Invisible Cities: Latitude

In homage to Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities”. 

Approaching the city of Latitude, the traveller begins to doubt their navigation, recalling the crossing of precipitous mountain ranges that induced such anxiety, or the miasmic introspection of swamps waded through with only their distorted reflection before them, plagued by biting insects. They threaded their way through howling concrete canyons, despairing of ever finding a way out, as overhead ominous shadows swooped and hidden eyes followed their every move. Now it seems they have come full circle; they begin to see familiar features on the road ahead, and realise that it is the path to their home village.

Like an event in life that was imperfectly understood at the time and given meaning by another years later which sets it in context, perhaps seeing a familiar place as if for the first time through another’s eyes, or revisiting a city where the memory of a lover haunts every corner, rendering each anonymous street or half-remembered cafe suddenly and sharply poignant, the city assembles itself into the form that each traveller expects. Their destination has been waiting for them since they departed from it.

Other travellers are heading the same way, coming from all corners of the earth. Some carry their possessions on their backs and travel alone, others in long caravans, setting up nomadic encampents on the outskirts. There are different tribes, identifiable by their costumes – swathes of colourful silks and scarves from the Orient, the rugged workwear of the great plains, the stout boots and fleece of the mountaineer, the long-haired followers of sects and groups dressed all in black. They speak in a multitude of dialects – the quickly gulped glottals of the capital, the adenoidal dipthongs of distant outflung colonies, the deliberately slow rural burr of the locals, stolid, unflappable and reassuring.

Round their legs laughing children run barefoot, the smaller ones towed in little carts, gazing around uncomprehendingly at the colourful melee. A small girl of about five who has been sleeping in a cart sits up, rubs her eyes and looks around. She has touselled blond hair and wears a crown of flowers. Catching the traveller’s eye she holds it levelly, slowly smiles, then lies back down and goes to sleep again with her thumb in her mouth. Troubadours, minstrels, poets and storytellers – all are drawn towards the city, and some sing as they walk. Wandering through a sun-dappled wood as birdsong drifts through the canopy overhead, suddenly one comes to the city gates, sentinels of the watch in their bright tabards, checking documents and laissez-passer. Cursory searches are undergone for contraband, and the assorted travellers ushered within the city walls.

Two long bridges span a lake, thronging with people. In the shallows of water apple-green at the edges assorted nymphs bathe themselves, and further out gondoliers pole their craft, ferrying passengers to the far shore. Around the large, dusty expanse of a maidan the spires of great tents are visible, with pennants flying from their summits. The skirl of music, the smoke of cooking fires, the cries of vendors and the coiling waft of incense all merge. Travellers inspect each other curiously, veterans of numerous trips acknowledging each other with a wide open, searching look and a slight tilt of the head in greeting. People from other, unfriendlier cities, where eyes slip away from each other and faces slam shut like the shutters of houses, begin to thaw and return each other’s gaze. In four days the green bower of branches will grow over the entrance and the city will disappear once more, to reconstitute itself somewhere else, but for now we are all its citizens.

A group of teenage girls run past on coltish long legs, in a frenzy of excitement. A troupe of Iberian dancers are gathering on a stage projecting out into the lake. They are all young men in high-heeled boots and they stamp and wheel with exotic cries, arching their backs as they strut, glittering darkly. One is bare-chested and wears a hood like a hangman, and he enacts a scene of combat with another who dives and rolls as lithe as a cat beneath his outstretched arms. The girls are mesmerised by the muscular sensuality and the songs of passion and death. The men clear the stage to wild applause and a group of women glide in from the wings, draped in cascading costumes of scarlet and black. They sway back and forth with liquid gestures tracing patterns through the air with their hands. Then they are joined again by the men and the oldest dance of all is enacted as they circle each other in advance and retreat, their energies combining.

Deep in the woods stands a tower bedecked with lights, a spiral slide around the outside. Travellers rest in hammocks slung from the trees, serenaded by the muted chimes of a gamelan orchestra nearby. In a field a flock of sheep graze, all of them dyed bright pink; the animals do not seem disturbed by this in the least, and it is done by the farmers purely for reasons of aesthetic pleasure: some seasons they are purple, sometimes green, and now pink. A poet holds an audience rapt, weaving his tale around them as they sit cross-legged in a clearing before him. Then a young woman takes his place and begins to recite a story in the choppy sibilants of the flatlands – a story by turns angry and tender and pitying and tragic, about war and loss and the spaces between people. In the telling of it the spaces between the audience diminish until there is an atmosphere of communal solidarity as they hang onto her words.

