised by a party of Japanese eco-tourists who had anchored in the bay. We stared enviously at their beautiful and well-equipped cruise ship. They even had a helicopter.
They told us that they’d come to see the island’s unique flora and fauna, having heard so much about it from their grandparents. Before the Russians had invaded at the end of the Second World War, they explained, most of these islands had belonged to Japan. Before that they’d belonged to the Ainu people.
Nobody knew who the islands had belonged to before the Ainu people.
We did our best to provide a warm welcome. In the evenings we all sat around campfires and told stories. We shared our rations, and our new guests gave us lectures and did slide shows.
‘Robinson San,’ Professor Ozaki the tour leader told me as we enjoyed a tin of decades-old caviar and a bottle of plum brandy, ‘your undersea mission is an honourable one. I’ve spent most of my career investigating the sex life of plants, so I know a thing or two about grand romantic gestures. I hope your girlfriend is impressed.’
‘I hope so too, Ozaki Sensei,’ I said. ‘I hope so too.’
I didn’t tell him that you rarely answer my letters.
5. Fuchi’s Punishment
To celebrate the spirit of friendship we put together a joint scientific expedition to climb one of the volcanoes at the southern end of the Island. For three days we surveyed the scorched earth and planted insect traps among the dwarf pines. Every morning Professor Ozaki’s 17-year-old daughter Chizuko got up before dawn to check the traps. She sang traditional Japanese folk songs to herself while she released the night’s haul of groggy-looking spiders back into the undergrowth.
In the Ainu culture the goddess of spiders is called Yushkep. She is often called on to assist in childbirth, on account of her long, spidery fingers. The goddess of the hearth is called Fuchi. She is the guardian of the home and the judge of all domestic affairs.
Those who fail to maintain proper domestic relationships incur her punishment.
After three days we were chased off the summit of the volcano by a terrific thunderstorm. As we packed up the tents hailstones ricocheted off the rocks like AK47 rounds. Seconds before every lightning strike our hair would stand on end. We couldn’t get the smell of ozone out of our clothes for weeks.
When we got back to the base we were informed that Engineer Pavel had been mauled by a bear and three of the junior officers had stolen a dinghy and struck out for Sakhalin under cover of darkness.
6. A Lazy Beetle is No Better Than a Cockroach
We needed money. We successfully pitched to run the North Atlantic cocaine route for one of the more enterprising Colombian drug cartels. Every two weeks we made the journey from the Caribbean to South West Spain, where we unloaded our cargo a couple of miles off the Costa de la Luz. In the dawn light the barren hills above Zahara de Los Atunes gazed blankly down on us as we waited for the speedboats.
The cartel gave us two goons to make sure we didn’t disappear with the merchandise. Their names were Hector and Hector. They wore beautiful shirts and looked like identical twins. They spent their days smoking everyone else’s cigarettes and gambling in the mess hall.
They told us all about women.
‘Women are more dangerous than cocaine,’ said Hector Number One.
‘Women are more dangerous than the Brazilian Wandering Spider, which is the most dangerous spider in the world.’
‘One bite from a Brazilian Wandering Spider,’ said Hector Number Two, ‘you get a parolito that lasts for three days. You are like Superman, ey? Then your chimbo falls off. Then you die.’
Hector and Hector’s proudest possessions were a pair of racing beetles, which they kept in separate matchboxes. They slept with the matchboxes under their pillows. The beetles were named Campo Elías Delgado and Griselda Blanco. Back home in Cartagena, Hector and Hector told us, these two beetles were famous. It was a point of honour that neither had ever lost a race.
Every morning the beetles were given a run out on the long steel mess hall tables. Their feet made tiny clicking sounds as they scrabbled for grip, trying to escape the cigarette smoke that Hector Number One blew at them through a straw.
‘The worst thing you can do to a racing beetle is let him get lazy,’ Hector Number Two explained to us. ‘A lazy beetle is no better than a cockroach.’
‘And what do we do to cockroaches?’ asked Hector Number One.
Hector Number Two took off one of his two-thousand-dollar snakeskin loafers and slammed it on the steel table tabletop.
The two little beetles jumped three inches in the air.
7. What Happened to Anton the Cook
Anton the cook had a heart attack and died fifty miles off the Cape Verde Islands. We held a short service on deck and buried him at sea at sunset. The surface of the water was as still and dark as glass. A huge flock of migrating seabirds flew overhead and the Hectors took turns on the anti-aircraft gun, trying to bring down as many of them as they could. Their tracer bullets lit up the evening sky like fireworks.
Captain Yuri offered me a cigarette.
‘Some of the lads are getting itchy,’ he said, as we watched the display.
‘Itchy, how?’ I said.
‘What do you recommend?’
‘It just so happens I know a place in Mindelo on Sao Vincente. Very discrete. The landlady owes me a few favours.’
‘How many favours?’ I asked.
