house of happy

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

Monday, 25 March 2013

Boots On, Ready, Fly

Wet weekend in Islamabad. It starts pouring on Saturday morning. Starts, stops. Starts, stops. Yawn. It stays battleground-grey until Sunday night. Everyone idles in cafes and DVD shops. Every outdoor activity cancelled.

BUT NOT OUR WALK. Lightning, doors banging shut in the wind, wet breakfast bench, thunder - throughout it all, we still believe in our walk. THE WALK IS STILL ON. Three o'clock strikes and because we've just had breakfast (!) and it happens to be dry outside right this minute, and no one's chickened out yet, we set off.

(Jill, I'm wearing your boots.)

We walk. We walk against the wind, and there's something about the wild-hills-and-storm-on-the-horizon that fills the chest with quiet daring. Three steps into this march and it's not 'walking along Trail 5' as much as 'carving Trail 5 out of the jungle'. Subsequently, as the trail goes all steep and slippery, the same chest fills with small choking sounds and it's way hot inside the cagoule.

(Jill, your boots slip a little on these rocks.)

It's not until the way back (and still no rain) that I start getting worried about the one-false-step-and-slide-down-to-car-park scenario. Moona's somewhere ahead and this descent feels like wearing ice-skates down a vertical ice-rink. The path crunches and changes underfoot without warning, step-slide, step-slide, each enough to inflict a tiny heart-jolt. I'm a wreck. I grasp onto wet branches and give myself tree-showers. I clutch onto rocks and they crumble and roll in morose piles. I crouch and lunge as if I were walking under lasers. I grab Kira's shoulder and step like an arthritic flamingo from flat rock to dry patch to muddy manure.

It goes like this forever. I pretend to be normal only when we pass people. I might as well not try - by 'people' I mean 'walkers, male, Pakistani' and they look at us as if we'd crawled from under a purple rock on Planet Other. Two white females, walking? Gori, whooo. Alone? Whooooa. Wearing trousers and raincoats? Whoooooah. And those boots? (joke, Jill).

At some point we pass two black-and-white rabbits. A monkey on a boulder. A brown bird with a tail so long it looks like a paper plane. Then Kira and I look left and see a wild boar grunting in the leaves, next to the path. Our chatter dies down to such silence that we can hear some of the smaller rain clouds stretch and pop in the sky above. (I managed to tiptoe in your boots, Jill!)


And managed not to fall, people! Almost home. It's getting dark, we're loud and full of stories (the boar, remember?!!! hah, the pun). We walk fast along a flat, concrete path. A random step and my feet fly from under my body. There I am, suspended horizontal above the path for a mini-second, empty of all pain, fear or heartbeat. Can I stay like this? Please?

Aaaaitchh. Slam. Apparently not. Surprise on Moona's face and Kira's (before the smirks, before the Awww-s, before the little hugs and nuzzlings and offerings which are: a red flower, semi-squashed, and a eucalyptus branch.

(The boots are OK, Jill).

Friday, 22 March 2013

The Man in My Dream

A year ago, I was writing a poem for Alastair, on his birthday.

This is how March 22 became a good day for poems and why I must add one today.

A man appeared in a dream
unknown, longed for.
'Hello' he said. 'Hello.'

He was tall and taut, his
blinding presence made a small
primrose bloom
and tickle my ankle.

I flickered like candles
in a stormy room.

He wrapped his arm
around my waist.
'Shhh, steady'.
And this olive limb grew
straight from his heart and
longer with every breath
a strong, undeniable
vine round and round
an arched

The man in my dream
bent down to kiss me
and (before I felt them
on my lips),
his lips
turned to water.

They bathed my eyes
my mouth, my long fever,
with quick-smarting waves
of salt and summer
a soaring stream
a pulse of colour...

then, damn it, dawn
and the man in my dream?

