Half Memory Europe & North Africa

Stolen Luggage

Heathrow Airport: 51.470475, -0.455136

In the Heathrow airport one night with my older brother and some distant English cousin and his girlfriend we loaded the backpack in the boot. The cousin said, “Hey, look at that suitcase.” A large green suitcase stood alone with no car near it. “Someone must’ve forgotten it.” he looked around. We were the only people in the carpark. “Let’s get it.” his girlfriend said. He ran up, grabbed it and put it in the back seat. “Quick, quick get in!.” I squeezed in beside the suitcase and we drove off.
It was night, and we drove for a while out along a highway.
“What do you think’s in it?”
“Maybe someone left it there on purpose.”
“What if it’s full of cocaine.”
“Maybe a huge stash of money.”
“Even if someone left it there, he might have his wallet or something in it.”
“You’re little brother’s not going to say anything is he?”
“Nah, he’s alright.”
“Cause if he does…”
“No man. He’s my fuckin little brother. He’s alright.”
On the highway, the cousin pulled over, got out and dragged the suitcase onto the grassy verge and opened it. There were clothes, slacks and shirts. Under the bluish white flourescent street lights, he threw them all out onto the grass. There was nothing but clothes and a small package. He left everything where it was except the small package which he handed to his girlfriend and drove on.
She opened it up. “It’s a passport.” she said, “Just a passport.” she handed it around.
I opened it and looked at the photo. It was a man wearing a turban. “He’s a Sikh.” I said.
“Well he’s going to be pissed off he’s lost his suitcase.” they all laughed.

Walking The Master’s Dog

Little Chalfont: 51.667200, -0.586172

I went out into the gravel drive. Near the front door of the main house were the dark green gumboots of the owner of the place. There was some reason that rich English people wore that specific shade of dark green gumboots. We were like the servants, living in a single story cottage attached to the main two story house. Across the drive was the barn where my brother had said they’d been digging and found old bottles. I wanted to know where it to do some archaeology was but it had been filled in already. Marilyn was their housekeeper while Dad worked in Chesham. I was their dog walker and had to walk him each day. It was a black labrador, also the sort of thing to be owned by someone who was like some sort of lord of the manor. I went round the back and called out, “Bessie”. The friendly black dog came lolloping up with it’s tongue out and I gave it a pat. We walked up through the small back garden, and ducked through a hole in the tall hedge, out into the fields behind the house. It was a sunny day but cool. I put my hands in the pockets of my duffle coat and began walking up the rise, the dog running ahead. Over the rise, out of sight of the house, on the downward slope overlooking the trees fields and houses in the shallow valley I sat down while the dog ran. The sky was clear and blue and all around in the rich green grass were tiny daisies growing wild. “Daisy,” from the Anglo Saxon, ‘Day’s Eye’, according to a book in a library somewhere, meaning the sun, the yellow heart of the flowers surrounded by little white petals, all carpeting the paddock. There were always quaint flowers around. Daffodils grew by the road at the front of the house all the way along to Little Chalfont. In the small copses of birch and beech trees there were violets and bluebells. Mum had always gone on and on about how much she loved the bluebells. Dad had always said that when he’d been in England he’d collected pressed wildflowers. They met here in Amersham, the main village up the road from Little Chalfont, and had my brother here.

I stood up and walked over to the trees at the edge of the field. Someone had carved the initials of who they loved, AG 4 AH. I remembered Scott from primary school. Years ago we had taunted each other by writing their initials 4 the initials of their secret love. You’d write it and the other would have to try to erase it. The Chiltern Hills are chalk hills full of flint so I found two pieces of flint and struck them against each other to get a sharp point and carved his initials here, SB 4 RS thinking I’d finally won since there was no way he could find this and rub it out, even though it didn’t matter any more. And then, remembering my secret love, and since no-one would see it here, and since it didn’t matter any more, and since my old friend wasn’t there to do it himself, I carved my own KP 4 CS.
I called Bessie but she wouldn’t come. That was unusual. She was down the hill engrossed in something on the ground. I went down to see but couldn’t because her snout was in the way. I didn’t normally have to force Bessie to do anything but I grabbed her collar and pulled her head away to see. It was some formless lump of grey flesh. It was disgusting. I couldn’t figure out what it might be or why it would end up in the middle of a field, but I didn’t like the look of it and it didn’t look healthy for Bessie to eat. Dragging Bessie by the collar to get her away from it I realised it might be a sheep’s afterbirth.

We went down to the copse in the middle of the fields. I liked that word ‘copse’. It was in a slight hollow in the ground, wooded with Silver Birch and Beech trees. It was a very small copse but the way the sunlight dappled through the light green leaves onto the silver bark was beautiful. I liked all the copses around. There was one further down at the bottom of the hill, it was longer and the ground was covered densely in fallen leaves. It had it’s own character, beautiful too but dank, and it was one of the few places you could find bluebells but it had a path through it and the occasional person disturbed its peace. And there were larger woods on the way to Chesham which you could explore on or off the path. But this was a different copse to the others. The ancient druids had certain parts in forests which had great power where they would conduct rituals and commune with the spirits of the other world and I recognised that this was one such place. Most of my blood came from somewhere in these islands on the other side of the world and the genius of this copse was benevolent, or at least it was to me. I was in sympathy with this place. It was a place I belonged and which belonged to me. So I would go there every time I walked the dog, just to be there in the company of the shifting green and silver light.

