– "It was Nepal we got into last time. He went straight for a fifteen thousand feet drop-off, and set out right away – wanted it faster. He got a pulmonary edema, we just about managed to stop him." – Fraser said in a didactic tone. He always lectured rather than spoke. I nodded and trundled off to the big tent where sherpas were putting a breakfast together. The thought of food was making me nauseous, but something had to be gobbled up. Besides, they should have hot tea in there.
The sherpas conjured up some spicy chicken for breakfast. Fussy Chugunkov was eyeing it with suspicion. His vast luggage held a stash of food from Fortnum & Mason – vacuum packed prosciutto, dried fruit bars, rice in pre-packed boiling bags and six months' worth of canned meats. A bodily complexion resembling a cross between a Nazgul and bicycle did not prevent Chugunkov from eating a lot and eating often. The inconvenient thing was that he was also trying to eat healthy. When he could resist no more, he was ordering, say, pizza (which he considered unhealthy food) and consuming it with a guilty look of someone caught in the act. However, his luggage was stacked up like sandbags along the walls of his tent by his security – the guys have all had military deployments in the past. He couldn't be bothered going through those bags, and it was not realistically possible to find anything there anyway. He thought about it for a while and went for sherpas' chicken. Having finished it off, he spent a long time wiping his hands with a disinfectant lotion. I could not eat – I was too nauseous. Three Mars bars in my pocket looked like a sufficient, even excessive, stash. The main thing was that we had water.
By the end of the second day we came out of the jungle. That was actually the first time I've ever seen mountains in my life. It turned out nothing's high-cover'd with snow and there ain't no straths and green vallies below – you are only seeing a small stretch of the path in front of you, and climbing a bump reveals another one that's exactly the same. Intervals of ascent and descent alternated frequently, and the descents were particularly infuriating – it felt like all that hellish labour you've just done was going to the dogs. We were descending into a bowl-shaped valley covered in low-growing thorny shrubs. I was slowly putting one foot in front of the other and pondering the origins of Chugunkov's wealth.
The very fact of Chugunkov's existence was an affront to all of the business coaches' theories about positive thinking of wealthy people. "I am not expecting anything good from the world" – he liked to say. That was mutual. He was concealing everything from everybody, but even the most intimate details of his life were known to everyone who cared to know. Say, how do I know that his first woman was way past fifty? Well, that's because everyone knows. His paranoia was something he was proud of, but he was still being screwed over frequently, cynically, and with impunity. The crowning stone of the exhibition were construction permits cobbled up in Paint. He was buying about two hundred thousand pounds' worth of those a year. When he got the results of the investigation, he was very cross with me and the guys, and kept on building with moonshine permits. However, when a third-rate competitor was silly enough to hang out aggressive adverts, he went to war with those guys for two years – to complete destruction of their business. Hell, I had bought myself a flat on those fees.
Sanjeet's walking style was putting me into a trance – and I beheld a vision: Beverly Prendergast was sprinkling Chugunkov's office with urine – from a small pickles jar in one chubby little paw, with an aspergillum held in the other… blessed be… the picture was strikingly fitting. The smell of urine was very distinct. An untouched corner of my conscious self was reporting that the smell was coming from the sherpas walking in front – the smell of their sweat was rather peculiar. Miss Prendergast suddenly turned to me and, without a trace of hesitation at being caught in that strange act, she handed the jar over – you might as well help around and hold it if you are here just in time. Damn it… I muttered a curse to chase away the evil spirits. In the actual reality, the spiritual cleaning, the blessing and the rest of the superstitious nonsense in Chugunkov's outfit was administered by the accountants. And indeed, Bev Prendergast was in charge. She was also in charge of recruitment and persecution of personnel.
But the result of that madness was money. Big money. And not a single person in Russia, including the notorious oligarchs, could make any money from the businesses that Chugunkov was pushing around. Those industries were considered low-margin at best and failing at worst. "That isn't working in Russia" – sensible people were saying. But Chugunkov wasn't actually working in Russia. He didn't even have a house there. Nor was he working abroad, even if he liked flying to the UK in his private jet. He was working in his own universe.