After dark lights spring up along the lake shore, shimmering in the currents of the warm night air. Searchlights extend thin white fingers aloft to wheel about the clouds. A deep bass note draws a crowd to a tent, the sound shaking the ground, felt through the soles of the feet and out through the top of the head. It becomes faster, rhythmically pulsing, and notes begin to cascade like stars falling out of the sky. Then the mechanical chiming of dozens of clocks, round and round. Machines, robots, repetitive and soothing, a glittering futuristic planisphere. The insistent pulse of the bass. Lyrics begin, faint and echoing, in which the individual words cannot quite be defined, as if they don’t matter – everyone interprets them differently, according to their own meanings and desires.

People begin to move, swaying back and forth, bobbing up and down, nodding in time. Ethereal words echo around us, the rhythm makes heartbeats quicken. Lights spin about overhead in delicate traceries of filigreed green. On the stage the small figure of a wizard jerks up and down like a marionette, hunched over his computers – each button he presses produces a different effect in the crowd. Suddenly a chorus soars and we are lifted, the tents and the woods and the fields growing smaller beneath us and receding, lifting again until the city is flying, and everyone moving back and forth, back and forth, getting higher and higher like light through the veins, and you thought to yourself I never thought I’d get this high again, I didn’t know I could but I can, and that bass is relentless, remorseless and driving us on as it lifts us all, because there are no spaces between people here, we are all parts of one organism in a mass communal intelligence, all jumping up and down in time to drumming from the end of the world, tick tick tick the clocks are chiming and stars are falling and then they are gone and we are flying into the darkness together.

The Latitude Festival takes place at Henham Park, Southwold, Suffolk, UK every July. http://www.latitudefestival.com/

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My Communist Cat

My earliest memories are from around the age of four. It seems to vary with people – some claim to clearly recall events which happened when they were two years old, or even earlier; I had one friend who told a story of sitting up in his cot one day, aged around 18 months, and seeing the china figurines on the mantlepiece come into focus for the first time. But these may be reconstructed memories, created perhaps by the retelling of them, or of others present confirming them. Four seems to be a fairly standard sort of age.

I was four in 1977. At the time we were living in Bulgaria, which was a Communist state – a satellite of the Soviet Union in all but name. And in the fragmented way of childhood memories, my recollections are of isolated and disconnected iconography, much of which we now associate with Communism. I remember, for example, red flags, or a five-pointed star atop a spire, or the ubiquitous hammer and sickle. The Soviet-style ushanka hats with earflaps tied over the crown worn by the police in winter. Lada cars rattling over grey cobblestone streets. Mass parades carrying portraits, girls with red ribbons in their plaits, the blockish capitals of Cyrillic script. Gaz trucks, taking the windscreen wipers off your car to prevent theft, babushka grandmothers sweeping the streets with besom brooms made of twigs. Queues for trolley buses, queues for food, queues at the main Tsum department store when there was a delivery of children’s shoes (in hideous shapes and colours and only one size). The uniformity of everything in a state-controlled economy – only a few styles of clothing available, so that one year everyone was wearing the same kind of trousers – which enhanced the utilitarian drabness of everything. And such was the desire for variety, for the range of western products, that people quite openly propositioned you: I remember one American boy on the school bus being asked by the driver if he wanted to sell his blue jeans.

We were talking the other day about childhood ailments – a group of us round a dinner table somewhere in London – and someone mentioned having their appendix removed. I mentioned that I had had mine out too, aged about 6. It was at the main children’s hospital in Sofia, the capital, and was, in retrospect, an interesting cultural experience. The main thing I remember was that the first night I was on the ward, there was a child in the bed opposite me who flailed and shrieked and struggled. He was a heavy-set Bulgarian lad with a crew cut, and he had been tied to the bed. I was glad of this; if he got loose, it looked like he could do some serious damage. He was bound firmly at wrists and ankles to the corners of the metal-framed bed in a spreadeagled position, and his body jerked back and forth violently as he struggled against his bonds. The boy in the next bed to me, who had freckles and red hair, caught my eye nervously and said something in Bulgarian which I didn’t catch the words of, but clearly understood the meaning: “I’m glad he’s tied down!” I nodded sympathetically.