We walked on following the usual route over to fields to the hedges that lined a path across the fields between joining roads and settlements. On the way, Bessie again ran off, out of character, over to a small fenced paddock with sheep in it. I went up to get her at the same time as a man came out of the house. It was a surprise as normally there was no-one around the fields. He called out, “Get your dog out!” Bessie was not yet harassing the sheep, but I could see it might happen, I called her more and she came.

“Is that your dog!”

“No, it’s um, the man…” and I pointed. I couldn’t remember the name of the people who owned the house we were in.

“If I see that dog around here again, I shall shoot it.”

I took Bessie by the collar and we walked away again, down the fields away from the farmer. I found a gap in the hedge we could crawl through onto the path and went back up to the road, along by the hosts of golden daffodils, that’s what Dad always said about Daffodils, “I wandered lonely as a cloud, when all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils.” then up the gravel drive to the house.

Washing Up

Little Chalfont: 51.669613, -0.582943

‘Dios bendiga cada rincon de esta casa.’ it says on the central tile. I look down at my hands and dishes in the bubbles in the sink and say it in my head, “Dios bendiga cada rincon de esta casa.” I’ve read it so many times I know it by heart. It’s a good way to remember things, washing up. Washing up isn’t hard enough to concentrate on, so your mind is free, but you can’t occupy it with something interesting because you’re washing up, so it just goes over what there is to go over. Maybe I should stick my maths equations there. Someone must have been on holiday in Spain. ‘Dios bendiga cada rincon de esta casa.’ looks like Spanish. ‘Dios’ God, ‘casa’, house. I’ll look up what it means at the library tomorrow… ‘rincon’, ‘nook or cranny’, good word ‘rincon’. God bless every nook and cranny of this house.

English School Bullies

Amersham: 51.671345, -0.583930

I took to working on the correspondence school work in the Amersham library. It got me out of the house more, instead of just walks in the back paddocks and bicycling once in a while. It was a small library and as a break from the work I’d browse the shelves from time to time. I read Clan Of The Cave Bear by Jean M Auel, and a little Camus and Descartes. Coming back home there was a section where it was better to get off the bike and walk, there were traffic lights to cross the road, there were some ongoing roadworks taking up half the road, and all the shops, footpaths and traffic narrowed in on each other making it difficult, to squeeze a bike through without crashing. I was walking my bike through this section and was crossing over a long drive that lead behind the shops when two English school boys called out to me. I stopped and asked, politely, “Pardon?” They sauntered over, both taller than me, saying one thing and another and before I knew it the each had looped their arms through mine, one on each side and were walking me down the drive. I realised then that they were bullies and must be taking me round the back for a belting. I was stunned for a minute, walking with them, at what a cliched scene I was in. These were real English school bullies fitting in every way, how they might seen on television or described in a book. Big lugs in school blazers, and there I was, the very model of their victim – skinny, navy blue duffle coat, grey slacks with a bicycle clip around the calf. It was a few moments, seeing myself somehow acting out this scene for real, before I came to my senses. As I appeared to be capitulating, I surprised them and wriggled out of one of their grips, then one of them got me in a headlock which I also wriggled out of. It seemed to surprise them that I wasn’t completely in their power out of fear and their strength wavered and I was walking, not running, pride intact, back to my bike. I picked it up from where it has fallen and prepared to cycle off again. Since I wanted to be away fast from then on, I’d risk the narrow gaps between the cars. As I prepared to leave they’d walked up ahead, so I would have to ride past them. As I did one of them spat on the back of my head. Until that moment, although it was unnerving and strange, I hadn’t been too perturbed, but that spit, having to wipe somebody else’s malicious slimy filth of the back of my head drove me mad. I was overwhelmed with hatred. Spitting is the worst act of contempt. When defenceless people are completely overpowered yet they still want to say they hold their captor beneath them, they spit on them. Those English bullies were no better than me. I wanted to ride back and pick up my bike and smash it into their face, to aim it just right so the gears would smash their teeth. First one then the other and there was no way they could beat me because they thought it was just a joke whereas I had implacable rage. But did I really want to do that much damage to someone? It could be permanent. Maybe one day in their future they will look back and realise what they were like and regret it. I stopped the bike, wiped my head with my handkerchief and walked on. If I ever saw them again I would have to be careful not to kill them.