I was getting an itch, a hatching seed that was seeking to tear me apart but could not break through the concrete of rationality – the realisation that Chugunkov was desperately trying to explain something to us, yet with the eyes we had we did not see, and with the ears we had we did not hear. And that's kinda hard on the nerves, you know. Jesus was also chasing Pharisees around the Temple with a whip of cords, but Chugunkov spake thus:
– "Look here!" – he would yell at the next suicidal top manager in front of everyone and their dog, "Here's Softley!" – and it seemed that's he was holding our finance director by the scruff of his neck like a cat that had peed on the rug – "The smartest guy ever! Smarter than all of us!! Yes?!! Yes!!! So why is he doing stuff like a dunderhead?!!" – Chugunkov's yelling went up into falsetto and he cleared his throat. Softley pulled his head into his shoulders as if expecting a smack. Having sipped some water like Donald Trump on a podium, Chugunkov went on: "And you know what I did?" – his eyes narrowed as he pricked the unfortunate topper in the cleavage of his shirt with a sharp finger. The topper was shaking his head like a heffalump. "I told my guys" – he jerked his head in the direction of his security who were stomping guiltily around – "and they stuffed him into the jet and flew him the fuck away to an island! In the fucking Pacific. Just like that, with the stuff he had on him. Yeah?" – Chugunkov rustled smoothly ans he craned his neck towards Softley, who shrugged guiltily to the effect that yeah, stuff happened, no hard feelings… – "And within a fucking week he had done what I couldn't get him to do for three fucking months!!!" – Chugunkov exploded like a grenade, the shrapnel of his spittle flying around. A lot of people got hit. Nobody was brave enough to wipe it. "And you know what I think?" – Chugunkov was moving meanacingly towards the top heffalump and breathing heavily – "I should have kept him the fuck hungry. He would have done even more."
Chugunkov would bolt into his office, rattling glassware as he was slamming the door. Then his office girls would invite me to come in – to coordinate another assignment.
In his world, Chugunkov was a god. Literally – he had every feature a Deity should rightly have by any religious canon. He had always existed, even before this world did – wandering somewhere in the void in torn trainers with rope strings for laces. He created his universe out of nothing – for he had no money. He created all of its laws too, gravitation included. In my interactions with him I often caught myself expecting the pen to fall on the ceiling. He populated his world with a multitude of beasts and confounded their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech. People were creating whole schools of thought to understand his providence and to fulfil it, and still they couldn't discern what brought his wrath upon them, and what elicited mercy. He could elevate the unfit and humiliate the worthy, both of which he regularly did, even as it cost him. He frowned upon the fruits of their humble labour, and unto them and to their offerings he had not respect. And they were very wroth, and there was wailing and gnashing of teeth. As for him, he preyed upon their faith. If according to statistics, the thoughts of a healthy male turn to sex every forty-five seconds, the thoughts of Chugunkov's humble servants would turn to Chugunkov with the same periodicity. I couldn't shake off the feeling that his whole business empire was just for show, and he was making money directly from the energy given to him by his people. But that could have been the effect of oxygen deficit. We crossed the valley and came up to an almost vertical wall, not too tall though, about 200 feet. That was a welcome distraction; it turned out to be easier to climb than to walk.
I was walking balls deep in fog and wishing Chugunkov, from the bottom of my heart, a slow, painful and disgraceful death. The nicest euphemism was "motherfucker", and the nicest execution was being impaled on a stake with a special crossbar that doesn't let the you slide. If anyone's not up to scratch on ways of tormenting the goddamn malefactor – Edgar Poe's all yours to read.
A security guy, Billy Moomin, fell behind the pack and was trunding forlornly along. The Moomin was, of course, a moniker (he did actually look like the Groke with a gun), but Billy was his real name. Chugunkov kept putting him down like a wayward child even though they were the same age, and went more or less to the same mounted navy cadets. I occasionally got the feeling that, during their brief conversations, I could physically hear bitch slaps. Billy worshipped Chugunkov. One day, some wanker on a Merc just about managed to wiggle from underneath chugunkovian bumper (to everybody's terror, Chugunkov liked driving himself), and tried talking back. Billy dragged the wretched plaintiff out of his car, dropped him on his ass with a straight punch on the nose, got an AK from under the seat, pointed the barrel between the guy's legs and fired a burst. "He ain't gonna be taking now" – he mumbled apologetically to the spittle-thundering Chugunkov.
The double whammy was too much for Billy. Sure, he had it worse in Kosovo, but that was a long time ago. He was trying to appear vigorous like a granddad who was asked to look after an overly active boy. As for me, I had run out of fucks to give about performance indicators. Just moving forward, only one trail there. Can't eat anyway, so ain't no effing point hurrying. The vegetation around us became positively otherworldly. No idea how puzzlegrass looks, that must be puzzlegrass. Let's call it that. Not bloody pretty. We ain't no champions of the world. It took us about six hours of even-tempered walking to get there.
A squabble awaited us at the camp. It turned out that Billy had been responsible for stocking up the food and the guys could not, withut him, find any tea other than PG Tips. Billy dodged the stream of abuse in the general direction of the trunks and it transpired that there wasn't any other tea – unlike Chugunkov, Billy was no gourmet: tea is tea. He got used to Chugunkov's inexplicable and unpredictable anger though, and so he did what any wise but frigid woman would do – he waited patiently for him to finish. Someone's dug up a box of Twinnings, but that was no better. Finicky Chugunkov was throwing a hissy fit. "Wish you'd be putting your kids to bed like that" – I thought as I was burning my lips on PG Tips that did actually give off a whiff of dried fish...
To be concluded in part 3. Subscribe for more content.