‘Half life’ – the amount of time it takes for something to decay by half towards its inevitable annihilation.
From the age of 12 to 15 in the late 1980s I travelled with my father around the world. I’ve forgotten almost every moment of more than a thousand days. These memoirs can never be complete, accumulating so long as more memories and time to write remains.
Sometimes there is just the silhouette of a solitary concrete building, empty and without windows, beside a road against the orange sky. I don’t know what we were waiting for.
Buddy can you spare a dime?
Los Angeles: 34.052242, -118.251919
Waiting in the hot smog outside a tall glass bank, a thin man with a grey beard said, “Buddy can you spare a dime.”
Texas Panhandle: 35.0376503,-101.2065623
After waking in another truck stop in the cold morning, after an hour or so of driving across flat open pale grasslands, the road is suddenly lined on each side with leafless crystal trees, shining silver in the morning sun. At the next rest area we stop for a break. I go over to figure out the trees. Through some perfect timing of melting and refreezing the twigs and branches had become a core, coated in a half a centimetre of clear ice.
New Orleans Cool
Bourbon Street: 29.955468, -90.068467
A young man sat leaning on a second floor corner balcony overlooking the crossroads watching the people pass in the street lights and neon signs where the songs from different zydeco and jazz bands in different bars collided. He wore just the blue grey waistcoat and pants of a suit with no jacket and a shirt, seated on a stool with his lean muscular arms resting on the railing to look down. Was he there for the benefit of tourists, looking like he stepped out of another time, or was he really that cool, just presiding over his place?
Guys and Dolls at the Y
YMCA, New York: 40.744380, -73.996309
In our room at the YMCA I finished another Damon Runyon story, one about a guy with a nickname ‘Feet’ because his feet were too big, who sold his body to a doctor before he was dead and the doctor wanted to collect. I went to the window and looked down at the flat grey roof of the next building and the brown brick walls. Looking to the right, far down in the street, I noticed one of the shops was a pizza shop. There was a story in the newspaper where some mothers of some kids who’d died of a drug overdose banded together and caught the dealer. One of the mothers worked in a pizza shop so they put the dealer in the pizza oven and cooked him to death. It could be that same pizza shop down there. We had seen the statue of liberty and Wall St. We’d seen where the rich people live and I’d left the cheesecutter hat Pop gave me in a diner. I left the room and wound my way around the corridors to the toilet. Making my way to the end of the urinal I glanced left at the cubicles, and there with the door wide open was an old man sitting on the toilet jerking off. I only caught a glimpse because I looked away straight away. I was confused for a moment. Did I really see that? Why didn’t he close the door? Is he going to get me? With people around? In that brief impression he didn’t look menacing at all, just very sad and I needed to piss and didn’t know where there was another toilet, so I stepped back to a point at the urinal where he couldn’t see me and pissed. As I went back, at an intersection of corridors, coming along another corridor and turning at the corner a woman came, dressed only in a small white towel wrapped around her chest and just reaching her legs. In a place like this, I thought, wandering around only in a towel, it’s as if she wants to be raped, but that doesn’t make sense, rape means you don’t want it. Could she want sex with just anyone? Straight away with the first person who saw her? What if it was that old pervert? Does the danger give her a thrill? Or did it mean she was a prostitute? But who here could afford a prostitute? Thinking again it could also be a man. I didn’t see her face. She was very tall. Maybe a man looking like a woman.
