house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

44 days, 29

Afternoon with Kiwi. We need to give her her time in the big busy world, or else she wilts. So Cheeta goes to the gym and I hit the town with Mademoiselle Señorita. Ironic nickname explained by the fact that she speaks only French and Spanish. When I suggest stuff to do, she says – with a flick of the wrist – 'no me gusta'! When she suggests stuff to buy (and I do) she says – with a little elegant nod – 'merci beaucoup' (well, her 'beaucoup' is more like 'vodkoo', which sounds like 'vodka' in the masculine form).

Every time she says 'no me gusta', she would add with a sigh 'Oh, I LOVE Spanish'. With 'merci beaucoup' it would change to 'Oh, I LOVE French'. It turns out she can't decide what foreign language to choose next year. Any discussion of her dilemma ends with: 'Anything but English!' I point out that English is not exactly a foreign language to her.

We play ping-pong in the park (I win the point: 'no me gusta'! She wins the point: 'merci beaucoup'); we stop at the café (she gets a small cake: 'merci beaucoup', she takes a sip of my coffee: 'no me gusta'); I suggest we go to Bimca to check out some bathroom tiles: 'no me gusta'. She suggests we go to the market to check out summer dresses, and we go: 'merci beaucoup'.

The lady's not French, this is true,
But she always says 'merci beaucoup'
She acts very chic,
At some market boutique
But they say 'only cash', so adieu!

The lady's not Spanish, but would
quickly say 'no me gusta' to food,
to people, to chores
to rain, crashing bores,
to me: wait a minute! That's rude!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

44 days, 28

Today we're treading softly, talking in casual whispers, because today we carry ALL of our enormous hope. Why does hope feel so like fear? I'm in the grip of this hope and this gnawing fear and they are SO much bigger than I, a wave that tosses me about and all I can do is hold my breath and wait. I do what people do when they're scared. I call home and – although I didn't see it coming – I cry.

I remember when I was waiting for the results of my exam to get into university. We were all in a small nondescript hotel room at the seaside. A neighbour in Bucharest went to find out the results posted on a wall outside the University. At this end, my dad walked to the post office to call the neighbour. I didn't want to hear. Strange. I don't remember the room, I have no recollection of having felt any fear. I just refused to think about it.

Dad came striding across the road to our hotel, waving at mum on the balcony. He grinned and punched the air and she burst into tears. At the sound of her apparent distress I ran to the balcony to see dad still grinning, still punching the air, shouting: 'You've done it, you're in, we're in!'

Today I burst into tears (no sorrow yet, no joy, just the unbearable wait) and mum says 'Things always fall as they should. One day everything will make sense.'

Of course she's right and I must remember: 'Things always fall as they fall. Que sera, sera. Things happen when it's their time to happen.' I must remember it all night, because I know I won't be able to sleep.

44 days, 27

The moon appeared in a totally different corner of the sky tonight. How does it do that? All these years of staring at the moon, and it still surprises.

(If I could remember how many syllables a haiku is supposed to have, I would write a haiku about the moon.)

I would write perhaps that it lies on its back as if it, too, is looking at the sky; all round and sharp, a smile and a trap; a hammock and a scythe; a croissant baked all day inside the sun; it's got that adoring star underneath: what would the moon be without a lover?

All in the deepest silence – to let the lodger sleep:

Monday, 26 March 2012

44 days, 26

Kira's home! No school for two weeks. She sleeps late (of course) and then 'hangs out', coming round the building site for hourly inspections and chats. She refuses every gardening or building project I propose (I don't have any other kinds of projects!) - by midday I'm beginning to wonder how parents manage holidays when they can't stop their work.

Actually, she's very sweet and chirpy. Mid afternoon, in the full glare of the sun, she hops high on the trampoline, in her swimsuit, squealing like a happy urchin. I investigate. Next to the trampoline there's a bucket full of balloons. Each balloon is filled with water. Kira descends gingerly to get one, jumps a few times holding it like a beloved teddy bear then suddenly throws it high above her own head. She then holds up a small sharp twig (oh how I wish I could say 'a sudden glint in the sunlight reveals the blade she hides in her palm': wouldn't that be fabulous?); the balloon bursts in a spectacular shower; splash, squeal, etc. She makes me pass a balloon to her just to lauch it back at me like a cannonball. It bursts on impact, double squeal, let's do it again.

Later, we go to the bathroom shop (again) and pass by her friend's house. By this stage even I, the mouse of Moss County, jump out of the car and ring the bell – ANY play session with friends would be swell – but no one's at home. 'Maybe she's at the park' I say and neither of us believes it. We get to the park and the friend IS THERE! Happy play session with much gymnastics in the grass.

One highlight: a snatched conversation between Gymnasts and the Evil Twins of the park:
Friend: 'Which one are you?'
X Twin: 'I'm X.'
Kira: 'How do we know you're not Y?'
X Twin (pointing at football mate): 'Ask him.'
Friend (to football mate): 'How do you tell them apart?'
Football mate: 'By their faces.'
Kira: 'But they're exactly the same!'
X Twin (indignant): 'No we're not. Y has lost a lot more teeth than me!'
He opens his mouth wide, to display vacant gums and a blue, post-lollipop tongue.

44 days, 25

Hottest day yet: we could almost see the milk going off. A quick investigation of the fridge upstairs reveals only rust and horror. 'It might still work?' I venture. More horror, picturing the work needed to restore it to working order. 'There are new fridges, quite cheap...' Cheeta mentions casually. We go to the shops.

