Thursday, 27 December 2012

Voyage XIII – Virtuous Heathens

Something about what Lou said the other day has been bothering me. I’m not sure what it is precisely, something about belief.
It was a favourite topic of debate among us at the Poly - faith and religion and spirituality and all that. We used to get into some terrible rows. Colleen (the politics student) used to get very frustrated with us – told us we were all typical art students and wouldn’t have been able to follow a rational argument if our lives depended on it. She was the only one who had any training in philosophy so inevitably we took the piss out of her, but she was on our side, in the faculty of arts and humanities, not science, so she was allowed. Cat was the opposite. In the end I became very frustrated with the way she insisted on the infallibility of her intuitive understanding of the world and the futility of trying to think it through in any rational way whatsoever. If she said she knew, then she knew. That was all there was to it.
For example, one morning in the refectory Cat told me, in response to something I’d said I’d been dreaming about, that dreams are not just in our heads – that the events we witness in dreams are actually happening. She didn’t feel the need to explain where exactly, or how, she simply knew it to be true, and she informed me of all this as if it should be obvious, with a chuckle and that heavy condescension that people who consider themselves very spiritual mistake for serenity and wisdom. The others just nodded as if this was a perfectly valid way of understanding the world but I found the whole idea preposterous and I guess it showed on my face. I said how can you possibly know that and was greeted with the kind of abuse she normally reserved for pornographers, Thatcherites and road builders. Who was I to question her insight, especially since I was male and white and middle class? (For the record, she was also white and had been to a private school.) I told her my dad worked for the council and she said well it must be cultural then. I suppose she was referring to the fact that I was quite well spoken. Anyway I still say she spouted utter crap a lot of the time.

So perhaps you’ll understand when I say I had a special suspicion of people who should have been on our side (alternative, radical), but who insisted they alone had some special insight into the workings of the universe. I don’t know how we stayed friends for as long as we did, Cat and I, but we did.
I had a lot of very strong opinions myself but if it came to it I knew I couldn’t fundamentally defend any of them with any real conviction. Some of us spouted political theory and saw conspiracies everywhere. Others saw the struggle as a manifestation of imbalance in the interplay of cosmic forces. They all claimed to know exactly what was going on, who we were up against and what we should be doing about it. All I saw was a world of chaos and confusion and human frailty. As far as I was concerned nobody had any better idea what was going on than anybody else. My only really strong conviction was that nobody should be in a position to force anyone to do anything they didn’t want to: not Thatcher, not the Brixton police, nor the apartheid regime, the Pope, the bosses, teachers, parents or landlords, and certainly not the scientists.
To be frank though, although we all had powerful opinions on technology and conventional medicine and the exploitation of the environment, and of course we were against it all, I don’t think, in that entire time, that we ever actually spoke to a real live scientist. We read a lot of articles in newspapers of course and watched a lot of documentaries and generally considered ourselves rather well informed, but I don’t think we ever read any actual science. There would have been no point. It would have been written by scientists and they were the enemy.