Back in our room I went to the window and looked out again. A warm breeze blew up in my face. At the Empire State building one of the signs explained that people who try to commit suicide by jumping off the top are often saved by a strong updraft, strong enough to sweep the weight of a human body up and onto a ledge. The plaque sounded as if it was a good thing they were saved, but if their life was that bad they would kill themselves, wasn’t it cruel to make them live it? I took away their choice. Wouldn’t they feel ashamed that they had failed even at this last thing they ever wanted to do? That would be about the most embarrassing thing that could happen to somebody who already felt that bad about themselves. I could picture a suicide saved in this way thanking God for the miracle of lifting them onto that overhanging ledge and giving them a second chance. But it seemed more like God’s cruel joke. On the other hand the grim determination of those who jumped again was terrifying to think about. To have the surprise of being lifted up and surviving despite everything. To be given a second chance that you didn’t want, to have to think over that final decision all over again. And to decide again without a doubt. But then also, if most people didn’t jump the second time, that meant most people who killed themselves made a mistake. If they could think over it again they wouldn’t do it. I looked down at the concrete. Imagine taking that one final decision. Actually making that step. You’d swallow your breath for a moment. There’d be a few moments, enough time to realise what you had done before you hit the ground. What if you thought at that moment it was a mistake? One you couldn’t take back. What thought would you have in that one brief final moment, with no more thoughts to come, that you could not say to anyone? And when you hit the ground, at what angle would it be, which bones would break, would you die instantly, or would you be lying there in extreme pain for a little while before your life dribbled out?
I tore a page out of my notebook, made a paper aeroplane and threw it. The updraft was good, lifting it higher and further over onto the grey roof. I tore out more pages and carefully ripped them around the edges to make spirals, like a Minties wrapper, and weighted the middle bit by scrunching it into a small ball and putting spit on it, dropping them out the window and watching them float up and back out of sight over the top of the building. One failed suicide after another flying up over the roof.
Boston: 42.351864, -71.051126
The sign in front of the boat said, “Authentic replica.” I cracked up laughing.
“What are you laughing at?” Dad said.
“That sign, ‘Authentic replica.'”
“That doesn’t make sense, doesn’t that mean, like ‘original copy’, I mean, like, ‘real fake’? It just says everything about America. I can’t believe they put that.”
Ocean Of Grass
Montana: 48.086313, -111.893236
The hills were low and undulating like waves, and on them the tall stalks of young green wheat swayed in the wind, rippling like those smaller waves you see on the waves of the sea. There hadn’t been any sign of human habitation for hours, just the two lane road cutting through the ocean of grass. I couldn’t remember at what point it had started being just green fields and nothing else, and it showed no sign of having an end. The sun was getting low and there was something by the road up ahead, an old wooden shack. We pulled over. Dad went in first to check no-one was already there. I followed close behind, trying to tread quietly on the creaking boards, listening. Half the roof had fallen in, and half the floorboards were broken. We set up a small cooking fire inside and ate our baked beans looking at the stars through the roof. Lying there waiting to sleep the air was cool and there was nothing around but the wind and the grass and I wondered if the owner of the place might come, or someone would see our car and I’d wake in the middle of the night and see a silhouette against the sky and not know what kind of person it was.
Dawson City: 64.061565, -139.430286
At the front counter of the old style saloon hall the ticket man was in discussion with my father. I wasn’t allowed in, too young. Over 18s only. Adult show. I stopped listening and waited. To avoid staring rudely at the women in 19th century corsetry and feathers I looked out the door at the dirt road, wondering where I’d wander to kill however many hours they were in there. Maybe out of town up the road in the hills. When they finished the discussion, Dad said they wouldn’t budge and wouldn’t let me in and they’d only be a few hours, we’d meet back at the car later on and he went in. With nowhere in particular to go I stood a moment and slowly started to walk out but before I could leave, one of the women, walking by, said quietly to me go round the side. She looked over her shoulder, gave a smile and was gone. I went out the door and around to the side where there was just an alley and a tall stair case leading up to a closed door. I stood there wondering if I’d understood correctly and why I should go round the side anyway. Which side? I wasn’t sure if I should go up that staircase since it was out in the open and if anyone saw me they’d wonder what I was doing climbing up there to a locked door and coming down again. Just as I was deciding I hadn’t heard properly, and to walk away wondering what she had really said and why, the door opened. A woman with a tall red feather in her blond hair looked out and waved me up. So I did understand. I climbed up the steps trying not to look at her garter. She put her hand on my shoulder to draw me inside the door. She leaned toward me, pointing down towards the stage, held her hand up to tell me to stay put and ran off. From up there, in the dark where the audience couldn’t see me I watched the chorus line troop out and dance the can can. When it was over, she came back in a hurry, sweat on her arms, and chest, and on her forehead, and above her lip, and she pushed me out the door into the daylight. It was the kindest thing anyone had done to me in a long time but I couldn’t get a word out of my mouth to say, ‘Thankyou’. I wandered up into the hills behind Dawson and looked down on the town.