It was the anaesthetic that was the problem. The Bulgarians were using an old Soviet one which dated back to the Second World War, and which had powerful side effects when the patient came round, causing them to convulse wildly in delirium. I wasn’t due to go under the knife myself until the next day, and could hardly walk, so bad were my stomach pains. And that evening I sat hunched in my bed in a ward full of children, with a dozen or so of them tied to the beds, bucking and crying out, straining at the cords that held them fast. It was quite terrifying. And one day, remembering nothing, I woozily opened my eyes, aware of a tingling sensation in my hand, aching all over and with a sharp pain in my abdomen, and found I couldn’t move it. I was tied to the bed too.

Hospitals aside, it was possible to be happy as a child in a Communist country, in the way of children everywhere, although there was an unconscious ideological agenda at play behind the innocence. I recall watching a group of local children in a drawing competition, who produced the same pictures that children do everywhere – all the pictures of stick-figure Mums and Dads or animals or rockets. But there was an additional, ideological refinement: above the images were scrawled the shaky letters Мир – Mir – meaning “peace”. Everyone wanted peace. The Soviet Union, locked in an intractable arms race with America, wanted nothing but peace. Apparently.

Easier, too, in some respects, not to have the consumerist bombardment of advertisements for everything. I remember my first exposure to television in the UK, and how it left me with a burning need to possess a Lego space station, and a toy go-kart, and a space invaders game shaped like a rocket ship, and some sweets that fizzed on the tongue; I had no filtering system to fend off this endless array of Capitalist merchandise laid before me. In Bulgaria we made rockets out of fireworks, smoked foul-smelling Fenix cigarettes, carried flick-knives and exploded terrifying bangers which, for many British children, are all unavailable treats until they undergo that rite of passage that comes with crossing to the continent – the school trip to France. (As a side note on the pervasive effects of ideology, it’s worth noting that Bulgartabak, the state tobacco monopoly, claimed that American-style tobaccos caused cancer, but that good Communist Bulgarian tobacco contained natural anti-carcinogens.)

The Bulgarian boys next door were a wild bunch – tracksuited and robust. They often had shaved heads because of lice, and there were always different kids coming and going, so it’s hard to remember exactly who was who; I remember the square shape of Ilya’s head through the bald fuzz that crowned it, or his older brother whose features are a blur but who had oddly prominent ears. I remember Petko, and Zlatko, and their small sister, whose name I have forgotten, and who was always getting nosebleeds. We were friends, and played in the courtyard, which from my earliest memories seemed to have walls that went up to the sky, and which progressively decreased in height as I myself grew taller. There was a dead tree in the corner of the courtyard, and this was the scene of one of my most formative memories, illustrating as it did some profound difference between us, though whether cultural or personal I couldn’t say.

One day, drawn by the sounds of excited laughter from next door, I poked my head over the wall to see what was going on. A group of the boys stood around, ranging in age from five or six to perhaps 13. I saw that a small sack had been hung from a branch of the old dead tree in the corner, and one lad swaggered towards the base of the tree, stooped to pick something up, and took up a stance a few metres away, weighing whatever it was he had retrieved in his hand. I saw it was a knife. Spitting on the ground and shuffling his feet a little, he took aim like a darts player and flung the knife at the sack. It missed, and cannonaded off the trunk to land back in the dust. There were loud jeers. Another boy was lining up to take his shot. I wanted to join in, and clambered over the wall, sidling up to the group. Zlatko spotted me, smiled, nodded at the sack and said one word: “kotka”.

Then I saw the sack move. Kotka. Cat.

I was horrified. Now I could hear it – there was a mewing noise coming from the sack. In one of those few moments of my life of which I am actually proud, I screamed at them: “Stop!” And then again, even louder, in Bulgarski just in case I wasn’t understood, “STOI!”

They looked bemused. It’s fine, they said. It’s just cats. I burst into tears, and climbed back over the wall. Running up the path into the house I yelled for my parents. Dad came out of the living room to see what all the noise was about. Snot-nosed and gulping I blurted out: “They’ve got cats in a bag and they are throwing knives at it.”

I watched his expression change and grow thunderous. “Show me,” he said, and taking my hand we set off down the path and out the gate (Dad didn’t climb over walls). He swung open the gate next door and marched into the courtyard, right into the middle of the group of boys. The ensuing conversation was all in Bulgarian, but there was no mistaking the tone. The lads looked shame-faced. “Get that bag down at once!” he must have said, because one boy went and shinned up the tree and brought it down. He placed it on the ground and backed away. The others were melting away now too, remembering pressing engagements they had elsewhere. Dad crouched down in the dust and opened the sack. Quick as a flash two cats shot out, and in a blur made for the gate, squeezing under it and tearing off down the road. But there was still one inside – cowering down and hissing with flattened ears. Reaching into the sack I picked it up. It didn’t resist. It was a small black and white kitten with a pink patch on its nose. Cradling it in my arms I followed Dad back out of the gate and up the garden path into the house.