The First Poem

Chesham Bois: 51.691410, -0.613085


In Chesham library the time had come to do my maths test. It required the official supervision of a librarian. I sit with my papers at a round desk near the loans desk, and look up at the clock at the edge of the upper level, above the rows of bookshelves. The second hand strikes twelve and the librarian goes back to work. I open the envelope, put my head down and answer the questions. Almost an hour later, I have finished and am looking over the answers, for the second time, bored. A man in layers of grey dirty torn rags sits at the desk. After a moment he says, “I see you can write.” I look at him. “Would you mind writing a poem for me?” I see no harm in that, so I take a grey covered exercise book from my bag that I haven’t used for anything yet and open it to the front page. He’s already started reciting so I try to catch up. All his words are beautiful but, though he speaks in a regular voice he never pauses and I can’t keep up. I don’t understand it. There are biblical and mystical words, archangels, demons, names with many syllables that I don’t know enough about to interpret. He is mad perhaps, but this is real poetry. Just the sound of the words makes them more than the rambling of some drunk madman. But I can’t keep up. I can only get two lines here, and another line there. Why does he want me to do it? Why doesn’t he do it himself? What was that phrase, I forget, just make sure I get this next bit. Maybe this is a work of great genius, told once, an old man to some kid in a library, and maybe he’ll think afterwards that his work is done, he has given the world his gift, inspired by the archangels and disappear, finally die, but I can’t get all of it. The librarian comes and asks if I’m alright. Yes, I say, but the spell is broken. The librarian tells the man to get out. She speaks to him quietly so I can’t hear but I know she is telling him not to bother the boy. She needs to protect me from the crazies. He stands and slowly leaves. This perhaps, for all anybody knows, is the greatest poem ever written, killed by a stupid librarian. Anyway, he has as much right to sit in a library as anyone else. And two people can talk to each other. Maybe he’ll die out there, on the side of the road somewhere, and his poem with him. I pack up my things and check that it’s ok to leave. The man wasn’t anywhere outside, it’s a longer walk than I usually make back through Amersham and Little Chalfont, though my brother does it every day to his job at the printers, and my father to his job at the local newspaper. I walk up the long road through Chesham Bois, a bigger forest than any in Amersham or Little Chalfont, denser, it could even have deer, but I don’t go into it. I just want to go home. Where the road leaves the wood and the suburbs start again, on the concrete footpath there is a small dead bird, lying on it’s back, it’s eyes closed. It looks fresh, it’s feathers are clean, dry and soft. It must have been alive not long ago. The feathers of it’s chest and underbelly are yellow to light grey. The feathers on it’s wings and back are greyish blue. I think it’s a Blue Tit. It’s both beautiful and dead. I think ‘Blue Tit, Blue Tit. Beautiful bird, even in death.’ It’s a shame the bird has a rude name that has nothing to do with how beautiful it is. I know it’s bad poetry, but it’s simple and says exactly what it means and nothing more and aside from what I might have had to do in school, it’s my first poem. No, the bird is the poem. It says everything. It’s beautiful and it dies, and it’s still beautiful, even in death. And it’s forgotten by the side of the road, and everybody passes by and nobody sees. Nobody notices this moment, this small thing that means everything. Only me because when I’m walking I’m looking at the ground. There is only me and the universe, only we understand that this bird is everything that poetry is, says it better than any poem can, something both beautiful and sad at the same time and however bad my words are, I must write down. I must write this dead bird down. Walking home, all the way, staring at the footpath two steps ahead, the words turn over and over again in my mind, trying not to be forgotten. At home I find the small black hardcover notebook with red spine and corners. I’ve had it all along because I was meant to use it as a journal, but never wrote in it till now.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself. It’s just another form of loving yourself. You love yourself.
If I don’t nobody will.

Skye Moors

Trotternish Peninsula: 57.614213, -6.262597


A step back, staggering, falling forwards, held up by the wind. Hurling rain, making its own sounds in your open mouth. It blows your soul out your body. Moors and clouds. Moors for centuries stewing old heather and turning up tough stalks and blooming little purple buds again under clouds streaming above for as long as the island has been here, rain sucked down by the wind into the deep, dank layers, springing with pure clear smooth pebbled brooks, cold slaking a thirst from long learned strides, between the heather where there’s more ground than water and from heather top to heather top where there’s more water than ground, on rises around bogs, or straight through bog if that’s how it is, by a low row of stones from an old home where once burned peat to cook sheep and be warm and lives hungered and cleared out or died, from the limpet shells, kelp and wave worried cracked rock platforms and middens under the sand around the black sea cliffs all up to the black cliffs of tors in cloud. It can’t be written. Moors are moors. Better read the peat than a book about it.

In The Bairn

Clachan: 7.621680, -6.201843


He holds up the old white strips, bent over at the edges, with a button hole in the middle. “They’re collars.” he says.
“What?” It was good to be with him again. My brother.
“These must be from the 30s or something. Look they used to have detachable collars.”
“Why?”
“So you could wash them separately I suppose. You just wash and starch your collar and button it onto your shirt, see, here. And razor blades look.”
I take the large coat out of the old suitcase and unravel it.
“Holy shit. Look at that. It must be. I think that’s a World War I great coat. An oilskin. Look at it. This must have been from someone in the war.”
I put it on. It fit well, plenty of room. It was made of thick material that seemed soaked in dirty black oil. It had a smell like pop’s garage. It had been in the suitcase decades, since the war, not worn since some man had been in a trench killing, watching his friends die in the mud, machine guns, gas. He must have lived himself because he’d left this suitcase here. But what happened? One day he shut it and never opened it again.
“Fuckin’ amazing.”
We looked around the cramped bairn. Dirt floor, a few shelves, this dusty suitcase. On the window sill a small rusted old cylinder with half it’s paper label worn away.