Chicken And A Wolf
Chicken: 64.073134, -141.938451
We crossed over the border from Canada into Alaska and stopped at a little place called Chicken. Where we stopped there wasn’t anything but a small pub. Maybe that’s all Chicken was. The car pulled up. It was made of wood, built on the side of a steep slope looking out over an evergreen wooded valley. There were utes parked. Dad said to wait in the car so I waited a long time till I got bored and went inside. There was only a couple of people there, old guys. Grey beards. Dad was playing pool, looking drunker than he’d usually get. That’s probably why he’d let me sit there too long. I wasn’t sure what to do. Someone said, “No kids.” I went and sat on a stool at the bar. An short Indian man in a blue shirt and grey hat came over to me but said nothing. He didn’t look happy. I didn’t know what he wanted.
“That’s his stool.” said the man at my left with the long grey beard.
“Oh, sorry.” I said and got off. But he waved his hand that I should stay. I didn’t want to take his seat but stayed because he said to and I didn’t know what else to do.
While I waited and watched the game the man with the grey beard quizzed me about my father.
“What do you think of you’re old man?”
“Um, I dunno.”
“What do you think of your old man?”
“Um, I dunno. He’s ok.”
“No I mean, what do you think. I’ll bet you think he’s a flake.”
“Um, I’m not sure. What’s a ‘flake’.”
“Oh you know, er, someone who’s going to go here and there, and do lot’s of different things.”
“Haa, ha ha! He thinks his dad’s a flake. Ahh ha ha!.” It didn’t seem fair to laugh like that, since I didn’t really know what a ‘flake’ was. I wanted to take it back.
When Dad had finished it was my turn to play against the Indian man. Pretty soon after the break I sank a ball. I was very pleased at myself. I could hold my own at a pool table. But the man said no, no and took the ball out. I didn’t know what was going on and looked around. He mumbled something I couldn’t hear. “What?” But he mumbled again. Finally, someone explained, “You’ve got to call your shots.” I went to the bar and asked Dad what that meant. “It means you have to say what pocket you’re aiming for before you sink it, or it doesn’t count.” It seemed unfair to me that a kid who didn’t know this special rule shouldn’t be granted a point. Then I felt like shit for thinking I should get special treatment like some kid. I should get over it and play on. I hardly sank a thing then. I would point with the cue where I was aiming, which I quickly gathered from my opponent was the way it was done if you didn’t like saying things out loud, but then kept forgetting and lost. We stayed only for as long as it took dad to finish his glass. The Indian man had taken his own stool back but after sitting there for a few minutes fell off it onto the floor and climbed back up onto it.
In the car Dad said, “I made a mistake back there. Every place has someone who thinks they’re the best at pool. They win against everyone at the pub and they think they can beat anyone who comes, but really, they’re not much good. You shouldn’t win against that bloke. It hurts his pride and he has to go on in that place having been beaten in his own place. I beat that fella too easy. He was pissed off.” I thought it’s a game and the point is to try to win. If you don’t it’s dishonest. And who would hang their pride on a game anyway?
Outside the window in the distance were mountains. The road was on an elevated stretch overlooking a vast expanse of tundra threaded by streams of crystal clear water splitting and rejoining across beds of grey stone. In the distance a grey-white spec was moving. I watched it for a while, and getting closer saw it was a wolf, trotting alone across the plain. It’s rare and lucky thing to see a wolf. I’d never seen one before. It was a clean and pure thing to see. I wanted to be standing out there alone, far away from anybody’s worries, far from the road, away out of sight in the open tundra, listening to the wind and watching the pure cold water flow.