What a big mistake. We forgot it was Sunday. Sunday afternoon plus North Portugal equals: everyone goes shopping. Whole families pile into small rusty cars that spew black smoke while advancing prudently at 15 miles per hour. They arrive at the supermarket and spend a further half an hour parking (so what if that means 1) finding a good spot and 2) waiting for the occupier of said spot to finish their shopping and leave?) Then they file out of the car, dressed to kill.

The funniest thing is, having made all this effort just to SHOP, they walk around with vacant faces and slow steps, like prison inmates pacing their cells. They find something adequate: No smile. It fits: No joy. They can afford it: Scowl. They buy it with a pained, resigned air.

They leave the shop with their new dress / shoes / mobile phone / dry fish / hair band swinging in a dozen plastic bags. And No Expression.

While I observe this the kids are having a tag game around the shop. The fridges are either too small or too expensive. In a place like this I get exhausted faster than you can say 'surf'. We go home and collapse on the trampoline.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

44 days, 24

There is a square stone in the wall of the bathroom: blue granite, rough. It sticks out a lot and doesn't go with any present or future bathroom design. In short: it must go or, at the very least, it needs to have a drastic shave. I ask the labourers to do it. Despite impressive physiques (a belly IS part of one's physique, isn't it?) and a vast array of tools, they come back shaking their heads: it's impossible! The hardest rock they've ever seen in their lives. I go down to the bathroom. It's full of stone dust and rubble. They've knocked back every stone in that wall except the blue, with the result that now it sticks out even more.

And today I think: no, I don't want to see THAT stone every time I walk into the bathroom. Mocking from the wall, na-na-naaah, I wo-on, etc. There must be a way. I proceed, armed with chisel and hammer.

(Among the lofty thoughts going through my brain at this point: Michelangelo facing huge blocks of marble, with a hammer and chisel; man against nature; it's only a pebble; yesterday I was a teacher, today a sculptor; easy; could be a fresco by the time I'm finished with it; feeling goooood!)

I'm here, blue granite stone in my face. OK, here we go. I give it an experimental swing of the hammer. Nothing happens. Place the chisel strategically, give it a good hit. Sparks fly, but nothing. Now I'm incensed. Try to discern a crack in the stone, place the chisel there. Go in at an angle. Deep breath, focus the strength.

A tremendous blow of the hammer. Success! One sole shard of stone shoots up and straight into my eye.

Friday, 23 March 2012

44 days, 23

Yesterday I taught a couple of classes for a teacher friend. Smaller children, but they beat me hands down! By the end of two hours my energy levels were lower than those of a squeezed lemon. I dragged myself to the car and drove off,still shaking. 'Most of the kids were OK' I kept repeating, the demented mantra of someone going into shock.

Having put a night and a day between myself and the school, I can start seeing the good moments, the lovely kids. In the event, one hardly ever sees the sweet, well-behaved little darlings, too busy putting out fires.

Oh, the 'challenging kids'. I had two – or three, or four – in one of the groups (the other group was a breeze in comparison). This gang kept the noise level constant (i.e. deafening), listened to nothing, wouldn't participate, and went to the loo about 17 times each. I have no idea how they kept it up (and that after a whole day of school); two had a few mini-fights, a 'toss-the-pencil-case' game, a 'grab-the-pencil-case' grapple which ended in pens and pencil shavings all over the floor, a few extra-loud screams and a couple of fake tears.

One never stopped moving, systematically stole the possessions of whomever went to the toilet, lay on the carpet, stood on his chair, took off his shoes, screamed when the class was singing and performed a few fancy experiments (including one which attempted to ascertain the exact length of a pencil that can go up his own nose). He didn't respond well to being stopped from poking his brains out with an HB1 medium lead. I imagine his parents weep when the bell rings for summer holiday...

Another kid displayed an unusual capacity of talking above the ambient noise in the squeakiest voice you can imagine (times two!) - a high-pitched commentary that is now drilled into my memory like a laser burn. I can safely say that it has stormed into first place on my life-threatening-noises chart , way ahead of chalk-on-the-blackboard and nails-on-marble.

At some point, he had to glue pictures of fruit and vegetables on a sheet, the ones he liked on the left, the ones he didn't like on the right. He sailed through the favourites, then turned his attention to the right side of the page.
'Tomatoes', he announced loudly, glueing his paper tomato there.
'Well done', says I.
'Mayonnaise', he continued in a eardrum-piercing shriek, and drew a jar.
'But is that a fruit or vegetable?' In reply I got an even louder statement:
'I don't like mayonnaise'.
'OK buddy, if you say so...'
There was more to come. He drew a few squiggles, looking remotely like a sheep... or, could it be, a cauliflower?? Great I thought, we're back on track, but then he slashed at the paper beneath the cauliflower with long sharp lines that chilled the soul. And he roared:
'I - slash - DON'T - slash, slash - LIKE - slash, slash, slash - RAIN'.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

44 days, 22

Today is Alastair's birthday. I'm re-reading his 'Weathering' – do you know, it's the most fabulous book of verse. More than ever before, I am touched. Poetry is for me like water, innumerable bodies of water; and as a fussy swimmer, I may find some a bit cold, too fast or too shallow, muddy or twisted in whirlpools, or the day windy, or the current too strong. Sharp rocks on the bottom, steep banks, too hard to get in and out, floating debris.

Well today, Alastair's verse is to me the perfect river.

To Alastair

You say ''we fall to silence under the burning sun
and feel the great verbs run''
I say 'I've sometimes seen
some of your verbs so still
I didn't dare to breathe
and I will
swear with ease
that I've seen others fly:
comets lashing across a future sky,
clouds full of burning hailstones, rockets
shot from the pen
you keep inside your pockets.