I set the cat down on the porch and stroked it. Its fur was warm, and it didn’t seem to be injured, but periodically it would tremble for a few seconds. I heard low voices from inside, then Mum and Dad appeared on the porch to look at the cat. It burrowed into my arms. “Can I keep it?” I asked them.

“Yes, alright.”

So that was my first cat. We called her Mutzi – I don’t know why; I don’t think it means anything. She was an affectionate animal – there’s a photo somewhere of me aged about 7 sitting in the garden and cradling her in my arms as she presses her nose to mine in a cat kiss.

In the way of cats, she hung around for a while – a good couple of years – but then one day never came home. I was distraught but recovered, as children do. Perhaps she was run over, or just went feral – who knows, with cats.

But there’s an interesting little postscript to this story – one which took thirty years to emerge. I am a grown man now, nearly 40 years old, and my father long retired. We live on the East Coast of England, in a house overlooking the marshes, and one day, with Dad hammering away on the computer, I sat on the floor looking through the old photo albums in the book case. I came across that photograph, of Mutzi giving me a cat kiss in the garden, and I laughed and showed it to him. “She just disappeared, didn’t she.”

He looked up. “I think saw her, you know.”

“What? When?”

“Well I went back to Bulgaria in 1982 for a conference. And I thought it’d be interesting to see the old house on Alexander Nevsky, so one afternoon when I was free I went and knocked on the door. It’s still used by embassy staff – nice young couple living there. We had a drink, they showed me round.”

“Anyway, when it was time to leave, I walked down to the bus stop on the corner, and something made me turn round. Just by the alley there are these bins, and right next to them was this cat watching me. Black and white one. And I had the strangest feeling it knew me. So I called out to it. ‘Mutzi?’ This old babushka in a headscarf walked past and gave me a look – well, it must have looked a bit odd, me in my suit with a briefcase, crouching down in the entrance to an alleyway calling to a cat. And the whole time this cat just watched me. Never took her eyes off me, but she never came any closer.”

“Then the bus arrived, and I turned round for a moment. When I looked back I saw her slinking away – quite low-slung, like she was pregnant, but watching me the whole time.”

“I never told you at the time – it would only have upset you. She’d gone feral, and of course we couldn’t have brought her back to England anyway. But I’m sure it was her.”

I looked out through the salt-smeared glass at the marshes as a 39-year-old man, and bizarrely I found myself blinking back tears. He rose stiffly from the desk, patted me on the shoulder a couple of times, and together we walked downstairs.

My Mother’s Hair

“Your hair is your aerials, man…”

– Danny, Withnail and I.

I’d always known I was adopted. My new parents told me even before I was old enough to understand. They’d refer rather euphemistically to “the lady who had you”, avoiding any more loaded words like “mother”, and then inevitably follow it up with a reassurance: “but we love you just as much as if you were our own.” In the pragmatic way of children I accepted this, understanding that there were things at play that I didn’t understand and didn’t really need to. Little was known of “the lady who had me”; we knew she was from Ireland, had been very young, and was said to have wanted what was best for me. It came as something of a shock to me at around the age of 12, talking to Dad one night, when he let slip that she had had blue eyes and long auburn hair. Had he met her? No, but it turned out he had all the reports of the social workers involved in the adoption, the psychologist’s assessment and the medical records. “You can see it all when you turn 18,” he said, and that, with an air of legal finality, a coming of age, was that.

But still I wondered. Because my hair was different. Mum had a kind of mousey brown bob which was gently greying – until one holiday, coming home from boarding school, I suddenly noticed that she’d gone silver with a startling abruptness. (She must have been in her early 30s.) Dad had dark brown hair, kept short-back-and-sides, and combed ruthlessly across his crown. In contrast I had a wild mane, the thickest hair anyone had ever seen, which formed giant curls of its own accord and shone with a glint of fire when the sun caught it. “It’s auburn”, they said. “Such lovely thick hair.” This being the late 70s the fashion was to have it long, and I clearly remember getting off a bus one day with Mum and my sister, and her bumping into some foreign lady she knew – one of the diplomatic wives. “What pretty little girls!” the lady pronounced. I scowled at the pavement. It’s a little ironic, looking back on it.

