house of happy

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

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Isle of Lewis, October 2002

Cold, cold wind on the ferry, as we cross from the mainland. We spend the entire time on deck, for a dare. Or because the prospect of weak, tasteless coffee inside is rather sad. Or perhaps because there is nothing like the smell of the sea and the worn whssssh of the waves and the cackle of seagulls on a calm autumn day.

We want to stay here for a little while. It smells of peat and oranges. The roof is alive. And the ghosts very curious about the guests. We oblige: fight over the potatoes (to peel or not to peel?), laugh over a game of backgammon, sigh over spilt coffee on the tablecloth. Then there's a grazed knee, kissed.

And there's surf. You and Cheeta in the waves, I and Kira on a warm rock, a new coastal species with orange and green fur, soaking in the last of the autumn sun, feeding its young berries and nettle tea, making stick shelters and apparently giving distress calls every time a large wave breaks overhead. (One of the sticks makes a perfect sling. Older cub is intrigued...)

Then the male of the species takes over.

He plays with the cubs, protects them (!),teaches them to hunt:

Cheeta: 'This sling really works! Look, look, check it out!' (small rock shot out of the car window) 'Whoooeeee!'
You: 'Great, wow, bet you can't hit that tree...'
Cheeta: 'Yes I can!'
You: 'No you can't!'
(this goes on for a while)
Cheeta: 'Need a bigger rock!'
(car is stopped, bigger rocks collected)

You: 'Better rock or not, you still can't do it!'
Cheeta: 'Yes I can!' etc.

Suitable rock weighed up, polished, loaded. Sling pointed at tree. Car window half-open. CRACK. Car window pulverised.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Northern Bosnia, July 1993

Eye of silver water open now, silent after
another shoal of daylight hours
burrows its hunger in muddy caves
beyond curtains of papyrus and please
tell me it's not true, although I know:
We are not together tonight.

Army blankets spread over green grass,
you, she, he, I,
a flask of tea
young crickets on moon wafers and
why, the smile on your lips can be called shy
midnight picnic by the lake
I look at you then no, I turn my eye:
We are not together tonight.

She starts to say something her long hair
spun out of cloud and oblivion
dark and rich, coal and cotton
it covers your face and
I can't see you anymore but how
it burns, how loud the thought:
We are not together tonight.

Her voice husky and hurried, low and light
a game she plays, a joke,
words with a whiff of tobacco and sunshine,
an outlandish accent, deep and charming as she
cuts bread, opens cans of sardines,
with a tomato, starts a mock fight
wields a knife,
a blade of grass falls in pieces and
she laughs a private, guttural joy,
then, for you, she pours tea.
We are not together tonight.

The other man
loves me.
My eyes, you see, have now melted the sky
this and the fact
that my blood slows, stops, staggers again
with the beat of unhatched
birds in the jaw of the badger
well it
makes me so damn irresistible,
so loved, so lovable
so untouched, so untouchable
so alone.
We are not together tonight.

I sit on the pier.
Not to hear
those velvet vowels, the chiseled 'h',
the flute inside the odd 's', the low murmured 'ow'.
What more do you want me to do? stare? swoon?
I long for silence.
(What more is there to know?
We are not together tonight.)

You dive in.
A dark arrow which I follow
with my gaze, my first smile,
but wait, nothing's changed:
we are not together tonight.

After a while your otter head
brushes my toe
We are not together tonight.

your hand closes
on my ankle
We are not together tonight.

Without coming to the surface
you stroke my cold calves
we are not together tonight.

you cup my knees
we are not together tonight.

you pull hard,
I fall in
eyes open and
still holding, inside them, that
roving orb, that
blunt, beguiling bitch
the moon.

We are not together tonight.

You wait underwater
with a kiss.

Still I don't close my eyes
Still I don't kick, don't swim, don't fight
Still I don't float, don't fly
Don't know
any more than
this blind

And everywhere I look, another moon.