You say ''I am old enough now for a tree
once planted, knee high, to have grown to be
twenty times me,''
I say 'You know Alastair,
We have a sweet patch of land
for its new tree
(a tree that grows words would be good,
between you and me, but really,
any tree would do)
and wouldn't it be true
that such a tree, so new
would make you
new too?

You say 'Curiosity may have killed the cat'
I say 'Alejandro, what
Kind of talk is that?
Oh, I see what you're getting at...
you who would part with your last dime
to find, behind each petty chat
a rhyme
and what this curious cat of yours
will possibly
about that deeper, darker, greener, warmer
side of hill...'

You say 'What a day it is!
(and then you say that other stuff, about paying for it,
not once but three times you are saying
and then a thousand times
'OK, OK, amigo
tell me then, what other men
(what hunters so keen on their marks)
would leave their vanquished prey
like you do -
''on long thin strings of singing''
belonging to your dawn-bedazzled larks?'

You say ''Flowers bloom at ease without being told''
I say 'Dearest, I know - and I hope you're also starting to suspect -
you will never never never grow old!'

You say ''Now,
play the tune again!''

44 days, 21

A few centuries ago, some lazy count in France decided to keep a diary AND publish it; it talked entirely about himself, his feelings, his memories, him him him; it created a sensation and changed the face of literature forever. A door was opened, and our obsession with ourselves and curiosity about others became COOL.

Well, it doesn't appear to be that cool anymore. It's cool when one eccentric does it (and everyone else flocks around to gawp); it's cool when a writer spends months and years writing a book and people buy it like hot cakes off the press; but when everyone does it, and nobody reads it, where's the magic?

One blogging site counts its customers daily: '832,401 new posts, 1,347,920 comments, & 182,040,566 words posted today'! 472,289 people sat down in front of their computers today, spending 2 minutes or 2 hours to write their blog and post it. Click and voom: it flew into the cloud of unread or unreadable words we launch at the world every day.

It's like a circus where – instead of letting the artists perform – everyone gets up to tumble about and do their own pirouettes, a theatre where we dash to the stage and jostle each other for space, to recite up there in front of all the empty rows of seats: the audience has bolted to try their unwritten, unrehearsed, simultaneous, loud and limitless act!

My current act – this blog – is almost half way through. I've written every day for 21 days. I've got 6 comments: 2 are from myself (!), 2 are from you and 2 are from a lovely friend I haven't seen in years! I've always maintained that a blog is more secret than a locked diary.

But I'm hooked and you're still reading. Today is already Day 22.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

44 days, 20

We've got the day labourers to come back. Which means that, before doing the simplest thing, we need to stop and measure it ten times and then talk it to death. Eventually they get to work. This in turn means that I stop working and spend my time getting the stuff they need, tools, tape, plastic sheeting, measuring tape, trowel. Paradoxically, this is preferable to them finding the stuff themselves: when they do, it follows that I can't ever find it again (I'm not saying they spirit it away, they just store it in unfathomable places. And it's a known fact: this building site swallows stuff!) At some point I see them take my new bucket (bought in the days of the drought ) and make it old in an instant, by filling it with lime and sand and scratching at it with nameless tools! Argh.

On the other hand How glad am I NOT to have to put up scaffolding and plaster the upper walls of the kitchen? Immeasurably. Am I enjoying the fact that I don't have to move all the garbage away (well, further away)? Words fail me. Is it cool that I'm typing this – in the middle of the day, sitting in the sun, on our veranda – instead of painting ceilings?

It's not only cool: it's life- saving! I was beginning to think that all this was a terrifying groundhog day purgatory (well, it is but I'm taking five!); one day, one day it'll all be done: I'll get up in the morning and do all those things I keep dreaming about. I can't see that day right now, from where I stand (up on a ladder, painting another wall) but I have to trust it's there.

Monday, 19 March 2012

44 days, 19

I know that, as long as I plod on like a senseless beast of burden, I'm quite happy. The trick being NOT to spend any time at all thinking about human condition in general, one's own pathetic existence in particular. All's well. A successful load of laundry – dried in the warm sunshine, smelling of fresh grasses and river breeze - becomes truly satisfying and quite enough.

Forget the bigger picture i.e. what is a load of laundry / a wall painted / a dish cooked / a bill paid / a seed planted / sand removed from one's shoe against the impossible height of one's dreams?

OK, we're resolutely NOT looking at that: let's try another category then. A wall painted. The one I painted today looked brown but, mid-afternoon, turned yellow. A good thing too, doubts, hard work, suspense and surprise (a story in itself, don't you think?)

A seed planted – that's what Kiwi and I did when she got back from school. They're now lined up in the yurt, in tiny pots: tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, rhubarb; celeriac, aubergines, dill.

The sun shone, lambs chased each other in the meadow, birds sang. A very successful laundry day.

P.S. AND it was Father's Day; you've got a present and a letter waiting.

P.P.S. I read on Facebook that it was Mother's Day a few days ago. Wow. These kids have no time to breathe with all the crafts and letter writing involved in these events. They really must work for their Easter Eggs.

P.P.P.S. Not my kids. For Mother's Day no crafts (since we all forgot) and for Father's Day no father. Maybe we can let our hair down for a joint party when you're back ?

Sunday, 18 March 2012

44 days, 18

So, last night: how we partied, the three of us in our little house, fire twinkling in the stove, warm food, apple tart and a James Bond film (a present for Cheeta, to practice THAT kiss). I remembered his first night, seventeen years ago, just born and looking like a tiny orange monkey with a shock of dark hair. I couldn't quite believe this minuscule person was really there, completely helpless, adorable and ours. And look what happened: how he's still there, immensely lovable still, but not so tiny, not so helpless and, I fear, not ours anymore...

