The Lubrication Zone

There are thirteen months in the Lubrication Zone

I was hurrying towards my only appointment for months when the trap shut. The Martians had got me again. There was nothing important in the offing, merely a film crew waiting for me to play sleazy gweilo number three, but this time the Martian Snafu Ray hit me in the very seat of my humanity: my car. They had timed it so that the car belched, hissed and expired just as I was turning the corner into a little place in The New Territories called Nowhere Convenient. Then to tighten their death grip on my sense of well being, Ali in his oily pyjamas, smiling a yellow-toothed smile, emerged from the stacked rotting wrecks of "Ali's Asian Lubrication Zone," saying, "It is just a burst radiator. It will be ready tomorrow morning."       So I went home to stare at the telephone and wonder what the hell I was doing in this place! My agent was dying to call me with good news though. He was bound to be out pounding the streets of LA and London, simultaneously, trying to rescue me, trying to get me back into the swing of the Western world I had somehow slipped away from.
But tomorrow came without the call and I took my trip to the Lubrication Zone only to be greeted by Ali's, "Is it tomorrow already?"
Is it, I wondered?
Taking taxis to "Nowhere Convenient" is grueling at the best of times, especially if the driver is on the fifty sixth hour of a fifty five hour shift and thus mentally dive-bombing busses to keep awake, but, frankly, I think taking taxis back home again is even worse. Why? You can never go back home, but my impatience, my ennui, was of no importance to Ali.
"B-B-But ..." I stammered, on the next visit, this time in a taxi with a dashboard display of seven dwarves on springs, "The engine you are now putting in is twice the price of the engine you said you were putting in."
"Twice as good," explained Ali, on his haunches with his cousins, sifting through the smoking remnants of the first engine installation attempt.
"OK!" I said, "Just get on with it; otherwise it'll be another wasted day."
"Wasted?" Ali pondered this concept. "But if you wait, you will have a car. That is not a waste."
Maybe he could tell from my stereotypical western purple-faced look of exasperation that I needed placating in some way. And as steam rose off me, Ali looked at the Prophet's words inscribed in Urdu upon a plaque on the wall, and held out his two hands as if weighing up all possibilities. Then he made a number of irate phone calls featuring expletives in four different languages, none of which got me a new engine. Ali took it all in good part.
"We charge by the hour, by the way," he added, "but for you it is a specially long hour."       He grinned. Ali was making a sort of joke. I sort of laughed, but even so, my sixth sense told me that at home my agent was leaving frantic messages saying I had to be in business class that very evening to take the meetings and schmooze the money, or else the whole deal would be lost. Telling this to Ali would not help, nor would strangling him, though that might have made me feel better. More atavistic behaviour, I thought, not uncommonly displayed in the roles handed out to me by Asian film producers in such epics as "Cop Castrator", in which I played a victim of the eponymous hero.
"Patience," said Ali, sensing my agitation as I relived one of my more painful scenes, "is a virtue."
"Is that what that says?" I said, pointing to the Prophet's words.
"It is a plea for tolerance," he explained, "Blacks, Women, Slaves, are all to be given due respect. Very advanced for its time."
"Hmm," I said, thinking it a pity The Prophet did not write a car-repair manual as well. There was no alternative but to try the serene approach. As I awaited the starter motor's grind, I began to flick through the thumb-stained calendar hanging behind Ali's desk. I flipped over the pages to find every month was September and each year contained thirteen of them.
"I bought that in Sheung Shui market," he explained, "There they are very cheap."
"I bet they are," I said.
"Every year for me," he said, making another sort of joke, "Is a big year."
"That's almost a joke, Ali."
"People do too much chasing about, if you ask me."
"You are a fountainhead of ancient wisdom, Ali. When are you going to have the car fixed?"       As I watched his cousin biting a spark plug and polishing the spark gap on his sleeve, the appeal of Ali's calendar began to make perfect sense. The scribbles and appointments and promises that annotated various dates were all pre-packaged with the excuse: "It is here in black and white, underlined in red. And what is all this inhuman rush for anyway?"
