When Spirits Rise

We reached our bed and breakfast that evening in a considerably more subdued state than we had left it that morning. Wet through, freezing cold, with numb hands and a stiffening neck that meant I couldn’t turn my head, all I wanted to do was lie down. But we couldn’t stop – we had arranged to meet friends for dinner in Alghero. We scrubbed up as best we could – I thawed myself under a hot shower for a while, flexing my tingling fingers – changed into dry clothes, and then we had to get back on the bike for the 15-minute ride into town. Alghero had a rather strange parking system, whereby spaces that were marked out in white were free, but others had to be paid for at a machine. What the rules were for motorbikes wasn’t clear. Along the promenade I found a space that looked more or less white under the sodium streetlights, and rolled into it. We walked along the marina, beneath the large gate into the old walled town, and turned into narrow cobbled streets full of shops selling jewellery and T-shirts for tourists, heading up to the restaurant, Osteria Barcellonetta.

The name was a legacy of the long Catalan rule in Alghero. Pedro IV of Aragon overthrew the ruling Genoese Doria family in 1353, and embarked upon a policy of Hispanicization for centuries which became known as “barcellonetta”. Even today Catalan is widely spoken, and uniquely in Italy, it has recognition as an official dual language. The restaurant was pretty full, but they found a table for four in the corner. For much of the week we had been attending dinners for 20 people in a series of restaurants around the town, so it was nice to have a smaller and more intimate gathering. I felt rather underdressed, however: my only clean clothes happened to be a turquoise kurta shirt, a blue checkered Cambodian scarf, and a Nehru vest over the top. We were definitely bringing a more multicultural dimension to Alghero – especially when N and M turned up in their ethnic scarves.

The food at Osteria Barcellonetta was a fusion of Sardinian and Catalan influences. Normally in Italy we found that ordering antipasti to share, and then a couple of primi or secondi dishes was enough for us. But tonight we were pushing the boat out, and somehow ended up having a five course dinner: bruschetta with marinaded fish, black ravioli with seafood, trofio pasta with aubergine, and steak with green peppercorn sauce (the best I’ve ever had). There may have been a tiramisu or two as well. After an hour in the restaurant I was starting to feel warm a little, although I kept getting periodic shivers – as did K. We had both been showing the signs of mild hypothermia, but were recovering well. We regaled the others with accounts of our horrendous ride; they had been in a car on the road to the south of us, and with the rain deafening on the metal roof had looked up at the mountains and wondered how we were coping on the bike.

This in turn led to an exchange of outlandish tales from around the world – stories of improbable driving, hazards negotiated, and assorted adventures. I mentioned nearly dropping the bike earlier that day, and how it had happened before with K on the back – that time at Anjuna Saturday Night Market in Goa. The traffic had been insane, the main road in gridlock, vehicles facing in every conceivable direction as policemen blew whistles futilely, adding to the clamour of honking. A small white van driven by a young Sikh had crept remorselessly closer and closer on my right, until we were inches apart. I actually rapped on his door, but it had no effect; closer it came, and I had no more road to move out the way – just the soft sand of the verge. As I hit it, the tyres slewed and the bike toppled. “Jump!” I shouted to K, and she somehow vaulted off the back. Just as the bike started to fall I glanced down and saw a woman with a baby sitting in the shadows, right where it was going to land. Somehow I held it – the full weight of a 500cc Enfield, as she sat a couple of feet away and watched. While I wrestled with the bars to try and get it upright to avoid it landing on her, she mutely extended a hand, asking for change. “In a minute, lady,” I snapped at her.

A story came to mind of a border crossing between Hungary and Romania undertaken by Patrick Leigh Fermor in his walk across Europe in the 1930s:

This borderland was the most resented frontier in Europe and recent conversations in Hungary had cloaked it in an additional shadow of menace. Well, I thought, at least I have nothing to declare… I sat up with a jerk in the corner of the empty carriage: what about that automatic pistol? Seeing myself being led to a cell, I dug the little unwanted weapon out of the bottom of my rucksack and undid the flap of leather case; the smallness, the lightness and the mother-of-pearl plated stock made it look like a toy. Should I steal away from these bare wooden seats and hide it in the first-class upholstery next door? Or slip it behind the cistern in the lavatory? Or simply chuck it out into No-Man’s-Land?

Patrick Leigh-Fermor – Between the Woods and the Water. 

(In the end Leigh-Fermor solved his dilemma by “hiding it in a thick fold in the bottom of my greatcoat, fixing it there with three safety pins”. Well, we’ve all been there. “What about that automatic pistol?” Damn! – I knew I’d forgotten something.)