The Sound Of Birds At Dusk
Guadalajara: 20.674860, -103.341353
The sky is orange and blue. The air is temperate. We are on our way to see a mariachi band, walking on the footpath under a simple colonnade with low wide arches. There is the sound of a flock of birds, each screeching, but there are no birds to be seen, just a tall, round tree. The leaves are broad, thick and dark green and nothing can be seen in their shadows. Inside the tree there is just the fluttering and deafening scream of countless hidden birds.
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.
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.
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.
Paris: 48.852513, 2.352705
On the cobbled street a kid pulled back the rubber band on his makeshift crossbow aiming a thin bit of steel at a pigeon. I went into the deli and said over the glass counter, “Un baguet, s’il vous plaît.”
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.
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.
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.
Scorpions In The Dark
River Nile: 24.642511, 32.931000
One of the felucca sailors, the one always smiling, jumped off the stern into the Nile. His head came up smiling and he called to his mate who got up from the tiller, rummaged around and finally threw out a bottle of shampoo. The sailor in the water washed his hair and with his lean, muscular arms beckoned the people on the boat to jump in. Noone did. The rule has always been not to swim in the Nile because of the bugs that can get under your skin and burrow their way up to your brain. We all just watched him smiling until he ducked his head under water for a final rinse and climbed back aboard.
We came ashore at a lesser known ruin by the Nile. It was on the right bank, going downriver, at a stretch were there desert came right to the river and there were no farms or houses. It was a small site and low to the ground, only a few stone blocks stood as high as the waist, but there were no other tourists there. The 6 or so of us from the boat slowly dispersed around it. I was in a far corner, a good way off from anybody. While there was nothing standing at this site there were recesses in the ground, and here at the far corner I found a relatively deep one, more than a metre or so. If I jumped in I’d still be able to reach the top and climb out. At the bottom to the side there was a small dark rectangular hole, a narrow passage, perhaps for channeling water. A dark passage in an Egyptian ruin, with no-one around? If people were allowed to walk around above, why not below? There didn’t appear to be anything I could destroy down there, just stone blocks and a little sand and rubble, as with on the ground above. I climbed down into the recess, knelt down and putting my head near the dust and stones on the floor peered into the passage way. It was just big enough to crawl into and there was sunlight at the end of it, about 20 metres or so away, mostly likely another ditch like the one I was in. There was something about the shadow of the tunnel that made me hesitate. The light in Egypt was pure. Strong but not the oppressive, sweltering glare of Queensland summers. At this site, far from the city, on a quiet still day, without dust, pollution and humidity, the Egyptian sun illuminated everything with absolute clarity. The shadow was equally its perfect opposite. There was a razor sharp line between where the sunlight fell and the shadows it cast. I scrutinised that boundary closely. Beyond the line separating light from dark not a single grain of sand could be seen. It was a corrodor of pure blackness. I put my hand into the shadow and couldn’t see it. I decided that if I felt forwards carefully I would be able to avoid any holes in the middle of it. I would probably only ever be here once in my life. I would forever regret being too cowardly to enter. There was, after all, a light at the other end and it was only a short way. I crawled into the tunnel, feeling out ahead. The way was clear until about half way through. I hadn’t been able to tell from the end but the floor stepped upwards at that point, narrowing the tunnel. Not large enough to crawl through but still enough to scrape through on elbows and knees. I paused to think about whether I should carry on or turn back, when it occurred to me there might be scorpions in here. There weren’t uncommon, I remembered the one in the sink in Guardiagrele, a big one, as long as my little finger, and it somehow seemed strange that it looked exactly as they do in pictures, and just as menacing, and someone was saying, it’s not the big ones you have to worry about, it’s the small ones that kill you. There was no way I’d be able to see them. If I felt my way forwards and touched one, it would probably sting me because I’d disturbed it. I stopped still and listened in the narrow black tunnel, alone with the fear of unseen scorpions. Calling for help would be useless. I’d still have to make my way out if someone came or not. There’d be an embarrassing scene where they peered in the tunnel, beckoning to me, other people coming to see what the fuss was about, telling me to have courage like I was some simpering idiot. As if the problem was my fear and not the scorpions. This wasn’t about crying and panic and being petrified. It was a logical, sensible thing. There was no course of events that didn’t involve crawling to one end of the tunnel or the other. I could not control or detect the presence of scorpions. Therefore I had no choice, no option but to move on, whether I was stung by a scorpion or not, and whether I lived or died was something I couldn’t do anything about. Doing nothing wouldn’t change that. Rather than turn back, I might as well have the satisfaction of reaching the end. I pressed myself through into the light at the other end. Squinting in the brightness, dusting myself off, I stood and looked over the edge of the recess. No-one was around. I hauled myself up and went back towards the shore. “Where have you been?” my father asked, “Just looking in a tunnel.” “Well hurry up, we’ve been looking for you and the boat’s waiting.”