As for the other party guests: Kira danced and played with the boy, Saffie slept in front of the fire, Lyra lounged in my lap, purring. How sweet, I thought, and later made her a bed so she could sleep on, undisturbed.

Undisturbed in her delinquency, it turned out. Early in the morning I heard a rustle and went to investigate – could it be Lyra hunting mice? It was Lyra, making herself a toilet in our kindling basket. NOOO – I shouted and picked her up to put her outside. Too late. She leaked all over the kindling, her bed, the floor, my bare feet. I opened the door gagging and calling her unmentionable names... Then I washed the floor (and my feet). 'Look', I thought, 'what I'm doing at 5.30 a.m. on a fine Sunday morning... but at least she's out now'...

Not Lyra. No. She pushed the door open again and walked in just as I fell back into a little slumber. She didn't close the door behind her, of course. How could she? She's a cat! So open it stayed, letting in the morning frost. At this point, Lyra was a tad peckish. Once again (when will I learn?) she took matters into her own paws. Climbed onto the kitchen counter, found a – covered – bowl of stew, and a cheese wrapped in wax. No problem. She chewed through the wax and ate half the cheese. She washed it down with gravy from the stew, after pawing away the lid.

Thus replete, she went to the sofa and curled up for a well deserved siesta. She seemed surprised and outraged when she found herself picked up by the scruff and deposited outside. 'WHAT NOW?' she seemed to say. 'What did I do?' Then shrugged it off, had a big stretch and went back to sleep on a chair, in the sun.

I know what you're saying ('clever little thing'!) and I also know you wouldn't be saying it quite so happily were You the one washing cat pee off the floor. And this is why, my darling Moona, That Cat is NOT going to be joining us into the alambique anymore. She can have the yurt and the land. No negotiation. And should I ever waver and be tempted to let the 'clever little thing' back in, all I have to do is re-read this tiny post. Miaow!

44 days, 17

RAIN!!! The first rainy day in months. And Cheeta's birthday! Since he's at such a crossroads in his life, and it's SO hard to sit and wait, I'm looking around for omens. Naturally, when I open my eyes and hear the rain patter on the windows, I think 'Oh no, clouds, dark skies, rain!' Then I go out and the smell, the sight, the sigh (!), of moist earth and plenty, happy plants, trembling little trees stretching up and up, all this makes me think 'Of course! A rainy day in a drought is the best sign possible!'

The sun toyed with us, peeking from the clouds, dashing and dazzling. And just before sunset, this:

Happy birthday, Cheeta!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

44 days, 16

Work update, since it's finally Friday. Cheeta made a wooden structure for the bathtub and a bathroom cabinet for the sink.

We redid the plastering, me by starting and making a mess, he by taking over and doing a sterling job. We put plasterboard in the gallery and were, for half a day, like kids with a new toy, cut and snap, cut and snap. Sure it makes us sound like the offspring of the worst sadist in Criminal Minds, but do you have any idea how easy it is to cut the stuff? A huge pleasure, after the Fermacell. We chose tiles with Kiwi and Cheeta. We were doing the choosing, Kira was doing the rejecting.

Hours passed thus engaged and in the final minutes she chose the first tiles we'd shown her. And lots of other small stuff that – while painful and annoying at the time, has completely vanished from memory.

But something scary DID happen today, and I suspect it'll be harder to erase it from the obsessive loop it's already traced on my brain: the water stopped. I turned the tap and NADA. I ran to the shower: NADA. Camp kitchen: NADA. Main house tap: still there, but only a trickle! Nikita checked the connection, all fine so the sole conclusion left to us: there was no pressure to push the water to the higher taps.

Finally, we are forced to join the dots. No rain since December. In the news, the Drought among headlines (but you never think it might refer to Your Place!) - now they say that over half the country is in 'extreme drought conditions'. The rest of the country (I think that's us, since I can still see green grass in the garden) is in 'severe drought'. The amount of water in the soil – water that can feed the plants – is less than 50% of what's normally there. Could all that have anything to do with the water in our taps?

It makes me think of all the talk about climate change, what's going to happen, what we'll have to live with, what we'll have to live without. It's been in our everyday conversations, on our screens, in our reading lists, in newspapers, on the radio. Why then, when it starts happening, do we not recognise it? Why, once we've recognised it, do we act so SHOCKED? Because I am shocked: I loved every day of sunshine since December, I heard all about the drought, there's practically no other topic of discussion with neighbours, builders, postman and checkout girl at supermarket, and still I'm shocked that there's no water in the taps.

..... a day later:

Ehm, P.S. - water in the taps! Nikita discovers someone had turned our water off – from the control panel at the front gate. They had also left a small boiled sweet on the panel: a joke? A reminder to pay the water bill ? (we received no bill...) And, if so, was the sweetie there to... sweeten the pill? Anyway. The drought is still here. I bought buckets. I resolved to fix the upper tank. And next time the water stops we will check the tap at the front gate.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

44 days, 15

Today: you send a message, 'I wonder how the plum tree is'. I look at the plum tree and search for words. Then I realise I don't need any words. I take a picture of the plum tree in its full glorious bloom. I send it to you with a small caption. A few seconds later I see your reaction ('Wow'). This is heady stuff. I take more pictures and send them. Baby figs on young branches. A lemon smaller than my thumbnail. The broad beans I planted, now up to my knee. ('Wow, wow, wow!)

Nine years ago (when you were in Liberia): you send an email, when you have a connection, when you have power, when you have time. I plug in the computer, late at night, when Kira (2 years old) is asleep. I spend ages writing a reply on my laptop, then cut and paste it into a message to you. Next time you have a connection, a plug and 5 minutes, you will see it. We'll go from there.