PIGEON

Paris: 48.852513, 2.352705

On the cobbled street a kid pulled back the rubber band on his makeshift crossbow aiming a bicycle spoke at a pigeon. I went into the deli and said over the glass counter, “Un baguet, s’il vous plaît.”

The Resistance

Paris: 48.852513, 2.352705

One of Dad’s favourite stories was that when he was in Paris he was sleeping in the street and it was so cold he thought he was going to freeze to death. This old man came by and took him back to his house where he stayed a while. The old man had been in the resistance. So when we reached Paris we stayed in his son’s and his son’s fiance’s small apartment. There was just enough space for us to spread our sleeping bags on the living room floor. They seemed to have no understanding of my age, thinking no more than ‘child’, and put on Pinochio for me, which was none the less interesting being in French, and funny to hear him shouting ‘Jimmenie Criquant’. The fiance gave me a large souvenir pencil as if it were a toy that I would smile and play with. Later Dad reminded me it doesn’t matter what someone gives you, you need to thank them properly for it. The son loved Pink Floyd and showed us a video of them playing live at Pompeii. He interested me in geology and crystals, and a smooth stone with a rare, millimetre long crystal growing on it’s surface. When we left he gave me that rock which Dad chucked out in Lyon saying he’s not carrying a bag of bloody rocks around the world and pointed out that although Pink Floyd and rocks were all bullshit, as guests we needed to watch the movie and look at the rocks politely. The fiance always wore elaborate new wave make up, like a mask over her eyes and spreading around her temples. When she woke up in the morning, pacing around the house with frazzled hair shouting constantly ‘Merde, merde, merde!’ it was still there. She must have slept in it. I never saw her without it. She said, ‘Merde, merde, merde!’ all the time, and as much as she said it, Dad would say, as soon as she was out of the room, “She’s a total neurotic, a total neurotic.” They served us tea in bowls for breakfast with a selection of sugar cubes with various fruit flavours. To be entertain us, as good hosts, they took us out to dinner one night, to a Mexican restaurant. When my plate came out there was a large dollop of grey mashed beans. Trying to eat beans usually made me almost throw up, but I could see Dad was already nervous about how much it would cost, and if there were nobody else there he’d say, “You eat what’s put in front of you.” so I tasted the beans. I understood then why everyone raves about French cooking, even when they cook another country’s food, even beans, they make it taste ten times better than anywhere else. I had lemon sorbet for dessert.
I sit on an armchair in the old man’s apartment. I’m supposed to listen to his stories so I wait, hoping for a real and genuine account of his days in the resistance. His son and his faince are in the kitchen, preparing some tea or something and Dad and Marilyn stand around in the living room. Dad had always described him as an old man in his story from when Dad was young, so now he is ancient. A small frail old man, struggling to form his thoughts on his lounge. He says a few things in French to his son who replies in quick French. The old man says, “My English is not good. I can’t remember. I’m sorry.” His son comes into the room and speaks to him again. The old man struggles to speak again, “Before… one time. My English is good. I am old. Not good. Now. I am old. I forget.” In his face I see him struggling hard against the forgetfulness of old age. He looks ashamed to have forgotten the words. I’m ashamed that we brought this on him, but I don’t know how to take it back. I wish I knew more French than ‘Un baguet, sils vous plait.’
His son prompts him along, saying, “He was in the resistance. Papa, you were in the resistance, weren’t you?”
“Yes, yes.” he says, “I was in.” he stopped and struggled to think and to find the right words, “I was in the… boom, boom.” he mimed with his hands, and looked at us for the right word.
His son asked us, “He’s saying he was in the, what is that? With bombs?”
“In the…shelling? Yes, bombs. The blitz.” Dad offered.
“I’m sorry. English. I forget.” he said, and again, “I was in the boom boom.” He couldn’t say any more.
We drank our tea quietly.