The round, the yellow,
the painted directly on night cambric, with stars,
and milky and mild above
two strangers and a blanket
sardines and smiles and foreign-sounding stories
and a knife growing green rust
from just one blade of grass, chopped small and then forgotten in the dust.

And here
this unblinking, imperfect,
this chestnut-and-blue
moon full of night
night full of sky
and, for this one long breath,
you full of I,
I full of you.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Albania, September 1999

Get out of the city and Albania sparkles, green and gold. Sun like honey, clings to enormous branches, oozes behind eyelids, heats the skin of the earth, bestows power and pleasure, sings.

We get out of the city. Seven a.m. stop at side-of-the-road café. Coffee, please. We wait, watch dozens of bowls being carried to other tables. Beetroot soup? 'No, sheep's head stew' says the waitress. 'Drivers eat it in Albania, in the morning, when they have a long journey ahead.' 'Well, I'm a droiver' says our Australian colleague, 'an' it's mo'nin', and we've quite a way to go. Oi'll have one a those!' It arrives. Eyeballs float in it, carrots, a greasy jaw, olives, nostrils, parsley, teeth. Seven a.m. light snack.

Later, a meeting on wooden benches, outside. More coffee, figs and honey on a tray. In the middle of it I say to you, in Romanian: 'I wonder how Nikita is.' Secret language and all that. (I wonder now what would have been if I hadn't uttered those words, at that exact moment. Much poorer by far.)

An old man sitting next to me jumps like hit by lightning. His sudden, joyful energy makes me sit up too, a puppet about to dance in the great provincial show. He forgets the meeting (so do I) and instead whispers a string of charming, incomprehensible words. Great urgency, desperate hope in his eyes.

I shake my head. He presses on, willing me to try harder. I listen and then stop listening. I close my eyes and walk into an in-between where I understand everything he says. And so, eyes closed and not-listening, I DO understand. He's telling me about his homeland. My homeland.

What a story. A nomadic Vlach shepherd, traveling with his sheep along ancient routes, roaming around the Balkans until, one day, Enver Hoxha closed all Albanian borders and he was caught in this random net. He couldn't leave Albania, so he made a life here, among fig trees and honey bees. When he talks about Romania tears fall and fall and fall. He's too old, he says, to cross the mountains again, and his flocks are long gone. 'How is it, these days? Our beautiful little country...'

We cry a little, laugh a little, he speaks his worn out words, I speak the shiny new Romanian of my childhood. Just now, I'd like to run to Romania and bring him a handful of earth, some elm leaves, linden flowers, one of our black clay bowls full of steaming polenta. A dog called Azor, the high wooden post of a water well, burnished by sun and blizzards. A nest of storks. A warm stack of hay. A whole flock of sheep, high in the Carpathian plateau, where the air is so fierce you can just about make out the spirits of wolves and old heroes.

Instead, we dip another fig in honey, smile, swallow. Inexplicably, it's salty and dry. The sun is still high, there is still a little time.

On the way home, a river so blue it makes the sky look like a worn handkerchief, washed too often, left too long on the line. 'The Blue Eye of Albania' – someone says – and I turn to see your eyes, the equal blue where I dwell, where I drown. 'Stop the car!'

We dive in, 'the blue eye' so cold it strips away unnecessary layers, dust, lies and worries. We emerge scoured, new. For a moment, the world hangs in perfect balance, sublime. Then we take a first step and re-enter the fray.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Mexico, 1 January 2000

Unlikely as it may seem, we met the new millenium on a Mexican beach. We had dinner on your surfboard – a fish caught by a passing fisherman earlier in the day, an avocado, lime juice, some cold beers.

We slept in a small tent. And today the sun rises equal, but we gild it with irrational, touching, crazy hope. We who were born in time, and lucky enough, to see the start of another 1000 years of humanity. We who lead irregular lives, and live in abnormal times. We who dream too high and love too much.