Ali had got me by the credit cards and gained my undivided attention. Trying to forget that frantic phone call my agent must have been making, I told myself not to be so hard on Ali, for maybe there
was wisdom to be gained from this collision of worlds.
Why should not every year be a big year, and why should not every day be as long as it takes? What was fortune, achievement, fame, anyway, when it was merely to be noticed by strangers, or in Ali's case, customers, all of whom spoke stupid and knew no other dialect? So who needed that big deal? Who needed the bank balance, the profile, who needed to add to the accumulated ornaments, trappings, and trivia?       I mean, the novelty of transforming my perennial promising into world beating accomplishment was palling. So why not spend the rest of my life under the Martian yoke watching Ali's uncommonly yellow teeth? There was wisdom indeed! Bugger that, I thought, and went home to call my agent and beg him to make my day.
He was in a meeting, so the secretary told me. "It's nothing important," I said, thinking how another birthday was coming, and that I still did not have a car, nor a career, for that matter.       There was a time though when I, young, righteously impoverished, performed in small theatre venues until I gained a lucrative contract drinking a pint of Old Black for TV advertisements. I had to smile to the camera and wipe the froth off the lip: the F.O.L. moment, as it was annotated in all the scripts. It became a Brand Identifier, a B.I., as
we called it in the business. When they discovered they could B.I. without my lip for the F.O.L, I was sucked under the door by a Martian with a vacuum cleaner who must have read my thoughts concerning fear of returning to abject poverty. He then blew me from the nozzle gasping upon the dried riverbeds of what I like to call international media work. A beer commercial in Dubai, that well known beer drinking capital of the world, led to a spate of work in Africa, India, Australia, and somehow it all gets misty. The drift, the haze, the one air ticket, the one airport, the one beam me up, beam me down, too many that led to worse than Nowhere Convenient, but Nowhere in Particular.
Then many days later, the phone rang. My pulse raced. My sinews stiffened. I thought maybe it was him, the agent telling me good, or perhaps bad, news. I was too young, not young enough, too old, too English, too American, too ... not enough ... dark ... light ... However, it was merely Ali to say the car was ready and that he could not drive it over because it was Ramadan.
I decided to look at the positive side, even if it meant a trip in a taxi through the crazy container dumps and rust fields of an industrial society that disliked paying for sewage processing. But why rant about such things as these? When the time comes, all will be done. That, I was sure, was how Ali would see it. Ali's will be done.
On arrival, suitably dazed, the garage was locked. When I called at Ali's home, a bracing fifteen minute walk away, with the rain, as the Chinese say, hou daaih lohk yu, very big, there were wives and kids and skinny balding dogs all reeking of spices and howling before a TV set. Ali told me he had to call his brother who had the keys.
"I'm glad you've got that organised by now," I said.
"But not to worry, the car is in good condition," explained Ali.
His wife, red lipped and purple chiffoned, offered some galub jamin which I proceeded to drip down the front of my shirt.
"And what brings you here?" she asked with a flash of big brown eyes.       "Shush!" said Ali, giving her a flash of the big evil eye as he headed for the door. She killed him with a mere wag of her finger.
"And tell your fat oaf brother," she added, "that he is not to come round here ordering my maid to clean his car, or I will kick him in his ulcer!"
Then she asked me about my life story: when I married, how many sons, daughters, cousins, and so on, leaving Ali to his shame at having married a pagan. That is assuming he had not merely decided Ramadan a good excuse that I, in my ignorance, would not question. For that matter, that was assuming she was indeed his wife!
"Ah, so you are nearly someone," said Ali's maybe wife, impressed by my description of myself, but then less impressed on hearing my usual coda of betrayal, frustration, and bad luck that my agent's silence had brought me to blurting out in ever increasing bursts of self pity. I tried to explain my theory of the Martian Snafu Vacuum Cleaner Ray, but it only seemed to cause her eyes to glaze over.