Lyon Train Station

Lyon: 45.760554, 4.861163


Dad parked in a dark street. The back of the train station loomed above us. It was the middle of the night. We all got out of the station wagon. We can get a train from Lyon to Spain, he’d said. We’d see when we get there. We unloaded all out bags. He started going through them. “I’m not taking all this shit.” he was saying. Taking a plastic bag out here and there. Loading them up with this and that. “I’ve got to carry all the bloody school books. Look at this.” He held up the rock the guy we stayed with in Paris had given me. It was a smooth round rock with a microglyph growing on it. A tiny crystal you could see with a magnifying glass. “I’m not carrying around a bag full of rocks. It’s not worth anything anyway.” He took the plastic bags away. He was telling M they’d just ditch the car, that they wouldn’t get anything selling it and there’d be the paperwork and they couldn’t hang around, time to move on while I pretended to be putting my bags in order, packing them right and zipping them up, checking over what he’d thrown out. It seemed a shame that not knowing the microglyph was there, no-one would see it again, that rock would go back to being just another grey rock. But as much as I might have liked to have a microglyph sitting on my windowsill at home to look at with a magnifying glass from time to time on the sort of bored afternoons I could remember, it was fair enough that you can’t lug pointless rocks around the world. I only just realised there was one thing I wanted to keep and I couldn’t find it. It was a small thing, light enough, only a skinny book in a plain dark blue hard cover, The Key Of The Chest, by Niel M Gunn. It wouldn’t be too heavy. I’d make sure I carried it myself. It was the soul of the Isle of Skye. It was the soul of the place where the wind was strong enough to blow my soul away from my bones. It was a little something of that place that I wanted to keep. He’d been up in the attic of the first place we lived in Clachan snooping around and brought down a suitcase. There was nothing much interesting in it except this book. He’d read a bit of it. We talked about it while playing Gin Rummy. He’d said I wouldn’t like it so then I had to read it. I couldn’t put it down. Although it was set on the mainland it was so much like the way things where there. It was hard to understand how it was possible to so exactly create that same feeling of being in a place with words. If you describe the sky in the Mexico highlands, and the sky on the Isle of Skye, on a particular day, a clear day, what can you say about it? That it is bright, blue, clear, fresh, brisk. But the air in different places, the way it feels on your skin, smells, looks, and the light on things is completely different, but there’s no words that can say how, exactly, no words can capture what it’s like or what the difference is. All words can only ever circle around things, never be them. It means, I have these memories of places, of what it is like to be there, of that feel of the air on your skin, the quality of the light, the way it makes you feel just to be there, and it’s all impossible to communicate. It’s something I know and can never tell anyone even if I want to. These memories of all these place I can never have in share with anyone. I will always be completely alone. But somehow Neil Gunn’s words have the spirit of that place in them. That place where my spirit was swept out of my body by the unceasing wind into the sea, the cliffs, heather and peat, tied to this empty body like a ball of invisible string unravelling in the middle of my chest, speeding by car, train and foot through the labyrinth of the world. It was the Isle of Skye in words. My brother read it and he understood this about it too. We all did. Then we all got new Neil Gunn books for Christmas and took turns reading each others on the long nights by the old coal burning stove, drinking tea from the kettle that sat on it stood always on the edge of the boil. It was a small thing to carry and it wasn’t there any more. Of all the things I wanted that. I should have said something while he was going through the stuff. I didn’t even think of it. I had to say something. “Where’s the The Key Of The Chest?”
“The what?”
“It was the little blue book. The Neil Gunn book.”
“I chucked it.”
I couldn’t speak.
“We don’t need it. We’ve all read it. C’mon we’ve got a train to catch.”
“We carried our bags around the building and up the stairs and escalators to the large open white tiled fluorescent lit area in front of the platforms. A large clock said sometime after eleven. Dad looked for the times of trains to anywhere in Spain, probably Barcelona. It was too late. No more trains tonight. We’d have to wait for morning.
“Sit here.” he said and we sat on a row of plastic seats. “You can get some sleep if you want.” I looked around and there wasn’t a good place for sleeping. The chair were designed so you couldn’t lie across them. “There’s an early train to Toulouse in a few hours. It’s in the right direction.” It didn’t look right to go and lie against the wall in such a hard, bright lit open place with people walking past. I decided to stay awake for the few hours. There was nothing I wanted to read. Nothing I wanted to read except The Key Of The Chest again. It was the one thing I wanted to have. I stood and walked around to stay awake and hold off the boredom by seeing what there was to see. I strolled aimlessly in the direction of the mens’ toilets. A man came up, in a brown jacket and black shirt. He muttered something in French. I was bored so thought I might as well try to help him out, though I had to shake my head to say and give him a confused look to show I didn’t understand French. He muttered something again. And again I shook my head, smiling and raised my arms. He started to look anxious, like this was going on too long but made a final effort to be understood, muttering and resorting to sign language, shaking his thumb in front of his mouth. I understood he meant cock sucking. He was asking if I was available to suck his cock. This must be where boys sell themselves, the Lyon train station after the last train. Why else would I be here? I shook my head and walked away, around and back to the seats where I sat, nodding off in the fluorescent light for hours, wondering if I left my father, if that’s what I’d have to do to make a living, trying to imagine what it would be like, if I could do it, and in the end giving up on deciding, looking forward only to a train seat to sleep in.

Allah And An Ideal World

West Sahara: 33.333095, -3.040819

The road was narrow, winding around the edge of steep mountains bare of anything but stone and all blue in the twilight. From the bus window I looked down at the blue depths we would plummet if the bus skidded off the dirt road, and across the blue spaces to the blue mountains or up at the blue wall towering above to the dark blue sky. I sat for hours watching it go by in a half sleep. There was nothing but mountains, then hills then desert. There was nowhere so beautiful and desolate and I wanted again, for the hundredth time, but now more than ever, to be out there, to keep going so far I couldn’t be seen from the road, to be totally out of reach, totally alone in that blueness, to be nobody between an empty heaven and an empty earth. As night fell the world outside disappeared and in the window there was only the reflection of my own face, the snoring of another passenger, the knowledge that everyone here had some problem and some purpose, and that someone at the other end might be expecting to find hashish planted in our luggage. Sometime in the night the bus came to a small town and stopped. We followed the other passengers off and milled around in a wide open sandy courtyard with some date palms in a row and white arches. The other people who had got off the bus and were stretching their legs were looking up and remarking. I looked up too at the impeccable at the unique coincidence of the thin moon and Jupiter in Ramadan in the star filled heavens. There was no embellishment. Everything was reduced to its essence. The building was a series of white arches. The data palms grew evenly in a row. The ground was sand and sand alone. The night was the stars and the moon. We people were only people, all wondering at the work of Allah.