Karachi: 24.844594, 67.043013
Carrying our bags down a street between white buildings with black windows to the hotel Dad said, “They said there’s been bombings here lately so we won’t stay long. We’ll get a train tomorrow.”
Train To Rawalpindi
Pakistan: 33.603799, 73.048599
We found our seat and it was occupied. We showed our ticket to the man in it, who showed us his, and it was no surprise that they sell the same seat to two or three people. We had bought a sleeper, and the bench like bed was above the row of seats and already occupied. After some jostling we sat. It was going to be a long 12 hour trip. As the train trundled along, my thoughts wandered and beggars came through. A man with one side of his face sagging down to his chest, as if melting off like wax. A man whose top parts of his arms were fixed straight out to the side from his body, thin and twig like with his forearms dangling uselessly off the ends of them. A woman dirty, carrying a small child. I daydreamed about a bit in Midaq Alley by Naquib Mahfouz. The part about the beggars’ doctor. The doctor who for a certain fee, could give you any kind of impairment you like, permanent or temporary. People came to him to have their limbs broken, to be given eyedrops for blindness that, hopefully, if the dose was right would only last a week. It was an investment. Anything to improve a beggars prospects, anything a little more pathetic, for a little more money to eat. Drifting away on the long trip I imagined those scenes at night, and wondered whether these beggars here might have had recourse to such things, whether it was peculiar to Midaq Alley or was the unspoken truth for all desperate people around the world. It’s a night that you would go, you would muster up the courage to ask, to deal with the pain, to confront the possibility of things going wrong, of being blinded forever, of never walking again, the doctor would give you a talk about what’s involved, demand money, it would be all your money. It would be painful.
Eventually I needed to go to the toilet. I waited as long as I could to avoid losing my seat. Suddenly the bunk above became available and dad told me to get it so I jumped up into it before anyone else could but laying there I could not ignore my bladder. I tried to coax myself to sleep, even a little sleep would be worth while, but I couldn’t hold on, and was only in the bunk 15 minutes or so until I had to go to the toilet. When I returned, Dad asked me what I was doing and when I explained he said I could at least have passed the bunk up to him or Marilyn. I sat down again. I would have to sleep sometime, somehow. It was a long trip. I figured that people around this part of the world meditate, so I sat up straight, closed my eyes and focused on emptying my mind, not even thinking about emptying my mind. Many hours later, half in the crowded train, half in emptiness we arrived.