M told a story of one night in Kabul, when we had come across a guy pushing his broken down car as he tried to steer it. Spontaneously we went over to help, the three of us taking up position against the boot. We got it rolling and he jumped in and tried to drop the clutch, but it wouldn’t turn over. After a couple more attempts we gave up and left him to it.

“And we have no idea who he was, or what was in the car,” I said. “We were just being helpful.” It had been a red Corolla, the type featured in all the security alerts as being the popular choice for a car bomb.

“Our fingerprints will be all over it!” he laughed.

“Not planning a trip to the US any time soon, are you?”

“No, but I’d like to get home to London without getting taken away at the airport.”

We were all laughing quite hard now. I realised that a couple at a nearby table, who I had heard speaking English to each other earlier, were looking at us rather strangely.

(Those icy Kabul nights… empty streets beneath the white glare of the security lights, our breath smoking in the chill air. The weather was oddly familiar, somehow like April in London, bare trees just coming into bud… but everything else was different. We walked past high walls and razor wire, exchanging low “salaams” with loitering men carrying machine guns to establish our legitimacy. You had to watch your step in Kabul – quite literally. The manhole covers had all been removed and gaping holes revealed a long fall into the drainage system beneath the road. Car headlights cutting twin shafts of light through the clouds of powdery dust, silhouetting muffled figures swathed in blankets walking along the verge. The little yellow lights from the houses that climbed the hillsides, and the forest of antennae on ‘TV Hill’. The twin-rotor ‘whump’ of Chinook helicopters on patrol. How long ago it all seemed.)

Sitting in the pool of warmth and light as we laughed in the restaurant, I found myself thinking about the improbable routes our individual lives had all taken to bring us together. From such different backgrounds and cultures we had all found something – a sense of connection – which spanned any such superficial geographical divide. The chance circumstance that led me to do a degree in Norwich – a city which I had never thought I would go back to, where after the bereavement of leaving Africa I had fallen into a pit of depression and heavy drinking which took years to get out of, rebuilding myself – then deciding to go back to university, and then changing my degree course after just two weeks, and overcoming all manner of obstacles, both bureaucratic and personal, to do so… It felt as if it was somehow meant to happen. Perhaps we look for patterns retrospectively in order to fully appreciate the true depth and meaning in our friendships. People come and go, friendships can run their course and you can grow gradually apart, but some remain, even if only as a memory, and the strand of them, the thread of their character, becomes interwoven with our own and makes up the tapestry of our lives.

In this wistful, grateful state of mind we wandered arm in arm along the battlements of Alghero’s old town, with the sound of the waves breaking on the rocks below us in the darkness. It reminded me of Essaouira. The streets were full of people, walking together in small groups, sitting in cafes, just spending time together – young couples, families with children, old people; locals and tourists mingling. I realised it was Saturday night. There was no infernal babble of dissent trying to make itself heard above the roar of traffic or the quick heart-jittering alert of sirens – just a low, melodious hum of conversation. Nobody was walking along fast, head down and defensively hunched, staring at their phone – their postures were open and comfortable as they ambled along, their laughter easy and natural. Although many people were drinking, nobody was visibly drunk. In this culture people drank without guilt, without the theatrical casting off of inhibitions that is so much a part of having “a good time” in more northern cultures – without the shrieking raucous laughter that resembles a shout of pain from a distance. They took wine with dinner, a digestivo afterwards, not to get drunk but for the simple pleasure of it.

Descending again into the narrow labyrinth of streets, we paused occasionally at the lit windows of jewellery shops. In the main square, although it was after midnight, a cafe was still open with many people sitting outside beneath a trellis of vine leaves. “Anyone like a coffee?” I asked. We found a table and took a seat.

“I might have a brandy,” K said. “Do you think they’ve got some?”

“Bound to.” I looked at the menu. There were some Italian brandies listed, and then cognac, for €4. “I’m almost tempted to have one myself, for medicinal purposes,” I joked.

“Will you have some of mine?” she said. “I don’t want a whole one.”

She does this with dessert all the time. But brandy? I don’t drink! But if there was ever a time – in the convivial company of friends, after a fine dinner, with my pins-and-needle fingers and spasming back and a lump of ice at my core that was only slowly starting to melt…

The waiter came over. “Quatro macchiati, per favore,” I said. “E un cognac.”

“Prego, signor.” Off he went.