A local woman called Zetsa used to babysit us when Mum and Dad were out at some cocktail party. Cocktail parties were a theme of my childhood. I remember the diaphanous dresses Mum wore, how she’d kiss me goodnight carefully to avoid smearing her lipstick, and the lingering scent of some expensive perfume in the hall after they’d departed. Zetsa wore no perfume. She was a gypsy – an actual Roma, from a village high in the Rhodope Mountains – with a head of tight curls dyed a deep, unnatural black, face like a cracked walnut, a gold tooth, and hands like paddles. She was kindly, in a brusque sort of way, and lived somewhere out in one of the new socialist paradise housing projects on the outskirts of the town. She spoke only Bulgarian, I only English, but somehow we communicated, within the confines of the dynamic between six-year-old boy and forty-something gypsy woman. I remember one night in the bath she decided to wash my hair, and abruptly seized a bar of Imperial Leather soap and began scrubbing away with it. I remonstrated mildly. “Not with the soap! We have special soap in the bottle for hair. Shampoo.” I pointed to the bottle of Head and Shoulders on the side. She ignored my protests and muscularly worked up a fine crown of suds. My world disappeared spluttering in a cascade of water as she tipped a jug over my head.

The next morning at breakfast Dad began hooting with laughter. “What on earth have you done to your hair? Looks like you were dragged through a hedge backwards.” I inspected myself in the mirror. It was pretty wild. Great auburn tufts stuck out in all directions, and it felt as thick as wire wool. We slicked it down with water at the kitchen sink, and he tried to run his metal-toothed comb through it until I yowled in protest. My hair was uncontrollable. I told him Zetsa had used the soap instead of shampoo, and he said: “Of course. They don’t have shampoo.” Who they were I didn’t enquire. But he must have said something, because next time she washed it she reached for the Head and Shoulders with a wink. And I remember the softly plosive Bulgarian words that she murmured as she ran those huge hands over my head and worked in the shampoo with her fingers. “Stoi moyata, malka kotka, az sŭm izmivane na kosata.” Sit still, you little cat, and let me wash your hair.

On returning to England we found the fashion had changed. My headful of auburn curls was of a previous decade; this was the 80s now, in Thatcher’s Britain, and the hippyish licentiousness of the 70s was passé. This was the decade of the floppy-fringed, foppish tosser, and if you didn’t want to be seen as a Sloan, you kept it short. I remember a barber using clippers to give me a grade 3 buzz cut, and a slight sense of bereavement at the nest of chestnut locks that fell about my feet. For the next ten years or so I kept my hair short, and by the time of my teens it had become something of a ritual to visit the barber with my friends and demand a grade 3 flat-top, which was then coerced into a spiky mat with pots of gel. We’d smoke Marlboros on the top deck of the bus into town and if we had any change left over from the haircut would pool it and buy a can of lager from the newsagents next door, sharing it on a park bench as we self-consciously preened ourselves and eyed up the passing, unreachable girls.

But short hair didn’t suit me – my hair had other ideas, and would begin to sprout into a wild entanglement within a couple of weeks. You can try and coerce me, but I’ll always rebel. After leaving school, and a brief stint at an art college – that time-honoured tradition for the bright but unconventional – I decided to grow it. Then, one summer in Berlin, a festival that went on for days, and an old castle in the grounds, and dancing on the battlements in front of a sunset that looked like the desert; I could make out a camel train heading east, and those clouds were dunes lit umber and ochre, fading to a rolling purple in the distance. I felt the music through the soles of my feet and out through the top of my head in silvery brilliance, my hair as aerials, each follicle bristling in tune with the world.

I remember coming home from the festival on the U-bahn, wild-haired and wild-eyed, and two crew-cutted drunks smirking, then, on reaching their stop, when they were a safe distance away on the platform, one loudly saying to his friend: “Is that male or female?” I didn’t care any more. I have my mother’s hair.

Jez1992bw

Achaar – (A Short Story)

Where are you? What are you wearing? Why does the thought of you make my heart thump all of a sudden? What are you doing today? Who are you meeting? Who is lucky enough to see you? How do you smell today? Can I come close to you and just rest in that space between your ear and your neck and inhale you? Why do we love? Why does it hurt so much when we do?