Lou is therefore a member of a rather exotic species. He intrigues me. I’ve put it off but eventually I just have to search him out and I find him in the library, perusing a book on dinosaurs. I come straight to the point. I ask him how come scientists think their opinions are so much better than everyone else’s. ‘Hello Gabriel’ he says. ‘Nice to see you too’ but I won’t be deflected. I sit and stare at him and wait.
He looks at me for a moment, smiling his supercilious smile. ‘Alright’ he says, putting his book down carefully, as he always does, as if it’s a precious exhibit. He gets comfortable, lays his head back and closes his eyes.
‘People have come to assume of science a role previously taken by religion’ he begins. He sounds like he’s dictating an essay. I suppose it’s not the first time he’s heard this question. ‘And some scientists have been all too happy to step into the role of priest or guru, claiming that science will give us the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and that there is no other route to the truth.’
I nod. ‘Exactly’ I think.
Some scientists’ he emphasises, ‘not all. But science isn’t like that, or it shouldn’t be. Science should lay no claim to ultimate truth and especially not ultimate meaning. Science is something much humbler – it is merely an extension of our ordinary everyday methods for working out why the car won’t start or why the soufflé flopped or whether the butler did it – trial and error, reason, evidence, probability. It’s very ordinary Gabriel – just a problem solving method, not scripture.’
‘But what if God or whatever is involved? I mean – you do your experiments, use your logic, maths, whatever. You’ve ruled out God from the start, and surprise surprise, you don’t find Him. That’s a circular argument.’
‘No I haven’t – it’s merely a working assumption, a “for the sake of argument” clause if you like. The true scientist would not claim to know for sure that God does not exist. He (or she) simply doesn’t include Him in the methods and materials.’
‘But if God, or spirits or what-have-you were everywhere, then you’d have to take them into account.’
‘Or accept that science is impossible, yes. And yet it appears science is possible. It does in fact appear to work. We do indeed build bridges and fly to the moon, so either the supernatural doesn’t matter or it doesn’t exist.’
‘Or it’s playing a very clever game with us.’
‘I concede that that cannot be discounted.’
I sit and think for a while. I find myself suddenly feeling like giggling. I look at him. He’s smiling too, and nodding, which I’ve noticed he does a lot in quiet moments.
‘So you really don’t believe in anything?’ I say eventually. ‘Not even logic?’
‘Logic is another working assumption science has to make, like the irrelevance of the supernatural. It appears to be more or less universally applicable but I wouldn’t claim to be one hundred percent certain even of that.’
I sit and think for a while. I think I understand what he says but still find it unsatisfying, infuriating even.
‘It just seems a bit, I don’t know, a bit inadequate’ I say after a while, ‘not believing in anything.’
His head rolls forward. He stares at me. ‘You take it as a sign of weakness perhaps – that I simply can’t make up my mind. Personally I don’t understand humanity’s insistence on having “beliefs”. Perhaps I’m deficient in some way.’
I nod contemplatively too now. I’d always assumed everybody had to believe in something or else lost their mind. I was afraid for a while that that might happen to me, because I couldn’t kid myself that I was certain about anything. The received wisdom was that I would descend into some sort of nihilistic hell, or worse, just do what everyone else did - get a job, get married, have kids and not worry about it. Now it seems that might not be so. Lou is odd but apparently not insane, and he seems relatively happy too.
‘How do you do it?’ I say finally.
‘How do I do what?’
‘Live without beliefs – not that I’m totally convinced you do, but anyway...’
He leans forward with his hands out in front of him, clasped together as if in prayer. He looks up into the light coming in through the window opposite. Still nodding he considers his response.
‘I don’t know, to be honest. All I can say is it’s never bothered me particularly. If you want to know the closest thing I have to a deep inner conviction it’s that there probably isn’t anything out there to believe in, and that that isn’t a problem. My basic intuition is that we can’t really know, but that that’s fine. Actually I find it rather exciting.’
‘But what about right and wrong? What about, I don’t know, racism or child abuse, or environmental destruction? How can you claim to know those things are wrong?’
‘You’re not going to try to tell me that religion has brought us peace, justice and tolerance are you?’
‘But what about the Nazis, and Stalin? Weren’t they all atheists?’
‘Apparently’ he sighs. ‘Apparently you don’t strictly have to be religious to believe you are infallible. It doesn’t prove anything.’
He chuckles and distractedly flips a few pages. I look about the room.
‘Religion is inimical to morality in any case’ he says blandly.
‘Excuse me?’
‘Religious people don’t do the right thing out of the goodness of their hearts. They do it because they don’t want to go to hell. I don’t find that terribly laudable.’
‘What about people like Olly?’ I say after a while. ‘He seems very moral.’
‘I don’t deny that there are religious people who also happen to be highly moral. Olly is an example. But we should not take it that religion and morality have any especial affinity. Look at history.’
I study the pattern on the carpet. Of course under other circumstances I’d have been making the same argument as he is against religion, which in truth I’ve never had much time for. But I’d always assumed there was something out there. There it is, that word – “assumed” rather than “believed”. He’s getting to me.
‘I don’t need God to tell me what’s right and wrong Gabriel’ he says at last. ‘And even if He did I’d reserve the right to argue with Him. I actually consider myself a very moral person.’
‘I know. I just don’t know where you get your morals from.’
‘The same place you do. The same place Olly does. The same place we all do. I look about, see what everybody else is doing. I work it out for myself and I negotiate. The difference is that I’m under no illusions about it.’
‘But ultimately?’
‘You might as well ask what the one true ultimate language is. Who cares? We use what we have. We modify it as we go. We come across other languages, equally useful, or not, as the case may be. We make a decision.’
‘But doesn’t that seem a bit, well, empty? I mean, with nothing...?’
‘Actually no. It feels every bit as wonderfully full as anything you... We’ve been over this Gabriel. I think you’re confusing believing in something in the sense of having hope and trust – positive thinking and all that, which I am all for by the way, with believing in something in the sense of being convinced of the truth of it, which I am not. It’s a common linguistic confusion.’
He stands up and looks down at me. I guess the conversation is coming to an end. I close my book up and stand too.
‘And even if it did feel empty’ he says, putting his hand on my shoulder, ‘I couldn’t kid myself. Even when I was dying I knew - it was life, friends and beauty and nature and love that kept me going. I don’t judge those who kneel and pray when all else fails but personally I never felt the need. I suppose I was lucky.’
He pauses and looks into my face. ‘Does any of this make the slightest sense to you Gabriel?’
‘I’m not sure’ I say, vaguely, but actually I think it does. Actually I think I knew it all along.
He pats my shoulder and turns for the door. ‘Well that’s a good start’ he says, ‘your not being sure. Confusion and doubt are not so terrible as people imagine. Actually they’re rather liberating.’
I stand up to follow him.
‘Gabriel’ he says, ‘people believe so many different and contradictory things, and their conflicting certainties can never be reconciled. Don’t you see that it is only in admitting that, as mere human beings, we can never be certain of anything, that there can be any hope of reconciliation among peoples?’
‘You’ve had enough, I can tell’ he says. ‘Come on, let’s get a beer.’
And we head down to the bar.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Journey XI – Career opportunities