"Well," she said, relieved, "He is back."
"We have fixed it brilliantly," said Ali proudly as one of his - or someone's - sweaty and wet brood breathlessly handed me the keys. Both he and his father - uncle? - had run through the rain to and from the brother's house - whose brother?
"It was a tight fit but we shaved a little off here, pushed a little there. A mechanical engineering feat of enormity."
I clutched the keys to my heart and stifled a tear and all interest in the geography of Ali's life.       "Your customer," said his - let us say - wife, "Is almost somebody important. But he is very humble."       "No doubt he has much to be humble about," said Ali, taking my money, and then handing me his business card.
"In case of trouble," he added tapping the side of his nose.
"What sort of trouble?"
"Oh," he said vaguely, "just trouble in general."
"I'll remember that," I said, "During the next missile test or radiation leak, you're my man!"
I shook his hand heartily, the keys reassuringly jangling.
My new engine roared into life, minus a few hoses that were, according to Ali, of no importance. Thus, I prayed, there would be another year of being a step above pedestrian. In fact, I prayed for a lot more but the phone still did not ring, E.T. was dissected, and I played sleazy gweilo number four in a car commercial and thought why am I here in Hong Kong and not in LA? I could think of no good answer other than that Martian Snafu Ray.
Then it was Ministry of Transportation Vehicle Registry Test (MOT) time. Big Hollywood stars would never know the joy and the sorrow of such a moment. Those that lie abed ignorant of such days would count themselves accursed if they knew. And those I despised whose lives consist of little else but MOT's rightfully point at me and say, there, you are not so special after all.
The garage I chose for the MOT was slick, clean, with Chinese mechanics wearing brown overalls and carrying clipboards. They peered under the bonnet, tut tutted and muttered to each other about gong daaih wa a ma! the "Big Talk" they might have to commit themselves to and then phoned back to the main office on their mobile. There was a problem and I had to speak to the one person with the authority to hand out bad news. The Engine, I was told by a much-embarrassed young lady, in impeccable English, had no serial number and that would mean the MOT form could not be properly filled in, at least not without big talk, which was big problem. Now I knew the trouble Ali hinted at.
"Everybody is stupid," explained Ali, as he rescued me. "I personally will get it the required certificate. I will vouch for it. My word will count. I take cash by the way, but a cheque will do. Make it out to Hassan."
"Not Ali?" I enquired.
"Oh no. That is the name of the garage. I am doing this as a personal favour to you."
"And you're not Ali?"
"He was the owner who painted the sign. But that was many owners ago and now we are all Ali. But today I am Hassan. It does not matter as long as the car gets its certificate."
His yellow teeth sparkled crookedly at me. They were, if anything, yellower. As well as the turmeric scrub, he was now slapping on life threatening doses of gloss after coat for a long lasting finish. His twisted teeth, I suspected, would one day be dug up by eight-tentacled, green skinned archaeologists picking over the remnants of our civilisation. They might even find them at Ali's garage and surmise that these must be the sabre toothed Ali's, but they would be wrong. But to Hassan, obscurity was of no concern. To me, though, the end of civilisation was still worth an ulcer or two but next year the car would be one of those rusting hulks heaped high amongst the bamboo and bananas in the backyards of the environmentally challenged. This sleazy gweilo was, yet again, on the road to be righteously kung fu'd.       "You know, What-ever-your-name-is," I said, "I think that's the way everything works. Wars, famines, plagues of pustules and even the decline and fall of the British Empire, are but the background. Whereas the MOT, the Ministry of Transportation Vehicle Test, that's foreground, that's life, that's where the real action is."
Hassan nodded and laughed.
"Yes," he said, "You are making some sort of a joke?"
He probably understood. We were both in the Martian Snafu Vacuum Froth On The Lip Lubrication Zone where everything was slipping and sliding away and the jungle was in danger of reclaiming it all. I laughed. What else could you do?