Nineteen years ago (when you were in Bosnia, I in Croatia): 'Echo Alpha 1, this is Echo Alpha 3, do you copy, over?' 'Copy 2 out of 5, move to channel 12, I repeat: Echo Alpha 3 move to channel 12 over..' 'Copy loud and clear'. 'Echo Alpha 1, what is your ETA at base?' etc.

Twenty one years ago (I in Romania, you everywhere): white paper on my desk, I pick up a pen. I start and end my letters in the middle of sentences, because this way it feels you're just next door and we're just in the middle of a conversation. I'll take it to the post office in the morning, which is a bit of a bother, because of the queues, the dusty, dusky air, the old clerks. Also because I hate leaving the letter in their hands, so completely in their power, so completely out of mine. Also because it will take weeks to reach you, and more weeks for your reply to reach me. When I actually get a letter, I am overwhelmed by such happiness it threatens to flatten me like an overfriendly mastiff.

Twenty two years ago (both in Romania, in different corners of the country): spend hours composing short, cryptic and glorious messages, count letters, start again. Walk into the dusty, dusky post office for an act of such bravery my shoulders shake. I am going to do more than hand in a closed letter: I am going to recite my innermost thoughts letter by letter, to a dusty, dusky woman with a short temper. My heart at her fingertips. Then the telegram would go and I'd sigh with incalculable relief. Sometimes the postman would be waiting, at home: 'Miss, you have a telegram!' and the overfriendly mastiff would pounce again.

Ten years from now: you think 'I wonder how Monica is'; you instantly get an image of me sitting at a desk writing / in a workshop making a little mosaic out of broken plates ('hey, that was my favourite' you think and 'Sorry', my voice whispers in your ear) / or in Wellies gardening, then turning to look straight at you and showing you a small watermelon. The picture is very good, not fuzzy or sepia tinted, the voice is clear, I am with you for as long as you think of me.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

44 days, 14

Today we need to talk about Galician Cabbage. Big name, some drama, a little mystery, huge irony, hence a mention in the 'column' here. Let us go back to the beginning and get all the facts:

These cabbages sprouted in the top garden almost by accident – i.e. granny didn't know where to plant them, left some lying there in the veggie patch and next thing we knew, they were growing. (Freak plants! If gardening were this easy, we wouldn't ever need to go to the market. )

Freaks indeed! They look like a veg that wants (and fails) to be a tree. Before you know it, it's got this thick stem and branching leaves, huge and droopy. The leaves are the edible part, if you can be bothered to harvest them, wash the grubs and spider webs off, chop them finely and cook... IF – I never found myself volunteering for the job. Why? It's boring, bothersome and the taste leaves a lot to be desired...

So, at the first opportunity, I offered them to the neighbour, Lola. She was keen, said she'd transplant a few into her garden. I should have asked you first, I know, but I've never seen you show any great interest in them, water, weed, pick, cook or eat... In any case, nothing happened.

Then ALL the leaves disappeared and left behind some sad stumps still standing. I wondered briefly about that... (maybe Lola just wanted the leaves? Emergency soup? Snails? Cabbage-addicted aliens? Whatever...)

And today, today all was revealed. Lola came by with the sheep, we had a chat. I said 'why didn't you take the cabbages?'; she said 'Magnus wanted them.' What? What could you possibly have wanted them for? (in any case, she would only have taken the small ones, you were going to be left with the gentle giants!) And anyway, how were you going to enjoy their bland and boring flavour? Regular little 'cabbage parcels' flying to Pakistan?

'But what happened to the leaves?' I remembered to ask. And here, prepare yourself for the Big Blooming Irony of the Day.

'Teresa's rams ate them!' says Lola. 'I gave my brother a right wee row about it, they need to watch those rams better.' 'Look at me', she says with a sigh, 'I'm always running around after my sheep.'

As if to illustrate, her sheep – and the sweet little lamb – decide they'd had enough snacking and take themselves off at a trot, with Lola leaping behind them without goodbye.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

44 days, 13

If you have a profession, you spend most of your time doing the things largely associated with that profession. Those things, be they one or four or four dozen, become etched on your mind and muscles, and – if you're very lucky – your soul. You may occasionally get to do one or two other things, known as hobbies. The end.

Why was I thinking of that today? I was standing on a table, plastering a ceiling. A dull but enduring agony was flaring up in the back of my neck and then, in that awkward moment, trying to avoid blobs of falling plaster I thought: wow, I'm doing SO many things I never even knew EXISTED before... OK, nobody pays me for it, they take up a whole load of time, often they hurt, or go wrong, or both, and just when I've figured them out there's no more to do and they fall back into non-existence because, let's face it, I don't plan to renovate another old farmhouse. BUT the question remains: will doing all this change or improve me?

Maybe, but perhaps not today. Today the sum total of my considerable efforts was this: I stumbled, while carrying heavy objects, against every possible piece of wood or sack of lime or spare boot that happened in my trajectory. I produced four superb lines of plaster along the joints in the ceiling. I made a bamboo frame for the broad beans and stuck some sticks into the ground to help the peas climb. All these things (minus the stumbling) are 'first time ever'-s. The main accomplishment remains staying in one piece (despite the stumbling), but let's be fair: these activities may, just may, have improved my biceps (infinitesimally) and balance (especially the stumbling).

I certainly hope they've improved the broad beans.

Monday, 12 March 2012

44 days, 12

That Kira and her trampoline!...
She thinks it's her flying machine:
'Oh boy, if you knew
says she, 'how I flew''
'But my wings just couldn't be seen...'


There once was a girl and her brother
Who liked to annoy one another
He threw her in the air
And left her right there
So she made a complaint to her mother...