Four small cups of espresso with a dash of frothy milk arrived, and were set before each of us. Then from his tray he took a huge balloon glass with a good inch of amber liquid in it, and placed it in front of me. It glowed like fire. I picked it up cautiously and put it in front of K, who inspected it then took a sip, pulled a face quickly and recovered. It seemed to go down well. I busied myself with my macchiato, which didn’t take long. She took another sip, smiled, then pushed the brandy across the tablecloth towards me. I picked it up, cupping my hand around the base of the glass to warm it, and sniffed:

The cognac was not to Rex’s taste. It was clear and pale and it came to us in a bottle free from grime and Napoleonic cyphers. It was only a year or two older than Rex and lately bottled. They gave it to us in very thin tulip-shaped glasses of modest size.

“Brandy’s one of the things I do know a bit about,” said Rex. “This is a bad colour. What’s more, I can’t taste it in this thimble.”

They brought him a balloon the size of his head. He made them warm it over the spirit lamp. Then he rolled the splendid spirit round, buried his face in the fumes, and pronounced it the sort of stuff he put soda in at home. So, shamefacedly, they wheeled out of its hiding place the vast and mouldy bottle they kept for people of Rex’s sort.

“That’s the stuff,” he said, tilting the treacly concoction till it left dark rings round the sides of his glass. “They’ve always got some tucked away, but they won’t bring it out unless you make a fuss. Have some.”

“I’m quite happy with this.”

“Well, it’s a crime to drink it, if you don’t really appreciate it.” He lit his cigar and sat back at peace with the world; I, too, was at peace in another world than his. We were both happy. He talked of Julia and I heard his voice, unintelligible at a great distance, like a dog barking miles away on a still night.

Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited. 

I quoted the passage as I slowly swirled the brandy, deferring the moment. I still wasn’t sure. Then, like stepping backward over a cliff edge and putting your trust in the rope, I raised the great glass tentatively and took a small sip. The pins-and-needles moved from my fingers up to my lips. I tasted it experimentally, rolling it around my tongue – the slightly powdery residue of it, the numbing anaesthesia, the sudden fiery flush of it coursing throughout me. I exhaled carefully through my nose, scenting it – the age of it, the wood of the barrel, the eye-watering, mustard-like sting that mellowed into something warm and glowing. The intake of spirits. A slow smile lit my face. So ended 15 years of being teetotal.

Carefully I placed it back in front of K, shooting occasional cautious glances at the glass out of the corner of my eye. It was certainly medicinal – it seemed to be healing my assorted woes on the spot. I quite fancied another sip, but I wasn’t going to rush her.

The philosophical paradox known as The Ship of Theseus, first outlined by Plutarch, poses the question whether a ship that had been restored by replacing every part of it is in fact still the same ship. Aristotle argued that it was, because the design, the “what-it-is”, or formal cause, of the ship, was unchanged even though new materials might be used. If it is true that the human body renews itself almost entirely every seven years at a cellular level, then after 15 years I have renewed myself twice over. I am not the same person. My formal cause may be the same, but we can change our opinion, our philosophy and even perhaps our personality in the same way that we renew ourselves physically. In drinking cognac I was not going to suddenly regress to where I was 15 years ago, lost and hurt and angry. I had evolved. There might be loss, hurt and anger again, but I knew now how to deal with it, not be consumed by it.

And moreover, I had become greater than the thing itself. My sobriety had become a cornerstone of my personality – something that set me apart, perhaps, as an exercise in self-control. But it was an edifice which was top-heavy; each year that passed by its height was added to, until it was this monumental looming feature. I knew I was playing with fire. But drinking was something that, if I shunned it, would always retain that element of danger to it – that possibility of the loss of control. And yet, as with riding a motorbike where you clutch on to the bars too tightly for fear of coming unstuck, and ride more jerkily as a result, this was an illusion.

So I confronted the thing – the anachronistic beast in the lair that lurked in the darkness of my consciousness – by throwing open the door and allowing the light to flood in. I realised I could take it or leave it – it didn’t merit anything more than that. I picked up the balloon glass and took another sip, and in doing so, in some very fundamental way, I loosened my grip on the bars a touch, smoothed out the ride and regained control.

We walked, fingers intertwined, along the promenade beneath the palm trees. Ahead of us were the other two, small figures in the distance, also hand in hand. The moon turned the outline of the clouds silver, and there was the chink of rigging from the yacht masts in the warm breeze off the sea. A cat began to follow us, trotting alongside, then halting, looking round, and following us once more. I examined myself cautiously for any trace of tipsiness, any effect of the brandy, and found none. I merely felt deeply happy – and as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: “I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’”.

“This is nice,” I said aloud. “Main khus hoon.” I’m happy. I wondered how long it would last, then laughed at myself.

“Me too,” said K.

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