I want him back,
and more please,
if he would,
step out of the dream
and into song

and then from song
into my hazel eye...
and then perhaps he could
just slip
from eye into heart
and then?

But wait, no!
he is right
my door.

Excuse me poem-readers,
I must go.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Tuzla, March 1998

This blog is for you Cheeta, and about you. A memory of a glorious, miserable Sunday 15 years ago. Miserable because of all the mud. Glorious because it made it into the time capsule and we open it today.

So here you were, this little guy in a canvas pram, pushed in turns by mother and aunt. Your knees hunched up to your chin (it was a very tiny pushchair). You smiled at bald bushes. You smiled at a rusty car. The little wheels hissed through the mud and vanished. You chuckled as the pram sank.

Alina leapt and lifted the front wheels and we carried you through the mud with these grim smiles that said: 'what are you staring at?' - to any reasonable Bosnian who might have glanced our way. We knew something about a park, past the Zoo. It was Sunday and we were taking you to THE park.

'Doggy' - you shouted as we passed a lanky, shaggy dog in a cage. Big, brown fur. Paws and claws. Small, dark eyes. It was a bear. It had gone through a war. It was a bear. We didn't tell you. Alina gave you a fruit pastille.

A discarded pantyhose got tangled in the front wheel of your pushchair - and stuck fast. The pram stopped. We fussed around the stupid thing, lifted it (with you inside) tried to unravel the knot, put it down again, pulled at the tights, pulled at the wheels, lifted it again, got going. You sat there, smiled, turned around for another glimpse of the 'doggy', sang something, kicked high with your boot, tried to whistle. We carried you the rest of the way.

We got to the park. Black mud to our knees, frozen mud between our fingers. We swore in Romanian and sweated. You swore in Romanian and smiled. The park consisted of a tin slide and a broken swing.

We unclipped you and you made for the slide. 'Good choice', I thought. You held on to the metal rungs of the ladder and climbed. 'How careful he is, how strong' I thought. You got to the top. There, you let go. You fell backwards, arms wide, legs together, straight as a plank. SPLAT - in the mud, before I could think 'pantyhose'.

Alina and I swept to your side. You lay in the mud and looked at the sky. Your face said: 'What just happened?' You saw us above and smiled. We lifted you up. The slide came back into view and you went straight back to the ladder. You climbed and your face said 'Haven't I just done this recently?' You got to the top. Your coat was black with mud and dripping. 'Forward, wee numpty' - I said and gave you a little push.

It's your 18th birthday today and - after all the love and longing - it's still what I want to say.

Thursday, 14 March 2013


So I was writing about Atlantis, drinking nettle tea, as you do.

Next thing I know, Atlantis on the doorstep, with a roar and a clatter. Hail-stones the size of peas. The size of pasta shells. The size of ping-pongs. They're still battering the tin roof. I hope not to have to mention goose eggs in the next sentence.

The street outside starts to look like a Christmas postcard.

The back path is a white river, the balcony a lake. Ice age inside plant pots.

I clutch an umbrella and wade in. A little orange tree outside, already in bloom, becomes my mission. The water comes to my ankles. A few steps in, frostbite seems imminent. No matter, no matter. One hand clutches the shredded umbrella. Another pulls and drags the orange tree under the eaves. Shuffle, shuffle, splash. By now, I look like a frosted elf in a garden center, and I could make cocktails for 40 with the ice in my left boot alone. If I had a third hand, I'd take a picture of my visit-to-Atlantis.

But then again, maybe not. Every legend needs its mystery.

Friday, 8 March 2013

Lime-light in the Indus Valley

The deep-scarred face of the Indus plains has opened a hundred hot mouths. A hundred small volcanoes add their fire to an endless summer.

... fire and man-made magic. Slim, laughing people stack limestone inside the kiln, make walls and domes of white stone. As they work, they sing, they chew 'paan', they spit deep-red stains on the white stone. They cover everything with warm mud, they tie the oven together with sticks and ropes. Then they brace for the back-breaking job of tending to this temporary god.