Stoning Foreigners

Algiers: 36.754250, 3.058644

In Algiers the buildings were all grey with pale dust settled on them, no signs and no colour. The streets were empty and there was no noise coming from the rooms of the buildings, yet they all seemed inhabited. I wondered what kept everyone inside, so silent and knew it was wrong for us to be moving in the streets. I wondered what would happen if someone offended at our wrongdoing decided to do something about it. The police maybe, or a group of angry men. There was no choice though, except to walk the streets, as we had to find a place to stay. We walked up the hill through grey apartment blocks. Dad was following a map or some directions he had, looking for the specific address of the place we’d been approved to stay. We’d taken a wrong turn and had to circle back around the block. We stood outside a building that seemed to have the right address. There was nothing to indicate on the building whether it was a hotel, but there was nothing else to do. We went in and up several flights to the number indicated on the piece of paper. We knocked on the door. There was some movement before it was opened a crack. A strong and foul smell of male came out and a young man’s face appeared. Through the gap another young man was lying on a matress on the floor. The man at the door looked at us through the gap and said, “Salaamouelikoum”. He looked as confused as we were. Dad tried to ask him a few things in English but it was clear he didn’t know what this was all about. It was the wrong place and we didn’t know where the right place was. It wasn’t just the wrong place. It was a very wrong place. It seemed like some kind of frame up. The officials had given Dad the wrong address on purpose. They send the foreignors to the homosexuals to implicate them both and put them both in prison for homosexuality and foreign conspiracies.

We knew we wouldn’t stay in Algiers, but since we were in the place Marilyn and I decided to go for a short walk to have a look at it and find some food. We didn’t go far. We were walking past piles of concrete rubble at a demolition site, flanked by some grey apartments and a gutted building. Marilyn was wearing tight blue jeans and a puffy blue jacket. I didn’t feel safe walking next to her around here dressed like that. I wondered why, in the middle of Ramadan, she had sat on the bus back in Morocco and eaten an orange. “Well, I don’t have to fast. I’m not moslem.” she said. For one thing, it was dangerous to go to somebody’s place and offend them. In this place you could get killed. I had to give her credit for bravery though, insisting on remaining a free Western woman wherever, but I wasn’t sure it wasn’t stupidity. If it was just as easy to wait till you got back to the hotel why go out of your way to offend someone? It was just rude. Something whizzed past my ear. I could feel the wind from it as it passed. I turned to look at where it thudded on the ground. It was a lump of concrete about as big as my fist with steel rods sticking out of it. It would have cracked my skull if it hit me. I looked around and couldn’t see or hear anyone. Marilyn linked her arm through mine and I wondered why the hell she was looking to me to defend her when she was independent and had made her own choices and I was nothing but a boy, but I stood up taller none the less. We turned around and walked straight back. A lot of hatred poured down from all these silent grey buildings, enough to kill us without even knowing who we were.

