Who needs to start their day with a scorpion set in resin? Not me. Even if it is part of a beautiful set of bugs and insects set into perfect resin displays, which I can collect for 24 months at a reasonable price of 9.99 (first part special price of 1.99. Sheesh!). The advertisement, aimed at budding entomologists (or collectors of the macabre, take your pick), reminded me of a story I heard when I was a teenager.
My uncle, after several pints and an hour on his fiddle, told us a story about a workmate of his, who went to Saudi Arabia on a job for the telecommunications company they both worked for, some time back in the late seventies I think. Being a man of the mountains and caves, rock-climbing a passionate hobby, the vast open deserts of the middle east were quite a shock to his keen sense of ‘height’.
‘Everything’s so flat!’ I could almost hear him cry as he stuffed his ropes and carabiners back in his kitbag in disgust. Later that night, things would become a little flatter still.
Now, as you probably know, rock-climbing and beer-drinking go together like strawberries and cream (please, never at the same time). Whereas a party of mountaineers will make a descent back to basecamp, a party of rock-climbers will always make their descent to the nearest basepub. So, our hero not only finds himself in a land flatter than a blanche cider with not even a boulder in sight, he also can’t find anywhere to purchase the said blanche cider, being in this land of prohibition as he was. A battered pewter tankard is then thrown back into the kitbag as tears stream down his large, bearded face.
The rock-climber is a canny and resourceful beast however, and it wasn’t long before our hero made the acquaintance of the local – what shall we call him? Entrepreneur? It’s as good enough a name as any – the local entrepreneur, who after much haggling, shekkle swapping and goat bartering, told him of a small ‘secret’ place, hidden some way off in the desert. A place of smoke and mystery… and beer.
That night saw him and his ‘guide’ (entrepreneur by day), set off at twilight and make their way to a small huddle of tents in the middle of nowhere. As soon as they entered the largest of the tents, and our hero’s eyes had adjusted to the smoky, dim atmosphere, a little man of wide proportions greeted them with a huge sickle-moon smile, all teeth and good humour. They were seated at a small, low table, on a nest of cushions and the ‘beer’ began to flow. It wasn’t exactly beer and it wasn’t exactly a spirit, but it was strong and thick and dark-brown, and was usually served in small, elegant glasses, not pint-sized pewter tankards.
After a few of these, the mist began to clear and our hero could see that the place was filled with ‘westerners’, all doing the same thing, escaping from the day by hiding under a beer-blanket (or whatever-the-stuff-was blanket). It wasn’t long before he noticed a small boy wandering from table to table, obviously selling something. The boy approached our hero’s table.
“You like art mister? You want to buy my art? Pressed scorpion, beautiful. Big frame, small frame, I do all.”
I would imagine there would be another sickle-moon smile accompanying this presentation.
Our hero thought that a pressed scorpion would be the ideal gift (for somebody), there was always someone who loved pressed flowers and the like, so he bought two for the appropriately extortionate price that you would expect a grateful vendor of such an exquisite art to charge. What a skill he (whoever the artist was) must possess to be able to preserve such a fantastically weird creature, turning it into an art form.
A few more tankards and our hero was on his way back to his billet, thoroughly satisfied with his evening and his purchases.
The following morning, after the usual nastiness of a heavy drinking session had lessened and he was able to get out of bed, a colleague of our hero’s noted his pallor.
“So you went out to the ‘desert’ last night then? I see you met Ahmed.”
“Ahmed. The young boy with the big smile. Sold you something.”
“Oh aye. Yea, nice little fella.”
“Oh, he is. He’s turned the necessary rounding up of scorpions into a little business, does everyone a service. Everyone here gets rid of scorpions when they can, some of the bigger scorpions can kill a grown man, so they pay particular attention to keeping the little devils out of the village. Ahmed is an expert at catching them. Once he’s found one, he chases it down and then snaps it up between two pieces of glass. He then seals the glass and sells the pieces as ‘art’ to tourists. Apparently he’s made a small fortune.” (Although my uncle never mentioned, I am pretty sure that the colleague was smirking as he cooked breakfast.)
Our hero jumps to his feet and rushes to his room. Sitting on the desk are the two pieces of ‘art’. The previous nights excesses threatened to come up violently as he stared down at the mangled corpses of the exploded scorpions.
“Do you want tomatoes with your scrambled eggs?”