... while small donkeys bring their daily loads of 'taru' wood, 'taru' and 'devi', young saplings, cut early and already dry. The workers unload and stack the wood, a thorny forest miles-deep, surrounding the crater. Now it's ready.

The fire is lit. It will burn for three days and three nights. Every 20 seconds or so, another bundle of wood will be pushed into the mouth of the furnace. Inside, just glimpsed, a blinding inferno. More than 12,000 bundles will burn, each adding its bright instant of combustion to the relentless heat. The limestone will lose almost half of its weight, gases and moisture will billow out of the crater, and when the fire dies down, another kind of stone will await its servants.

Quicklime, a highly unstable substance, trying to revert to its previous state, seeking moisture - finding it sometimes in the skin of the workers, their lungs, their eyes. Barefoot they walk into the furnace to load it onto waiting trucks. And they smile, they cough, their arms burn, and they smile.

We wave and leave them. Black silhouettes against the sun, they straighten up to watch, slaves of some ancient artisan god whom they serve, day after day, without expecting any mercy, or riches, or light.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Karachi in Fire and in Shadow

'Gaily bedight
A gallant knight
In sunshine and in shadow
Had journeyed long
Singing a song
In search of El Dorado'...

And so we, my gallant knight and I, journeyed too - and found ourselves in the sunshine and the shadow of Karachi, the fiery heart of Pakistan.

Karachi is a troubled place these days. Unsafe and highly flammable, too prone to incomprehensible violence. Its inhabitants are routinely kidnapped, attacked, shot, knocked down by runaway vehicles, blown up. Some are personally targeted; for others, the expression 'wrong time, wrong place' takes on a most sinister meaning.

'We're off to Karachi', we tell friends - and get the same reaction: eyes too sad to hold the gaze, head shaking slowly. Then they tell some terrible story. A friend hit by a stray bullet as he drove to work. A journalist silenced. A bullet hole smashing the windscreen of the husband's car, sometime in the night. A bomb blast ripping apart a whole neighbourhood. One day later, mourners attacked as they bury the dead.

The place sounds like Bosnia in the early '90s. A war zone and no combat rules. A bit of a cold sweat then, around this 'flying to Karachi' plan. Then I remember life in Bosnia and it doesn't seem so bad after all, so I keep packing. Kira stays behind, with friends in Islamabad. I can't begin to imagine what it must be like to bring up children in Karachi.

The flight is 4 hours late: midnight almost, by the time we take off. Curious now about Karachi and stuck in a window seat I look down for an early glimpse of it. A mega city like this (equal to the entire population of my country!) should be amply mapped by its electrical lights... Still, as the plane descends, there is complete darkness. The landscape below remains black, veiled, unfathomable: is there anything out there AT ALL?

'Over the mountains
of the moon,
down the valley
of the Shadow
Ride, boldly ride
the Shade replied
if you search for El Dorado.'

We pass the mountains, the moon, the dark valley. And then, somehow, we land. The runway appears at the last minute, a yellow electrical line sprinkled across the dark land. More lights inside and the roar of generators. A power blackout has blinded Karachi - the whole of Pakistan actually: hundreds of millions, people enough to fill three Englands, left to face the night without any electrical help. As we drive to our hosts, we see little of Karachi.

Even afterwards, after power is restored, after mornings and afternoons, after trips and meetings, we see little of Karachi. 'Security' has grown into a sixth sense. A van with darkened windows and drawn curtains takes us everywhere. House to van, van to office, van to the interior of Sindh, van back to Karachi, van to house.

Outside The Van, people appear to lead normal lives, there's traffic and commerce and shouting and laughs. Karachi feels like any other city, and yet Karachi, don't forget, walks closer to the fire, ever closer to the shadow...

One day, one day we'll go back to Karachi and maybe then we'll find it too. Inshallah.