Più Bella

Guardiagrele: 42.191221, 14.221948


I sit at the small desk and pull the chair in. Weeks had slipped by and I was supposed to catch up on the correspondance schoolwork. It would mean doubling up again, trying to get through two days worth of maths in one day, then two days worth of English, and so on, to make up for lost time, so that we could get back on the road again and find out what the next place would be, whereever it might be. But I looked from the sheet of quadratic equations out the small square window by the desk and there under the sun, spread hill after rolling hill of olive groves, tree lined roads and villages, mile after mile towards Pescara, somewhere out there on the Adriatic Sea so far it was barely visible at the horizon. I saw myself down there walking on any stretch of those quite back roads past farms, groves and vines, past stucco cracking away from ancient stone blocks, up hills and around bends in the perfectly bright and perfectly mild sunshine. I saw myself, one day, just walking, sleeping by the roadside, unpacking a cloth of salami, cheese and bread, cutting bits for breakfast and walking on again, and stopping and eating and walking again, from hill to hill across streams, past rock walls passing through village after village, from time to time conversing with the sparrows. There is no more beautiful place in all the world. Everything, in every way, not just for looking at, but in every aspect, is beautiful. The L* children, the girl 14, the boy 16, both indulged with scooters and liberties by their doting parents, both the most astonishingly beautiful physiques of any person I had ever seen anywhere. Except perhaps for O* who in an unfamiliar ritual had been one in a line of girls I was introduced to, out of the blue, in the a small park called the Piano, at one end of the hilltop town, looking towards the sea, with geometric paths and hedges, and a fountain with a pond of goldfish, a park where it was Spring. Standing in the Piano I turned and there was a small queue, and one after the other I shook hands, taken by surprised. One or two were watching our faces closely, and I suspected after a while they were looking to see if there were some spark of chemistry. Some love at first sight. I became nervous then, afraid of making some error and O* presented herself, more beautiful than anyone, so beautiful I didn’t notice the next two, but beautiful as they were, there was nothing until M*, as nervous as me, shook hands and averted her eyes and stepped aside. I wanted to turn to her, but courteously greeted the following girls. I didn’t know what to think. What was this for? What did they mean to happen? Was it a set up for a joke? How could it be real? But at the same time, how frank, honest and beautiful to simply introduce people and see if it’s love at first sight.
And from the Piano, you could walk up past the Cantina, glancing down to where the traditional copper pots and sickles and rakes were sold, up the Via Roma along which, every day, at a certain hour, everyone with their family or friends would come out to parade themselves in their best, ambling up and down past the gelateria, where once a day for due mile lire, I get a limone-melone double scoop, past the Pizzeria, no more than a window with two kinds of Pizza layed out on two vast rectangular trays, where every day, for due mile lire I get a rectangular slice, past the small Renaissance church, with it’s exterior fresco of a Saint pierced with arrows towering over the small square, and past the street down which there’s a hall and another square where nearly every night in spring someone who is touring Europe peforms something, from concert pianists to sword fighting cossacks, and up the last stretch to the Piazzo, another square, the only space big enough in town to park a car or two and to kick a soccer ball, and another small park where it is always Winter, where a tall, broad, dark and empty medieval keep stands among pine trees overlooking a vista to the snow capped mountains, where the village of Pennepiedimonte zig zags up the slopes. Life itself in this place is beautiful. Once in the Piano, near the fish pond, Dad was talking to his two old friends, friends he had known when he was young, who had picked him up hitchhiking in Yugoslavia and brought him back here, which is why we had come back to visit. One of them was now a botanist, another a doctor, each on their own course. As they stood talking, one of them making a joke about my father being unable to find his pen, a butterfly flew between them. The botanist held his finger up and explaining that the pinkness of the finger can sometimes attract a butterfly to land on it, mistaking it for a flower, then other then held up his own finger, though my father didn’t. Such a thing would be inconceivable in Australia, two grown men competing for a butterfly to land on their finger. Piu bella.
Sitting at the desk, resting my chin in my hand, the pen flicking loosely in my fingers I wonder what, in many years time I would rather remember – bowing my head to a yellow piece of foolscap concentrating on quadratic equations, or going down the stairs, out the double doors into the courtyard and under the Renaissance arch under which 1000s of people had walked for hundreds of years, in changing fashions, each worried about whatever worried them in their time, wars, harvests, loves, politics, and walking down the narrow street to the Piano and up the Via Roma again, or even dissappearing down into those hills. What would it matter anyway if I did or did not do any school work at all? The Australian Government is far away and what can I learn from quadratic equations? What difference would it make to anything? The hills will still be there, the 14th century arch will still be there and people would still go about their business whether I do school or not. What a waste of time it would be to be here and not to live here. It is impossible to study in a place this beautiful. Who’s going to stop me?
I stood and went out our apartment door. On the steps, by good luck there are my friends, if I could call them that by now. I wasn’t sure. I hadn’t known anyone for more than a year before we came here, barely even spoken to anyone beyond “Hello”. I didn’t know how I was supposed to be or what I was supposed to do, so in a way it was good that I didn’t speak the Italian, because I had an excuse. I could be with people and they wouldn’t expect me to talk, nor even to understand much, and anything strange that happened could just be put down to that. But here now is 3 of them, A*, who had looked very sheepish when we’d gone inside the church once when it was empty. M* had performed a ritual with the holy water. I stood near the door, afraid of accidentally committing some sacrilege, as she dipped her finger in the holy water and went between the benches up to the alter and knelt and gesticulated and A* had a mischevious grin, looking around like he was afraid of being kicked out, and when M* came back he took some holy water and made a joke with it and M* rebuked him. And S* who had pointed out the Mafia graffiti, the circle and cross, or cross hairs at their sitting spot along the Via Roma, and Sb* who once they had teased for having an ugly dialetta surname, “Sb*”, and I’d wanted to say something to stop them though I didn’t know what, and M* who had given me a twig from a plant that grows in the foothills nearby that you chew because it tastes like liqourice and spent some time laughing, trying to get me to pronounce its name properly, “Liccoricia de racidia” sounded perfect to me, but always, she said, “No, no – Liccoricia… de… racidia.” and well, we all went to A*’s house once while his parents were out and they made a big lunch of just spaghetti with cheese and pepper, so although I don’t do much but hang around trying to catch on to what they’re saying, not saying anything, because I haven’t picked up much beyond, “ciao, ragazza, ragazzo, fanculo, che bruto, che stronsa, che male, che bella, due mile lire, limone melone” I guess, all in all, I’d have to admit we are friends.
Here they are coming up the stairs just as I’m going out and we’re all saying, ‘Ciao’ and heading back down the stairs, and just as we reach the bottom of the stairs a sudden shower of rain stops us. We all wait there for a minute while they try to decide whether to wait or run. Eventually someone’s tired of waiting and taps another and just runs and they all follow, out through the courtyard and under the arch that people have been running under in a shower of rain for hundreds of years, except for M* who is over by the foot of the stairs and I go to the door and look out at the rain and back at M*, but she makes no move to come. She waits there by the foot of the stairs and I take a few steps towards her and she looks up at me, looks straight into me with her beautiful light brown eyes and says, “Dolce.”