Did I manufacture this by choice? Or did I have no choice at all? It wasn’t love at first sight – no, I thought you beautiful, but was shy, there were others present. It was after the conference, and we were all pretending to be grown-ups while wearing name tags like children on the first day of school. But second sight – yes, definitely. The second time we met, seeing you in that cafe in Sydney, I had already fallen. That’s how I recall it, anyway. I couldn’t take my eyes off you. You had come from work, and were dressed smartly. I remember your shapely legs, the colour of your blouse, those high heels. I loved the fact we were the same age, and that we showed the signs of it, our respective experiences written upon us, in the deeper laughter lines at the corners of the eyes, or in the frosting at the temples; we both lightly wore the past, but there are other signs that are hidden, which can be discerned in a gesture or a glance. The colour of your eyes… I have never seen such a beautiful colour.

It’s six minutes past nine in the morning, nearly forty degrees already, and I feel exhausted. If I sleep again I know I will dream of you. The fan is slowly stirring the air. It slows, stops, and then shudders back into life as the power returns. Is it cold where you are now, in that world of offices and suits and ten page risk assessments to do anything? Winter in July. How do you do it? – I know you hate it. You’d love it here though – the heat, the birdsong, the colours. No computers, no power half the time. You’d be like one of those hippie girls doing yoga on the beach, searching for meaning. I am searching for meaning too. I appreciate the sentiment that this is the first day of the rest of our lives – I know all that. But it feels like there’s nothing left to be said. I’m in love with you. That’s all. I don’t know why. I just am.

We play at indifference, maintain a cordial politeness, a certain professional reserve. We have to; what unbridled passions might rise to the surface otherwise? Do you distract yourself? I distract myself – I do other things, go out with friends, see other people, or try to. But it doesn’t work. How long in the silence of message and response is too long? Where does the absence of reply become drawn out so tight that the tension in it sings like a fever in my ears? I know, you were busy. You are popular, and rightly so. But how long before the very thought of you doesn’t stab me like a knife?

Why you? Out of all the women in the world, why should it have fallen to you to be the object of my desire? I apologise. Yes, I do. I didn’t want this to be a burden. But I desire you. I try not to, I catch myself if I begin to think about you in other ways, more passionate ways… but I do. The sultry nights are a torment. All I can think of is lying together and holding you. I hope you never see this. But I know you know.

You know, I love my wife. She is a steadiness, a strength in my life, which I cannot conceive of losing. I am there for her as she is for me. And it has taken will – some strength of will on both our parts, to stay together, although sadly children are not there. (It is me, not her.) But we decided it was worth it. You know our custom here; a marriage is more like a business agreement. Certain criteria are met: family, education, etc., and then the transaction is agreed. It’s different in your society I know, but there’s a misnomer – you call our way an arranged marriage (which is true), but as opposed to a love marriage. Be assured, I am in a love marriage. But not in an ‘in love’ marriage. I didn’t marry my wife because I was in love with her; that came later. We grew to love each other, and although we were both in our twenties, it felt like the kind of partnership you might see with old people sometimes – two of us supporting each other. The other day she was startled by a lizard when she opened the kitchen cupboard, and she jumped, and cried out: “Heeee!” But she was smiling. And my heart turned over because I saw that young girl I married, and I was filled with love for her: this woman who can be startled, joyously, by a lizard in the cupboard.

You do not have a husband, I know – nor even a wife (I know how different your world is to ours – men marry men, women marry women. It is admirable). You have lovers, certainly – boyfriends, one night stands, friends with benefits… lovers. You love them as I’m sure they love you. Who could fail to be drawn to your radiance? But do they feel as I feel? Are they completely smitten? There’s something rather pathetic about being so helplessly in thrall to another. I struggle against it at times, and enjoy the delicious heat of anger, rebellion, the luxury of resenting you for it. How dare you take my heart like this? But you didn’t. You didn’t. It was all my doing. I fear hurting you psychically somehow. How could I ever hurt you? What have you done to me?

My wife is making parathas in the kitchen as I write this, and calls out to me. Do I want achaar? Mango pickle. She doesn’t like achaar, but buys it because I do. I get up, go into the kitchen where she is deftly flipping the parathas over the open flame. A strand of her hair has fallen over her eye and she brushes it aside with the back of her wrist, causing her bangles to slide up her arm with a soft clacking. She looks at me enquiringly. I embrace her from behind, lower my head onto her shoulder, and to my surprise as much as hers, tears form in my eyes and I give a single, harsh sob. Unspeaking, she switches off the gas, turns to face me, and hugs me tightly.