Blood, Feathers and Mud
Peshawar: 34.015151, 71.580237
It would be good to get off the bus after so many hours but standing on the bottom step, there was no good place to put my foot. Under the overcast sky everywhere was mud. It was a street of thick black mud. Not mud but muck. There was nothing clean about it, like mud. It was a human muck. Stepped on over and over again, soaked with refuse and it was black, like the dirt between your toes. I stepped into it. It was about an inch deep. Deeper than the soles of my shoes, so that after walking in it for a while it would seep through the stitching. We hoisted our bags on our shoulders, checked the map and went looking for a hotel. Everywhere the streets were an inch or more deep in black mud. We made our way through a market. A stall had chickens stacked up in small cages. A man took one out and handed it to another man seated in front of a wood block with a knife blade fixed in the middle of it, pointing up. He took the chicken and brought it down hard on the knife and pulled it this way and that, cutting it to pieces. Blood and feathers in the mud.
Pakistan rice terraces: 34.910672, 72.531545
On almost vertical slopes tier after tier, like topology lines on a map, rice terraces step up the mountain. The bus wound it’s way up the gorges hour after hour and finally stopped in a small hamlet on the mountainside. The passengers got off and stretched their legs and most went into a small blue building, which must be where you get food, and some around the side of it. I went in to look for a toilet but there wasn’t one. It must be around the side so I went outside and around the corner. Up near the wall of the dirt yard were stinking piles of shit and piss. I couldn’t even piss there it stank so much. I went back inside. Dad had ordered food which was good because I was hungry. It came quickly as there was only one thing they served from a large metal cylinder. It was a some kind of meat stew on rice, I picked through it looking for a chunk of meat but could only find bones and gristle. “It’s goat.” Dad said. It was the worst meal I’d had since that salt beef enchilada in the desert in North Mexico two years ago but I was used to eating anything by then. It’s good to a little taste of what is normal for the people here. The road so long, the terraces so beautiful, the air so cold and fresh, and the goat stew so spare. And we are only half way there.
Gilgit: 35.920173, 74.306719
I left the hotel room without saying anything to anyone, just to be on my own. The hotel was concrete and painted light blue with tiles on the patio. It was the only hotel in town. It was cold outside and I put my hand in the pocket of my coat looking right and left. To the left there were shops and people so I went that way for a look. The snow topped mountains in the distance were so tall you could see them above the buildings. I went right into the first road to branch off which quickly turned left again to run parallel to the main street. There were more smaller shops, closer together, with their owners sitting in them and a few customers here and there. The men all wore warm looking knitted hats flat on the top and rolled up. The looked warm and I wished I had one. There were shops for various things, plastic containers, carpets, and then a stall wall to wall with machine guns. I had never seen so many guns before. A couple of men were looking at one with the owner. With the initial shock I was afraid I could be shot then and there, but soon realised it was normal. It was normal to have a machine gun and so normal for there to be a shop for them. I went on a little way but was curious about the shop and turned back, to try to see as much as I could of it as I passed. I couldn’t stop and stare, and having already passed twice I couldn’t turn back again, so I kept going, back around the bend and past the hotel. I kept going, past a few people, houses, a cat, a chicken standing on a wall around a yard, a small girl wrapped in a red head scarf, and was soon walking past the last houses at the edge of town along the road through flat fields by a stream running with water fresh from the mountains. I looked around for a cloud and there was not one. The air was crisp, the sky deep blue, the flat fields yellow, stretching all the way to the towering walls of grey rock and white snow, the Hindu Kush. What it would be like for that girl growing up here? Who is that kid and what do they think about things. What will they think growing up here? It’s so clean and good, but for everyone where they grow up it’s ordinary and I know nothing at all about the way it is here and will be gone tomorrow. I stopped and breathed vapour clouds into the air. It would be good to walk all the way to those mountains but it would be a long journey, a lot longer than a few hours and I had no food, and who knows? Maybe they like to take pot shots at tourists. I could disappear up here. It wouldn’t matter so much but we are getting closer to Australia, almost home.