‘It’s not alive’ says Shamim sadly the next day on the golf course. In her hand she holds what looks like some grass she’s torn from one of the palms along the drive way.  It’s unpleasantly oily to the touch, and a lurid shade of green. ‘None of it is. Look...’ and she crouches down and pulls a handful of ‘leaves’ out of the turf. ‘It’s all artificial, or preserved or something.’
I look at the rolling landscape around us, at the trees and other vegetation along the fairways. From a distance it’s pretty convincing, although the colour’s not quite right (but if you’ve not seen the outside for a while, maybe you don’t notice). Large and the others have gone on a little way in their buggy. They’ve issued us with some fairly laughable outfits that I for one refused to wear. Everything has the ‘Large Solutions inc.’ logo on it in bright orange. Shamim and I stroll along after them, letting the cart get ahead a bit.
Up here in the hills overlooking the city, and above the smog line, in a place they’ve called Heaven, you could almost believe you could stay here. The classier accommodation is all up here with high walls and razor wire and they employ security firms to keep out the losers (as the people in the shanty and other low grade accommodation are known). We passed a lot of these places, villas and mansions with their huge trees and wide lawns, some with a hardwood swing on the veranda and an SUV in the carport. I still can’t be sure if I’ve actually seen a real bird, tree or even a pet up here but it looks quite convincing to the untrained eye. Later we come across a team of grounds-men – so called (they look more like a team of convicts, all in orange) on their hands and knees, pulling up weeds. Apparently, in the absence of real vegetation, weeds are a major problem. I’m told they’re trying to invent some artificial dirt that nothing at all will grow in to combat this problem.
At the third tee we catch up and watch Mike take his swing. He’s actually quite good.

The rest of the week is divided between trips in some very posh cars to luxury housing, bespoke retail, exclusive clubs and prestigious offices on the one hand, and on the other, tours of the rougher areas in armoured cars.
On these latter tours we witness fury and dejection, conflagration and degradation on a scale I didn’t think possible. In some areas almost everybody on the street seems to be waiting for someone to come along and do something sexual to them in return for a few coins. Elsewhere we see cars and buildings burn with no sign of any emergency services on the way. At the back of what seems to be an abandoned, weed-infested industrial-estate-come-lorry-park there are several bodies in the road. The driver doesn’t try hard enough to avoid them. And everywhere there are dogs scrounging around, some in packs, others alone. How can a person still be said not to be dead when they are broken up into so many pieces? The question makes my entire body hurt.
And then quite suddenly there’s a rowdy little street market or a cluster of small shops sheltering among the ruins and things look a little more hopeful for a moment but then we see what they have to offer and it’s just some cheap plaster ornaments, plastic toys or sugary sweets, or worse, what appears to be the entire contents someone’s home.
‘There’s a recession on at the moment’ explains our driver casually as if he’s talking about some sort of travelling circus that’s come to town.
‘That must be hard for everyone’ says Amireh.
‘Not for us’ he replies, grinning. ‘It suits us at Large. Cuts down on some of that well-meaning namby-pamby humanitarian clap-trap you come across in more affluent times. Recycling, public health care, public libraries...’ He looks around contemplatively at the chaos. ‘Nope’ he says, ‘a good financial crisis goes a long way to refocus people’s priorities if you know what I mean. They’ll do anything, and I do mean anything, for a little extra credit.’
‘You make it sound as though all this… this misery is deliberately engineered’ says Enayat.
‘Absolutely’ he says the driver. ‘Can’t leave it to chance can we? We at Large reckon every ten years is about right. Kills off a lot of the smaller operations. Thins the competition... Damn charities and pressure groups! Downright anti-competitive if y’ask me.’
‘But I always believed…’
‘That the free market promotes choice and diversity. Yada-yada-yada. We get that a lot from the newbies.’ He turns and looks up at the gutted offices all around, for inspiration it seems. He gives us his smile. ‘We do allow a fraction of the economy to be run by entrepreneurs and craftsmen it’s true. They’re kinda decorative I always think – a café here, a flower seller there. They lend a little texture to a place; make it look like something interesting is going on. And sometimes of course they do come up with a product we can use. If that happens we can buy them out or bring out our own knock-off version. But no, otherwise… Whatever you may have been told back home, the market does not lead to diversity. It leads inexorably to domination by a few large players – chain stores, restaurants, financial institutions. You surely must have noticed. Maybe not yet where you came from – Iran, am I right? But Mr Fortune knows what I’m talking about. In the end, small businesses survive in spite of the free market, not because of it. Anyway, moving along…’
There doesn’t seem to be much point in arguing, or in saying anything at all. We try not to look too closely at anything as we move off.