‘She was my second wife,’ he said.
A cheer went up from the men as Hector number two managed to hit one of the birds with a tracer. It plunged into the sea in flames.
That night we set a course for Mindelo harbour.
8. Who Controls the Means of Production
‘I was a nurse,’ said Senora Carilda Oliver Cejas Morales, as she picked up her twelfth glass of pontche. It was four in the morning and we were sitting on the terrace watching the lights of boats down in the harbour. ‘Angola. Nineteen Seventy-Six. Before that, the army, obviously. Viva Cuba.’
She downed the drink and puffed on her gigantic cigar. She was a formidable woman. At 60 she still looked like she could knock out a horse. I could see what Captain Yuri saw in her.
‘Of course, it was a marriage of convenience,’ she continued. ‘I wanted to see Moscow’.
‘It wasn’t all that convenient for me,’ said Captain Yuri, refilling her glass.
‘Don’t be so bourgeois Yuri.’
They saluted each other with their drinks, then knocked them back.
Senora Cejas Morales ran the only collectivised brothel in the islands. It was possibly the only collectivised brothel in the world. The workers were all unionised. They all received equal wages as well as a share in any profits. They had free healthcare and free contraception. There were no pimps. Every year they elected a president, and every year it was Senora Cejas Morales.
There was a six-foot high painting of her in the parlour. She was holding an AK47. ‘It reminds our clients who controls the means of production,’ she’d told the boys before they were led off upstairs.
Even the two Hectors behaved themselves impeccably in her presence. She had promised Hector Number One a ride on her horse, Simon Bolivar, next time we were in town.
‘The concept of romantic love is just that: romantic,’ she went on. ‘It’s narcissistic nonsense. Not to mention selfish. Love of an idea, a cause, even a people – now that makes sense.’
She pointed at me
‘But you’re young,’ she said. ‘I don’t expect you to understand.’
‘He’s doing all this to impress a woman,’ said Captain Yuri. Senora Cejas Morales pushed the bottle towards me. ‘Then the revolutionary council rests its case,’ she said.
9. The First African Woman in Space
The cocaine business was taking its toll on the sub. The propellers were all over the place and the Geiger counters in the missile hold were starting to make worrying noises. We needed to find a friendly port to carry out repairs.
We didn’t have many options.
We made a deal with a failed African state and laid up for two weeks. The cartel gave Hector and Hector permission to advance us five million dollars to smooth things over with the local warlord. In return he invited us all to spend a weekend at his country retreat.
He was the fattest man any of us had ever met. He wore gold tracksuits and treated us to spectacular feasts at his hundred-foot long dining table and took us on safari in his swamp.
He told us that he’d lost count of the number of wives he had. It had got to the point where most of the local women claimed to be one of his wives whether they were or not. It made their lives easier. After all, no one was going to mess with the wife of a man famous for his sense of honour, his long memory and his unshakeable belief in the value of extreme violence.
‘When I was fifteen,’ he told us, as our horses picked their way through the flooded grassland, ‘I fell in love with a girl who worked in the bowling alley in Bafatá. She was the most beautiful girl for fifty miles. Everyone knew it. But she wasn’t interested in getting involved with boys. She wanted to be an astronaut. She wanted to be the first African woman in space.’
Upfront the two Hectors signalled for us all to stop. They’d spotted elephants.
‘And so I came up with a plan,’ our host went on. ‘I was going to build her a rocket. Then there would be no way for her not to fall in love with me.’
He lit a cigar and shouted up to the Hectors. ‘Bazooka, I think.’ Hector Number Two unswung his bazooka and lifted it on to his shoulder.
‘Obviously this was going to take investment. Space programmes don’t come cheap. Especially not in this country. There’s the talent shortage, for a start. Raw materials. Infrastructure. So that’s when I had to start killing people for money.’
Hector Number One took another look through his binoculars and said something to Hector Number Two. Hector Number Two adjusted the sights on the bazooka.
‘By the time I’d made my first million she’d been dead from malaria for ten years.’
There was a woosh and a distant explosion and then it started raining elephant.
Under his umbrella our fat host sobbed, his great bulk shaking like it was the end of the world.
10. The Northernmost Grand Piano in the World
We were starting to get rich. We bought another submarine and leased it to the Spanish so they could take over the North Atlantic cocaine franchise. Hector and Hector surprised us all by deciding to stay on. They wanted to see the world, Hector Number One told us shyly.
‘And lots of chimba, ey!’ added Hector Number Two.
We headed north, following the mid-Atlantic ridge up to Iceland and then on towards Svalbard, 500 miles inside the Arctic Circle.
Heavy snow was falling on the sea as we sailed up the Isfjorden. It was late in the year, and the light was already beginning to fail. On either side of us the ancient, treeless mountains loomed. We passed the town of Longyearben and sailed on towards the abandoned coal mining settlement at Pyramiden.