Golden Temple, Amritsar: 31.619993, 74.876475
Standing near the gate in the cold Dad said, “They’re supposed to let anyone stay here, if you haven’t got any money. Wait here, I’m going in to ask.” In a while he came back and said, “At first they thought we were ordinary tourists, but I explained we didn’t have any money. They reckon they’re a charity. I had to remind them they’re supposed to take people in. Come on. We have to be out at dawn.” I picked up a couple of pamphlets on the way through the archway, and took our shoes off. A man gestured for us to turn left, and right there was a door to the room we were to sleep in. He left us as soon as we entered. There were three straw mats on the floor. We dropped our bags and lay our our sleeping bags. I started reading one of the pamphlets. It was on flimsy brown paper in purple ink. It explained that our hair is sacred and should never be cut because it is like aerials picking up cosmic rays from the Universe. I only had a chance to look at the words ‘Guru Nanak’ on the cover of the other one when Dad said, “Let’s go have a look at this place. You have to wear a hat. And don’t talk.” I didn’t have a hat, so he threw me his spare beanie, a yellow and brown striped one with a pom pom on top.
We walked slowly around the white marble walk way, looking at the beautiful temple of gold reflected in the large square pond. At first I felt like I was intruding on this place with out of place clothes and a ridiculous beany when everyone else had a neatly folded turban but nobody seemed to mind and by the time I’d walked a quarter of the way around my thoughts had settled and I was immersed in appreciating the unparalleled beauty and tranquility of this place. At the far end a causeway leads into a small room in the middle of the pond. Approaching it I heard music. Elaborate, winding threads of music. Looking through the door I saw musicians seated on cushions each working on their instrument. One was just getting comfortably seated, adjusting his sitar and I understood that as musicians replace each other this music could go on forever. I could listen to it for ever. But I remembered I was wearing a ridiculous beanie, and that I was probably taking up the place of someone else who wanted to be see to the musicians so I moved on. I could walk around this lake and return to the centre to listen to the music again and again. It wouldn’t be any different to the rising and setting of the sun, the cycle of life and death, and what difference would it make to anything if I lived out there or in here?
Tea and Dahl
New Delhi: 28.5272181,77.068898
“Do you want some tea?”
I stepped up on the step of the tea shop and looked over the counter. The man ladled a cup from a large pot of swirling milky tea. The air was brisk so I held the cup with both hands, looking over the bus depot at all the busses decorated with garlands, flourescent elephants and chrome, glancing up from time to time at the television on the wall where a woman danced in red pants ballooning out at the ankles. I took a sip and it tasted so good, something much more than tea with milk, I spent the rest of the time waiting trying to find words to describe it.
“Is there anything you want to do in Delhi? We’re out of money so we can’t stay long.”
“Think of something.”
“I don’t know, see a movie.”
“What? I don’t think they’ll have many movies.”
“No I mean an Indian movie. I’ve seen signs for them. They make a lot of movies here.”
“I don’t know, I don’t think so. We should do something to do with India.”
We came to the corner where two streets met at an acute angle and, filling the space where there was no building, there were dozens of beds all against each other. No-one was in them in the middle of the day but they looked well used. It looked warm and comfortable enough but wouldn’t the mattresses get ruined in the rain? A woman with her baby asked us for money and we walked on. We went into the first place serving food we found. There were two large metal cylinders, each filled with dahl. The man ladled it into a bowl and placed a piece of flat bread on it. I took it to the plastic table and chairs and sat across from my father. There were no utensils. My father was tearing off bits of bread shaping them into a cup and scooping up the dahl. “You have to make sure you don’t run out of bread.” he said. I followed his example, remembering to use the right hand only. The dahl was hotter than anything I had ever eaten. I could barely eat a mouthful. There was no water. “It’s too hot.” I said. “It’s all there is.” he said, “We’re out of money.” I was hungry so I ate it. I thought, ‘The only thing separating a beggar and me is a few rupees.’