Sunday, 11 March 2012

44 days, 11

Glorious morning, the type you would want to spend on a long bike ride and I on a patch of sparkling grass, reading and writing. Deep breath. Silence. No workers. The taller plum tree has exploded into delicate flower. I go to take a look and notice a car stopped in front of the house. OH NO. Somebody 'POPPING BY'. Deep sigh.

Nikita is dispatched to deal with the intruders. He doesn't come back. Kira (in pyjamas) and I go to see what's going on. Over the fence (the gate is locked, yesss) Niki is in conversation with two strangers.

The younger one – neat clothes and a Communist Cap the type Ceausescu used on visits to collective farms in the '70s – smiles widely and speaks English. I have a feeling I ought to know him, but I don't. He mentions having been here before. Panic. Who is he?

Then I see what Nikita's holding: a religious brochure. These people are fishing for converts. I picture shutters closing in my brain with a sharp snap. Faith I have, religion I (try to) understand, but dangling a Bible in front of others, to see if they follow me meekly all the way to church no, no, NO! Then I got curious, why would anyone be doing this?

The English speaker loved quoting the Book. He held a battered copy and spent a lot of time seeking paragraphs to illustrate this or that point. I asked him 'Why do you try to recruit people?' 'We give them information', he said, 'we educate them so they can make up their mind.' I told him I thought people needed educated on how to live with more care for nature and for each other, he agreed and waved the Bible about, looking for another quote. I wanted to say 'You're not listening' – then realised that here he was, going house to house with something he believed in; if I wanted to be heard so much, why wasn't I out there, knocking on doors with my beliefs in a brochure and clutching a battered copy of 'Silent Spring'?

In a show of open-mindedness, he lectured proudly on about Science and Religion not clashing at all: 'One explains the What and the other explains the Why' - I could see how much he loved to say that. 'OK, but then what about Darwinism?'; 'Oh, that is only an Opinion!'; 'Why then does the Church feel so threatened by this Opinion? Why has it divided America (for example) neatly in two?' He dived into the Bible for a quote on fanatics and Pharisees and thus lost me completely.)

At this point, Nikita was fanning himself with the literature, Kira looked crumpled and asleep on the step. The sun was strong above us, and Commy Cap was telling me where the Bible Study Group met weekly. 'OK, but you never once asked US about our faith!' A small chink in the smile then it was back on. 'Of course. What DO you believe in?'

This is when I realised I couldn't explain. It would take too long and, perhaps, would sound like Chinese to this neat, neat guy with his Bible, Chinese or blasphemy, or both and more, some kind of mortal sin.

What would I have said? - I thought on our walk back to the alambique. That I don't believe God is vengeful, or petty, in fact I don't believe He punishes anyone at all. He doesn't sit there counting sins, or checking who's reading His Holy Books and who's bringing more sheep into His fold. In fact, He doesn't bother anyone – if you need Him, He's there, that's all. He's always there, wherever you imagine There to Be... I believe He has many names – Jesus, Buddha, Allah, Jehova, Zeus, Ra. As for Good and Bad and all that. I believe you need to try to be good without want of reward or fear of punishment. Just try to be the best you can.

There's more, but as we got inside Kira, who had done her own serious thinking, suddenly piped up: 'What are Jemima's Witnesses?' - so I promptly added Jemima to my list of Gods.

44 days, 10

The geometric sky:

The caged moon:

New bloom, as ordered:

... and, I forgot to mention: today we declared SUMMER on the land:

Yes, the photographer faced the water cannon and WAS drenched in the noble effort of bringing you this image:

Friday, 9 March 2012

44 days, 9

I'm reading a book about Theseus – The Bull from the Sea by Mary Renault – and I can't help thinking that her Theseus - in this book - is very similar to her Alexander – in The Persian Boy (which you took with you, didn't you?). Two beautiful, vital gold-haired lads who play with the world like lion cubs, strong, determined, unused to being refused anything. I find myself a little in love with them, as one is when faced with people (virtual or real) who follow their own strong certainties wherever they might take them.

I've been reading Greek legends since I learned to read, I love them. Of all heroes, I've always had a soft spot for Theseus, but my Theseus was tall, strong and slender, with long black hair and green eyes.

Eeeeh... brief snooze. I have plenty of time to think about this today because today I am 'designing bathrooms'. I'm sitting at Cheeta's table on the veranda, in superb sunshine, with a white piece of paper in front of me, and a head just as blank. Yeah, perhaps you should start to be worried. I've decided to make a mosaic on our bathroom wall.

But first: where have I put my drawing skills? I pick up a pencil, concentrate for a minute. A dreadful squiggle emerges, so, so far from my inspired imaginings. I despair, start again. Read a bit about Theseus, eat an olive, draw a snow goose. It goes on like this. I've now used up three pencils, haven't yet found my drawing skills, and will have plenty of paper to start a fire tonight. My latest snow goose has got a mermaid's tail – maybe I'll keep that one.

It's all pretty idyllic, until Sergio the plumber appears, has a look around and states that the house is 'too much of a building site' to install any serious gear, like sinks and radiators. This is so depressing to hear that, will you please excuse me, I need to go back to Theseus.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

44 days, 8

Big day in Romania today: for as long as I know, 8 March celebrates women, mothers, girlfriends, wives. It's mother's day and St. Valentine's day in one. Throughout my childhood, the 8th of March was a day of making cards, writing cheesy verse, picking flowers and producing fluffy, useless craft items for our mothers:

'Today's your day, sweet mother
The gift that I brought is my heart
But please believe me, mother
There's no gift more lovely than that.'