Learning to Fly

I am in a hard city of grey stone and blue glass, a damp chill to the air and a swirl of exhaust fumes. There is a permanent background rumble of activity. Every 30 seconds an aeroplane flies past from left to right, in the opposite direction to the scudding clouds, their tailfins emblazoned with national logos: Varig, Qantas, British Airways, Air New Zealand, Singapore, Finnair. A cargo of hundreds of people, each one a world in themselves, with colleagues and husbands and wives and kids, lovers and brothers and distant friends. And you are not among them.

I picture our last flight together. A snowbound Europe unfurling beneath us, so close we can see the tracks of the roads, and along them nose twin yellow beams of light as cars feel their way through a sodium powder. The towns that glittered like strands of flung jewellery, fallen at random on a dark velvet cushion. The blackness of the sea, the blackness of the desert. Are those fires beneath us? A nomadic encampment? Gas platforms whose solitary flares pinprick the night? Turkmenistan. Now Iran. I never knew it was so large. Snow has dusted the mountains behind Tehran, and behind us the world falls into shadow. We are heading for the darkness creeping across the face of the earth, a small fluorescent bubble of light held in suspension above everything, hanging motionless just below an icy firmament of stars. I feel your small hand reach for me under the blanket. Down there is Kabul: I can see the neighbourhoods, some brightly lit, then the lights petering out as the houses climb into the hills. I press my nose to the scratched plexiglass and remember the white hot track of a Sam 7 a lifetime ago against a dun backdrop of bushland, rising, rising, veering, falling away, and how we jinked left and almost turned upside down to avoid it, and the low monotonous swearing of the Ukrainian pilot who had been doing this for far too long and ended up on the route nobody wanted. When we finally landed no-one could get up from their seats and the laughter was bright and forced and slightly hysterical. I watched the rhythmic thrumming tremor in my hand the next day and forced it to stop. Then it started again. I won’t tell you that one, but you feel my grip tighten and look at me. I smile thinly and am rewarded with a faceful of vanilla-scented hair as you rest your head on my shoulder. I want to protect you. I want to weep with tenderness for you.

The antiseptic chill of an air-conditioned shopping mall populated by Oriental soldiers with machine guns. I do not look at them. We are separated by our nationalities and I feel a flush of anger. Who are they to decree you, stand this side, you, over there? To try and take you away from me because of a quirk of fate, history, geography. I see your small form swallowed up in a chaotic crowd and you shoot me a brave smile as we go through. My turn. He barely looks up. Flicks through my passport. It’s a sorry catalogue of misadventure. That smudged stamp that looks like a meteorite heading towards you on the page? That cost me $200 and aged me 10 years. The children with guns at a roadblock who looked at it upside down and walked off with it, and only gave it back in exchange for my sunglasses. 5.75 prescription; hope you get one hell of a headache, kidogo. Stop thinking like this. He’s watching you. Holiday. Yes. By car. Marketing consultant. Ah, many companies – I am freelance. No, my first time here, very much looking forward to seeing your country. He’s a sceptical sod and I don’t blame him. Sighs deeply, then picks up the stamp and whacks it down between Angkor Wat and a Hammer and Sickle. There’s irony.

I sit on my battered backpack in a cloud of synthetic scent from a duty free shop, beneath a poster of an English footballer in his underwear. Giggling women in abayas walk past. Where are you? I have a clear view 180 degrees, there is a pillar wide enough for two about three metres away, over there a soldier, those shiny glass windows on the second floor are one-way only. We are all stars in this reality TV show. That African woman on her own with three suitcases is going to get taken apart. Passing backpacker in brand new sandals shoots me a dirty look. Yeah, alright sunshine. You should’ve been there when tanks rolled up and they shelled the old town. What was it called? Dadadaab? Dabaabat? Something like that. Until you have, don’t fucking look at me. What’s this? Old couple standing in front of me. Yes I speak French. Changing money? Over there: the guy with the stall. Yes he’s legit. I’m English. Well merci, you are too kind. Have a great holiday. You too.

I see you and I get that funny tightening in my throat. You are cross. You’ve been delayed, interrogated, pawed, discriminated against, and you need a cigarette. Me too hun. Let’s get out of here. Then, although I can see you are tired, you smile at me and say: “Come on soldier, on your feet.” You got that from me, and it breaks my heart.