Ice was starting to thicken the water at the edges of the dock where we came ashore. Snow was settling on the iron skeleton of the old coal works. In a couple of weeks the fjord would be locked up for the winter.
The Arctic wind rolled down from the tops of the mountains and made the fillings in our teeth ring.
We explored the deserted town. We wandered the corridors of the empty hospital and the old sports hall. The dry air had preserved every poster on the walls, every piece of paper in the filing cabinets, every role of film in the projector room of the cultural centre.
Leonid the First Mate found an old Red October grand piano in the concert hall and played us something. Even though it was yet another song about his Caucasian ex-girlfriend, something in the way the chords rolled out of that untuned piano tugged at all our memories.
Everyone had to sit down for a bit and think about what they’d lost.
Captain Yuri thought about his five wives and his son who’d died in Afghanistan in the eighties.
Hector and Hector thought about their mothers.
The boys thought about the love affairs they hadn’t even had the chance to embark on yet.
I thought about you and the light on your face reflecting off the gold walls of the American hotel, roughly ten thousand years ago.
On the way back to the sub we passed a solitary walrus who had got lost on his way to the breeding grounds. He had come ashore to look for signs of his fellows or try to catch the scent of female walrus. Instead he’d found the bust of Lenin that watched over the town.
He was squaring off with the old leader of the people, hoping that if he just stuck to his usual patterns of behaviour then things would eventually start to make sense.
11. What we thought we were trying to prove
We crossed the North Pole under twelve feet of ice and travelled through the Berring Straights and down into the Pacific again. We spent a couple of weeks in Hawaii learning how to surf before we headed into the vast emptiness of the South Pacific Ocean. We skirted the edge of the South West Basin at a depth of two hundred feet as storms roared above us. Six miles below, the Australian and Pacific tectonic plates slow danced in the darkness of the Kermadec trench.
Whales and dolphins followed us around the coast of Australia. Off the horn of Africa we were chased by Somali pirates. In the Phillipines we took up with a group of nomadic fishermen and compared notes on the seagoing life.
Along the way various crew members fell in love and had their hearts broken.
We bought two more submarines and leased them to a Jamaican outfit who were looking to diversify. It was almost getting too easy. We hooked them up with Senora Carilda Oliver Cejas Morales and our warlord friend and all of a sudden we had a full service on offer.
The tales of our enterprise had begun to spread. We were contacted by journalists and documentary filmmakers. They wanted to know what we thought we were trying to prove.
I was beginning to wonder myself.
Twenty miles off Buenos Aires one night I was convinced I could hear tango music at three in the morning. I was up on deck smoking too much. We were heading south again. Phosphorescing microorganisms glowed in our wake for miles.
Why won’t you return my calls?
Do you want me to wrestle an octopus for you? Would that be enough?
What am I supposed to do with the crew?
Eventually the inevitable happened and Hector and Hector fell out over an obscure South American point of honour. Nobody really understood what it was about.
The duel took place on a former prison island in the Southern Indian Ocean. It wasn’t much more than a rock. It had been uninhabited for over fifty years, except for a colony of Adelie penguins that had turned up one morning after a hurricane. They eyed us all suspiciously as the Hectors paced out the duelling ground in the dawn light. Thankfully the booming surf drowned out their endless, irritated barking.
‘You don’t have to do this,’ I shouted at Hector Number One.
He paused and cupped his ear at me.
I walked over to him. In the grey light the sand under my feet was as white as bone.
‘You don’t have to do this.’
‘Of course I have to do this,’ he said. ‘You can’t have a duel if only one person turns up.’
He was wearing a crisp white shirt and white trousers. Hector Number Two, who was moving the sand around with his foot twenty yards away, had the same outfit on. They looked fantastic.
When they turned and fired everyone held their breath.
12. The Romantic Barents Sea
Up on the surface, two hundred mile-an-hour winds have been churning up the Southern Ocean for over a week now. Waves as thick as blood roll over our heads. The sky is probably spectacular.
With nowhere much to go we drift on the Weddell Gyre, drawing up plans. Leonid has started writing songs again. We take this to be a good sign.
The maximum operating depth of this submarine is around 3,500 feet. Beyond that, the pressure would buckle our hull. So we hang here in the endless blue, between this world and the next, listening to the blip of the sonar and snatches of whale song.
Sergei the submarine salesman reckoned we could last ninety days without surfacing. We have food and supplies for twice that. We move around the ship quietly, conserving energy. Our heart rates have slowed right down.
We are in no rush.
In the spring our Baltic fleet will slip anchor and set sail. Our resolve is mighty. We will spend our summers off Novaya Zemlya, in the middle of the romantic Barents Sea. We will winter on the edge of the Challenger Deep.
And when the time comes we will surface off capital cities around the world and rain our atomic love down upon them.
And then you’ll know how much you mean to me.