I dig out the song from deepest dormant memory and sing it to my mum, on the phone. I sing it to her, she sings it to me: we're both mothers now and, let's face it: I don't see MY kids about to burst into song. Still, Cheeta's sweet without knowing what day it is: he is his normal happy, helpful self, and we work companionably in honey-like sunshine. Then we have lunch at the market; he is distracted, pours ketchup in his glass instead of Coke, and we laugh and laugh. Until a chip goes in the wrong way and makes one laugh die down, and another go up to hysterical highs...

OK, I've made that up, the chip incident never happened; instead, we just laughed and laughed, then went back to work. We chose shower tiles and had a long lecture from Mr. Charm at the bathroom shop, about fundamentalism and HOW it spoils the Arab world. That's it! I'm not telling anyone, anymore, where you work. He banged on and on, so I started taking photographs of tiles to stop myself from climbing into a bath tub and falling asleep.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

44 days, 7

Man, this day labourer job is hard work. There's a muddy trench snaking up and across the wall. Cheeta makes an earth plaster, I carry the bucket and start filling it. The red ooze goes everywhere, coats everything, but it WON'T stay on the wall. An age later, it's done although at first glance it looks like I've gone and plastered myself, including hair, eyeballs, the insides of pockets and even, EVEN the white skin, you know, between finger and wedding ring.

Next job: stand on a tottering step ladder holding up heavy sheets of plasterboard while Cheeta looks for his drill, waits for the batteries to charge, finds screws, drops screws, gets up same rickety ladder and finally attaches the stupid thing to the ceiling. By the third sheet of plasterboard, I feel like Atlas and my hair is white.

When that's done and my upper arms have stopped going into involuntary spasm, another plaster is made, white this time, to cover the spaces between sheets of plasterboard. This involves standing on top of the step ladder with a pot of plaster between my knees and a trowel in each hand; head bent backwards so far, as if I'm trying to see my own wings; when in fact all I see is ceiling, ceiling, ceiling.

Throughout all this, I think of all those people in offices, people who stare at screens, people who go from cubicle to cubicle carrying papers until someone taps them on the shoulders saying 'Come on Jane, you don't want to miss your own retirement party now, do you dear?'. Blue corner. In the red corner, shuffling builders and labourers, spattered with paint and plaster, moving from building site to building site, lifetimes of the same cement mix, the same hammer, the same bucket of dirty water.

Of course I'm a fraud in both places, but just now I'm happy, because it's our own house and I'm lucky to be able to finish it with my own hands (and then you know what I'd really like to do, you know don't you?)

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

44 days, 6

Says e.e. cummings about the land I'm looking at, outside:

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have
fingers of
prurient philosophers pinched

, has the naughty thumb
of science prodded

beauty . how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and

buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive

to the incomparable
couch of death thy

thou answerest

them only with


Monday, 5 March 2012

44 days, 5

Thirty five years later (and I am still a child). And, more importantly, they are still young.

How do they do it, those people who can look at a picture and tell if the person in it is alive or dead? I look at this picture, my uncle and aunt and cousins, and they look radiant, full of hope and light and love. My uncle's dark eyes glow like torches, his smile pulls at the corners of my mouth until I find myself sitting there with a wide stupid grin and don't even know why. I wish I had known him better.

They had lived in Brazil for seven years, had just come back. On the night of the earthquake, they had asked us for dinner, they had asked lots of people for dinner. A celebration! They were back, full of new words and tropical stories and plans and dreams and success!

I was eight years old and I wanted to go. I wanted to play with my cousins and hear a tale about anacondas. That afternoon I ran a fever, the visit was canceled. I slept.

During my sleep the earth quaked and my city crumbled. My uncle's house fell and squashed them all, hosts and guests and tropical fish in a tank. A week later, I remember being taken to a cemetery that looked alarmingly like a rising of the dead; there were coffins everywhere, open, closed, stacked on top of each other, and people in black, stunned or screaming. My mother stopped in front of a long line of coffins (I know now, there were ten, but back then it looked interminable): 'here they are' she said. 'Hosts, guests, cousins, grannies, everyone. All ours.'

But those boxes weren't 'ours', they didn't mean anything to me. I never went back to that place. What I have – which feels both 'alive' and 'ours' – is their picture, full of hope and light and love, and the promise of stories about an anaconda that swallowed a boat.

44 days, 4

A TED talk sits on my screen for weeks: – and suddenly I find the 20 minutes it claims out of my day, against a gentle background of tile-cutting (adega floor being finished) and dogs barking at a ghost. If you watch it, several things might start making sense. Why, for example, you find me hidden in dusty nooks at odd times, having stolen 10 minutes to read a book I carry with me all day. Why, when the door closes after guests, you reach for the blackberry and address book while I collapse -aaaaah – with an insane smile on my face, lighter at last, ALONE (sorry guests, it's not you, seriously, it's me!) Why you turn the radio on and, a minute later, mind completely fried, I turn it off again. I don't know how to say this without offending, but I love my slices of solitude.

Susan Cain maintains – in the TED talk above – that loving and claiming your moments of solitude should not only NOT be offensive to anyone, it should also be necessary and valued as a life enhancing – and quite possibly world-changing – ingredient. Self-serve system: those who crave it should be able to help themselves at any time. The role of society in all this: to make the option of solitude available, to put it on the platter correctly labelled and free of charge.

Having heard all that, thanks but no thanks today, actually: we're off to the seaside, to be with people, a beachful of the noisy swines to be precise. And a nice friend to whom I rave about the talk above, while she raves about another talk at the same time. Once we both manage to shut up for a minute, we discover that she too is an introvert and we almost hold hands in the sand, such is the joy.