Golden sunlight split into bars across the floor, the sigh of the sea, the cry of the birds. There’s a man singing outside, an exotic refrain which is all quartertones and minor notes, and it’s magical. You lie with an arm across me, a cascade of black hair spilling over the pillow, softly respiring. I watch you sleeping, my eyes moving over your body slowly, pausing here, backtracking there. There are parts of my life that flash before me uninvited, like a snapshot I didn’t want to take, fixed forever in an image branded before my eyes. Well now I am imprinting every part of you on my memory, so that I know in years to come I will be able to conjure this moment again, drowsy with longing, basking in warmth, your scent on my hands and my face and my heart. I can’t believe we made it.

Agarbatti

Agarbatti

Agarbatti, अगरबत्ती in Hindi, is Indian incense. It is the joss stick that smoulders in a student bedsit, a hint of exoticism in drab surroundings, the fragrant clouds that waft out of a shrine or wat and coil lazily upwards into the sunlight. The scent of it drifts along the waterfront of an eastern riverport on a sultry night, overlaying the more pungent smells of the harbour. Smells conjure memories like no other sensation, catapulting you back in time. I remember going into the wardrobe in a relative’s house after they had died and inhaling a mixture of mothballs and tweed and wood polish, and feeling their presence again. I remember a waterfront on a river at night with the moonlight so bright it felt feverish, silhouetting the palm trees and turning the ripples on the water silver, the boats nodding their heads slowly as they pirouetted on their moorings, and the scent of agarbatti drifting along, washing over the scene.

I am not a religious person. I fill out forms for bureaucrats and when it says Religion I write ‘none’. And it’s true, I have no codified or orthodox system of belief. But I have faith, of a sort, not in something external, some higher order (although I acknowledge the limits of my own rationality), but in people, and in something in people. I acknowledge the importance of ritual; of how a gesture can be laden with meaning because of its intent. There is something comforting in the symbolism, in acting out a ritual which has no apparent or immediate tangible effect – putting time and effort and belief into something which does not materially benefit us, does not provide any clear gain. A poor farmer from the mountains spends a few carefully husbanded coins on a garland of flowers to place round the neck of a statue; a poor grandmother buys a few sticks of incense to light at a shrine knowing that it means she cannot eat again that day. It is the importance of belief, a gesture towards depth of feeling which takes precedence.

I went to the Killing Fields in Cambodia once. It was an awful, harrowing place. It appeared deceptively tranquil – a summer scene, a field covered in butterflies, golden in the evening sun. And at the centre stood a tall pagoda, with ornate Khmer layered roofs and glass sides. In the glass was reflected the blueness of the sky and the drifting clouds overhead. And as you drew closer you saw beyond the reflection, and into focus came empty eye sockets that stared at the sky, a tower of skulls, thousands upon thousands, piled on each other, taken out of the fields that I was standing on. I could not take it in, the enormity of what happened here, reconcile it with the sound of children laughing as they played in the village nearby, or the lowing cattle that were going home, throwing up clouds of red dust that caught the rays of the sun and turned golden. Before the pagoda knelt a local woman, selling incense, and as I watched a Khmer family with two young children approached her, bought some incense, lit it at the foot of the pagoda and pressed their hands together in a sompeah, bowing their heads in prayer. I felt inadequate, helpless, unable to process it all – I am not worthy of these dimensions. I felt a hypocrite, intruding on someone’s grief.

I walked to the car park and smoked, trying to get a hold on myself. The family came back, and nodded to me. I took a deep breath, and greeted them. I asked them, forgive me, I am a tourist here, and I want to understand. Why do you light the incense here? The man was youngish, smartly dressed, his small wife beautiful and cradling one child. His English was poor, but softly he said: “We burn to wishing peace. For coming closer. Carrying thinking, and for remembering good, pushing away bad.”
“I understand,” I told him. “And I find it very touching. But would it be correct for me, a barang, foreigner, to do the same?”
“Yes, you can do,” he said, and smiled. “It would be a good thing.”
I thanked them, and watched them leave. Then I went over to the incense seller, feeling embarrassed. She proffered three sticks. “How much?”
“What you like.”
I dug out a fistful of Khmer reals. About $4 worth, and handed them to her. A fortune. Wordlessly she took them, folded them away in her apron, handed me a small plastic lighter and watched as I walked up the steps to the rack, the stubs of the sticks jutting out like ribs, and I saw four of them freshly burning from the man and his family, one for each of them. I placed the incense clumsily in the holder and lit them, then shut my eyes, in front of a tower of skulls, and wished for calmness, tranquility, peace, for anyone who was in torment. Then I turned and walked slowly away.

And that is why I burn agarbatti.