Stone Roses In Marble Fields
Taj Mahal: 27.175102, 78.042074
From a distance, reflected in the long pond, each tower, in the fore and in the background, is equally spaced. By mathematical design, in perspective the top of the most distant towers are level with the mid point of those in the foreground. Inside, in minute detail, living forms of leaves, vines and flowers are petrified as precious gems set in smooth marble. The decoration is fine and tastefully restrained in proportion to the marble, such that the white stone is not a surface for showing the decoration, but that the decoration shows the pure whiteness of the room. Between this flower petal and the marble it’s set into there is no seam. There is no gap and no filler, not even the shadow of a line of dirt from the passing centuries has accumulated there. Between this leaf and the marble there is no seam, nor between this vine that joins them, and following this vine and it’s sprouting leaves and flowers there is still no seam to be found. The vines travel up and around every wall. Visitors constantly move through this place, this moment fixed in time and space, jostled by crowds seeing only briefly this perfect, frozen, eternal monument to beauty, love and death.
Stone roses, seamless in marble fields. Minarets equally measured. Mausoleum of eternal love.
Sizzler All You Can Eat Restaurant
Toowong, Brisbane: -27.485591, 152.992825
We crossed at the lights and walked up the concrete steps towards the tall mirror cube of Toowong Village shopping centre. There was my cousin, only one year older than me but tall and fit from surfing, and his girlfriend in black jeans and blonde hair, looking like she stepped out of a heavy metal film clip, nicknamed ‘Legs’ by everyone, for obvious reasons, and with us a batch of their friends, girls and boys. I might have managed to mumble ‘Hi’ to some of them. They were all chattering and breaking off in small groups and coming back together again. At the top of the steps was Sizzler All You Can Eat Restaurant and the footpath lead around it each way. Someone went one way and others went another. I didn’t know which way to go, but had to decide quickly to avoid just standing there looking stupid so I went right, but it turned out that most had gone left, and only two girls were going right and they ran off ahead. I walked slowly, glad at least to have a moment alone, wondering what I could possibly say to somebody, to anybody, wondering if anyone thought it was too strange I hadn’t said anything to anyone, wondering if they knew I couldn’t however much I wanted to, or if they thought it meant I thought something bad about them, wondering how they could say things so easily to each other, and what there even was to say. I tried to pull myself together in case anyone looked at me as I walked up.
It was the long way around so everyone was already there when I arrived. Not only that, but it was busy so a queue had formed behind my cousin and his friends. I wasn’t sure if I should go ahead to them or wait at the end of the line in case someone thought I was pushing in. My cousin saw me and waved me forward to them so I joined them. Just as I reached them the man standing behind them stopped me with his hand. He was angry, “Hey, you kids. Have some respect. We’ve been standing here all this time, and first one, then one after another, a whole crowd of you comes up and pushes in. One or two is alright, but it’s been one after another…”
I looked at my shoes. They were new sneakers. Dad had thrown away my old shoes. I had got them in London and walked half way around the world in them. They were simple black leather school shoes with a rubber sole. By the time we’d been through Europe and North Africa and reached Syria they were falling apart. Outside the citadel at Aleppo there was a cobbler who set himself up by the side of the road so I stood and watched him at work and figured out how he resoled shoes by stitching a loop through the hole and threading another thread through it before pulling it taught. Our darning kit only had thin cotton and I couldn’t find any thick thread, but in the street I found some insulated copper wire and stitched up my shoes with that. That copper wire was still in my shoes after taking me through the markets at Damascus, the canyons at Petra, into the Pyramids, to the shore of the Red Sea, among the alleys of Baghdad, through the mud of Rawalpindi, into the foothills of the Hindu Kush, around the music in the Golden Temple and all the places in between. I’d said barely a word to anyone. Everywhere I was looking from the world to my shoes and back again, thinking. I walked into my Aunty’s kitchen that morning and said, “Where’s my shoes.” and my father said, “I chucked ’em. They stank.” I hated him. Hate.
In the queue at Sizzler All You Can Eat Restaurant with a stranger I didn’t mean to offend shouting at me, staring at these new shoes, I almost walked away. My cousin somehow resolved the whole thing with a wave of his hand. I wanted to dissolve into the Atlas mountains, the Alaskan woods, the Skye moors. I wanted to be set down, to walk away from the road and disappear. To go and never arrive.