And on the way home I discover that my driving is also of the introverted type: along empty motorways and isolated country lanes, it feels like flying. Give me a busy town centre however, and you get these ungainly jerks and beeps and the occasional going-against-the-flow on one-way streets, at the end of which, a complete wreck, I once again need a little peace...

Saturday, 3 March 2012

44 days, 3

'There's a mole in my pencil case', says Kira. 'WHAT? How do you know it's a mole?' I secretly think it's among the more original things one says in a lifetime. I'm intrigued and stop working to have a look. 'See?' she says, 'it's blind. And slow.'

It's a mouse. It's slow because it's dying, and blind because it doesn't care to see anything anymore. But HOW did it get into the pencil case? It looks like it got stabbed (or fanged). 'Where are the pencils?' 'I took them out', says Kira, cool as a slush puppy. 'With great care.'

'Put it in the grass, outside.'

Later, I see that Lyra is trying to catch something in the tall grass by the bamboo terrace. I stop to see what, and eventually she flicks it out with a paw. No, it's not the mouse, it's a small snake.

Sorry Lyra. I stop her and we both watch the snake slide back in the grass. Her back ripples with outrage. I give her cat biscuits and hold her in my lap, wondering how soon cats forget.

44 days, 2

Wake up with two thoughts burning deep furrows on my forehead: CHEETA. And Grouting. I agree by the way, 'grouting' is an awful word, vulgar, grating... In the course of today, it becomes a long slow nightmare. The grout itself proves easier to make, so I envisage 2 hours max, to finish everything. Walking into the living room with my bucket of grrrrout, I find a lunar landscape of fine dust over a white grid (aliens? NASA?) that unsettles me... still, I press on (grout MUST be used) and soon the whole floor joins the jolly grid-game, and half of the hallway (grout WAS used up!)...

Now, to the next step: wiping away the white lines of dry grout. Whereupon I discover that THEY WON'T BE WIPED. I imagine sending you a picture of the ghastly grid, caption: 'How do you like our new floor, dearest?' - and this sends me straight to 'Multy-China', in search of sponges, scourers, toxic floor cleaners, bleach, anything. (The 'anything' – in this case – proved to be a pen I couldn't resist because you can blow bubbles when you stop to think between sentences, but – bubble, bubble - that's beside the point. Bubble...)

Scourers at hand, I get on with it. It's 4 pm (what happened to that '2-hour' task? It's taking the whole day... is that familiar?). 4 tiles on, it's 4.27 and my shoulder aches. I stop and count the tiles. 24 rows of 14 tiles each. Is that 336? Plus the half-hallway.

I stop at 8 p.m. for dinner, go back at 9. Kira does one-line-and-one-tile. I bring a stool because my kneecaps creak and scream. I try the wet method (bucket of water) and the dry method (scourer only). The dry works better but also coats my nostrils, mouth and lungs in grout dust. The ache in my arms is comparable with childbirth. Naah, it's worse, and goes on all night.

Around midnight, I am still on my knees, scouring the floor and belting (or rather bleating) 'It's not about the money, money MO-NEEEY!' By now I have listened to an Artemis Fowl and the entire contents of Kira's Ipod.

I finish at 1am. Question: can you bring a nice big carpet? There are places where the grout decided to settle, build a grout-house and have grout babies.

I lay in bed utterly defeated, bathed in pain of the most exquisite variety (deep and dull). I haven't made a fire, in the shower or the house, so just try to sleep. Painkiller. Try to sleep. My hair feels like a mediaeval wig. I get up, boil a kettle, wash my hair. Go back to bed, try to sleep.

One perfect moment: about the time you were leaving the Castle with Nikita, a rainbow appeared above our house, here. Vivid, burning colours painted on the dark sky. A good sign? You know me. I wept.

Forty Four Days, 1

1st of March and you're off to the UK, with Cheeta. My heart, my right arm, gone. Bereft and I don't even know it because of all the stress. My thumbs are chewed to the bone, which is utterly useless and pathetic – but, as you know, a vital ingredient of my angst. Like punishing the beating heart for going out of control. Pain like icing sugar snowing over this city, flake by bleeding flake. Awake at 5am, I call you, to make sure you catch that plane. Then coffee, then another call. No, casual reader of this diary, these are not hysterical calls. They sound quite sweet, a drowsy exchange of irrelevant and comforting information ('we've had showers', 'we're checking in', 'see you later'). I follow your journey then, throughout the day.

There's no one on the building site today, the place is peaceful, imperfect and full of sunshine. I am the sole day labourer today, ready to do some serious grouting in the living room. Trouble is, after mixing the grout until my arm feels about to drop, what I have is an ugly, lumpy mix that can't possibly fit between any tiles. I need MACHINES and – miracle! - find that industrial mixer thing in the tool shed. Even bigger miracle, I plug it in and IT WORKS! It almost takes me for a spin around the front yard when I first turn it on, but I find an anchoring position (semi-squat leaning against the wall) and mix the grout in short bursts and jerks. Passable, but makes an almighty mess when applied. Soon the floor resembles a greasy chess-board and I have to do these Swan-Lake tiptoe steps and hops to get anywhere. I also discover – just before the grout is dry – that I need to scoop a lot of it out from between the tiles with an old T-shirt (your orange one, Cheeta, you said it was too small, right?) This makes for another pleasant 3 hours.

… during which you've arrived at the Castle and Cheeta is left there to dance with the Minotaur. 24 hours and the hope of a good, breath-taking dance, his one chance.... and I can't do anything to help him (unless you think this endless underbreath prayer is 'help').

Saffie stays with me all day. Every time I sit down she's there and lays her head on my knee. Does she know?