A Passage From Pescara

Pescara: 42.465007, 14.220691


In the dark piazza at night, across from where the ferry ticket office is, dad rummaging through bags. “She’s stolen our passports.” He looks up and sees her right away, on the other side of the piazza. I kept my distance to watch what happened, as if I didn’t know them. I didn’t want to know them. They argued, he grabbed her bag, there was a tussle, he slapped her face. The group of young men started saying in their loud American accents, “Did you see that?” “He hit her.” “Should we get him?” My father quietly and quickly walked away, out of the piazza and into the shadows of a side street. M walked in another direction.
I stood there wondering what to do. Dad might come back. The Americans might go find him. There might be a huddle of them over him, their elbows coming up and going down again. And then they’d clear away and Dad might be dead, or he might have to go to hospital or he might end up just bruised and still make it to the boat. If that happened? How could I stop a bunch of angry Americans? Too stupid to stop and think they might not understand the whole story. It’s not like I could say, ‘Excuse me’ and they would stop punching so I could sit them down and explain: He is a traveller. He hitch hiked from Australia to England when he was young. It took six years. And he hitched around Australia before that. That’s how he met my mother, when he got to England. But they got divorced when I was two. They hated each other. And although it was rare at the time for a man to get custody, he got custody. As her revenge she said she would never let him leave town. So you can see if you aren’t allowed to go where you please, the world is like a prison without walls. Now this woman steals his passport and his son’s passport. The one thing in all the world he holds dear she tries to take from him. Now a man should never hit a woman, but please don’t kill him. So if we could just get our passports the whole thing will be over and we’ll be on our way.
On the other hand maybe it would be better without him. Maybe I want to just leave right now anyway. Whether he comes back or not. Finally in the moment I’m alone. If I ducked away. He wouldn’t have eyes on me. I could lose him quickly. A few turns of a few street blocks and then there’d be too many choices, too much distance. He’d have to go to the police if he wanted to find me after that. And he won’t want to get the authorities involved. I could go back up to the village. But his freinds would mind me. Then he’d find me soon enough. And why would I go back. How could I go back. Why did those people hang out with each day? When I couldn’t even speak to them. If I had been there, or not been there it wouldn’t really have mattered. Made no difference. And now I’m here anyway. And if I go back I’ll soon be gone. What difference does it make to anyone or anything. One moment I’m here. The next I’m not. So what? And that girl. Why did she look at me? What was I supposed to do? Why didn’t I do it? Why would she like me anyway? Should I like her or not? How am I supposed to know what to do when I don’t know anything? Why does everything seem so obvious to everyone else. Like when we walked around the park up to that step and turned around and I was there standing on the step wondering why she’d turned about, but I asked G about it and he laughed and said, “Oh, that means like when you’re a couple, you do that as a sort of ceremony. There was something like that at Corinda. Everyone everywhere has some little ritual like that.” I don’t understand. Why would she want to be with someone like me, who doesn’t understand anything. Who is ugly. Who can’t even speak. Who doesn’t even know what to do standing next to someone. It’s better not to go back. Better for everybody. I just want to be alone.
The ship away is to the east. The village to the west. I could go north or south. South I’d read the bottom of the peninsula and have to come back, so North is better. I could just walk up that street and keep going. After a while there would be a quiet country road. There would be a stone wall with lichen on it. Grass. Dirt. Gravel. Some trees overhanging the wall. Vines and leaves all of different kinds. The hills would roll and the road wind over them. There’d be the stars at night and the sun by day. And in the rain I’d huddle in some shelter, an overhang, a shade for livestock, a rickety old shed that keeps things dry, but everyone would be in doors so they wouldn’t notice. There’d be some birds. Some little bugs. At night, I could hop over someone’s wall and find a little hollow where I could sleep, safe knowing nobody would ever find me. And in the morning there would always be something around the bend, something over the hill, that I’d never seen before. Walking north nobody would ever find me.
But they would. Someone would be worried why such a young person was alone. Some government body. Someone would say something to some charity. Then they’d have me and they’d send me to school and they’d be watching all the time, in case I ran away. It could never work. There’s no escape really.
And anyway it’s not real. What would I eat? Would I eat out of garbage bins? Dad said the best is the back of fine restaurants, because rich people don’t eat everything, and it’s cooked by the best chefs. If I tried to steal bread. Surely one loaf of bread wouldn’t be much to lose. But I’m no good at that. Everytime I tried to rack anything I got busted. Everyone else can do it. That’s just something I’m no good at. Maybe the shopkeeper would think one loaf of bread isn’t too much to lose, and if surely if a kid has to steal it to eat, they’d look the other way. But then they’d go out of business. I’d get busted and the cops would make enquiries and one thing would lead to another and they’d find out who I was. They’d ship me off to Australia for stealing a loaf of bread – ha!