So what do we do on the first day of the year? We stop the van and start walking. Into the wilderness we go, first a forest, the track narrower and narrower, finally a river. Along the river then. The path ends. We jump from rock to rock. At times, when the rock is high and the river swirls and lingers, we dive from rock to river. And so, for a while.

We meet nomads like us, coming back from the wild. 'Is the world still there?' they ask.

Eventually we stop. A clearing, a pool of such intense green it lures you back in, like a spell. We stagger about, find a place and set up the tent. Picnic in the sunset, eyes half closed with exhaustion and enchantment.

I wake up at night with something scratching outside, by the tent. Paralysed by fear, I clutch Nikita to my chest, I whisper: 'Moona. Something outside. Something big.' You wake up at once, light sleeper. 'Something small', you whisper back. 'A bear!' I say. 'A squirrel' you say. And so on.

The bear gets bigger and bigger until it clouds my vision. I stop breathing altogether, I think. Then I feel your hand on mine and I breathe out and my heart starts beating again.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Dominican Republic, Summer 1992

Out of the blue, we fly to the Dominican Republic to stay with friends. It's the farthest I've ever been. I fall asleep on the plane and when I wake up we're still flying. This, to me, is incredible. We're going to the end of the world.

We're there: a chaos of people, jeeps, overloaded buses, chickens and bananas. You steer me through. Pheew, we're on a bus, the heat is infernal, the light so white and dazzling it sears the eye. It smells of everything at once, the blossoming and the dying.

Hours later, we're in a small town and looking for the next ride. A motorbike. Is this where you get the bug? I hug your waist and still the wind finds ways to dance around us. I get off the wrong way and burn my leg on the exhaust. Branded.

For the next three weeks, we explore beaches festooned with palm trees, dash in and out jungles, try to avoid spiders, read poetry on Alastair's verandah, ride more motorbikes, sleep outside under the stars. I pour honey and cinammon on my burn.

One day, everyone goes into town, you included. I stay. As night falls, the beach, the trees, the sea itself, sound like they're closing in, covering the moon, and consuming my soul. I shiver. A few moments later, a little boy appears, brown and naked, the neighbour's son.

He tells me in Spanish that his mother, Leona, had sent him to keep me company. How did she know? He tells me more, I smile and nod, flooded with relief and gratitude. It's hard to be alone under this hungry sky.

We chat to each other, I teach him some English words. We eat sweets from the bottom of my bag. We sit on the porch, he's silent now, crouched in the night breeze, serious. I look at him. I was alone and frightened and he arrived: an angel.

So – for the next 20 years – I call him every time I'm alone and frightened.

I'm calling him now.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Edinburgh, 17-18 March 1995

An awakening, a rising tide, a call, a hug
(he will soon be here)
A hot bath in the morning, birdsong, colour, clarity, a soothing
(I see him already)
A walk to the hospital, stooped over the occasional pain
(no cars, no trams, no horse and cart today)
March 17.

Eleven hours of labour
A brightly lit room, surgeons, a glint of knives
(he still wants to sleep, won't be rushed)
A womb cut open like a pomegranate
(and now you see the inside of me
your eyes bright blue wide open
wonder, gulp, mirror
the scarlet sphere
where he slept all this time)

A very small creature, copper skin, black hair
lifted high, high and away from me
(Romeo and Juliet on the radio in the operating theatre)
A cry

A boy.

We sleep.

A wake up call in the night.
Midwife says 'time to feed your baby'.
Oh my God, a Baby!
(he is, for the first time
at 3 a.m. and drinking warm milk from my breast
real to me)

He looks at me, my hazel eye a telescope
to my heart, that ardent world, that pulsing geography.
(what does he see?)

We sleep.

Then morning.
For 12 hours now, we are three!

A visit, two visits, many visits
A 10 Deutschmark note in his crib, for luck
(a Bosnian thing, put there by the mayor of Tuzla
who sang Zute Dunje - aman,aman - at our wedding
and again at his Scottish reception last night
while he was being born)

A joy, as never before

In your arms
our baby