Later he tells us it’s safe enough to leave the car and we find ourselves at the site of a mass mutilation – the ‘competition’, so our driver tells us. The bodies – still not dead of course, have been hauled off to ‘hospital’ but there are still body parts around, and a thick coating of drying blood on every surface. Dogs and flies and rats have come to try their luck. ‘This is the sort of thing they do to each other’ says the officer on duty, shaking his head, but more in contempt than concern. Next we get to look at a place where an industrial complex has exploded. It may have been sabotage, or it may not’ says the escort, shrugging. We get out and look around. What’s left of the steel roof lurches and bangs in the wind, and unrecognisable machine parts stand scorched on the factory floor. ‘Come and look at this’ says the driver, leading us over to a ditch rank with singed weeds and discoloured with chemical run-off from the gutted complex. He pokes a stick in the ditch and gives us a sniff of the toxic waste. ‘Job for the environmental remediation boys’ he says ‘or girls. I understand you were trained in environmental science Miss er…Sadeghi?’
She nods but doesn’t look enthusiastic.
‘Thing you have to remember here – whatever the disaster, whatever goes wrong, whether it be personal injury, destruction of property, whatever – someone’s got to pay. And that’s where we come in. This may look like a disaster on any number of levels, but for us? Well…it’s what we’re here for.’ and he takes us back to the car and on to a very exclusive restaurant for lunch. It’s a while before any of us have got our appetites back though. We take a while to sit at the bar and think. Even Enayat has a drink.

Later I ask the driver why we’re being shown all this and he tells us it’s essential we get the full picture, so we know what to avoid. I didn’t understand at the time. I had the strong sense we were being fattened up for something but I couldn’t imagine what. At various times Large or one of his people finds time to have a ‘little chat’ with each of us, sounding us out, finding out what we want out of our ‘continued existence’. They caught me off-guard I must admit. The whole thing seemed so depressing and hopeless I suppose I just responded to the woman from ‘the media’ being nice to me. She didn’t seem as taken in by the corportion as the others and said she could respect my independence of spirit. She wore nice feminine tie-dyes and lots of Mexican jewellery and part of me wanted to believe she really wanted me to be happy. She had an idea of me working in design; perhaps working with the very video windows we’d seen in our room. There was a lot of potential, she said, in not simply sending out what the camera happened to pick up, but in manipulating the view digitally to create fantasy effects – mythical beasts wandering into the view, heroic figures battling or sexual fantasies for example. She said they could use ‘creatives’ like me.

It was Amireh raised the question of the ‘losers’. Large was elsewhere that day and sent a very well turned out young man called Frank along to answer any questions we might have. We were touring an enormous supermarket at the time, surrounded by heavily stacked shelves of gaudily packaged products. Everything was orange and yellow.
‘Everybody is here of his or her own free will’ he began. ‘I will be brutally honest with you people. Those of you who make a life here, do so in the full understanding that there must be winners and losers. Those who are drawn to the lifestyle that this city of ours offers are a special kind of people. They are people who believe they can win, and they are very keen to give it a shot. So the question you have to ask yourselves is “Am I a winner?”‘
Enayat looks to his wife for a response but she is looking at a plastic carton of ready peeled and sliced apples. She looks along the aisle at the myriad similar cartons. ‘Is this all your fresh fruit?’ she says, looking around.
‘The best of all things at the best of all possible prices’ he quotes, smiling smugly. It’s the supermarket’s slogan. We’ve seen it written up everywhere, on the billboards, on the carrier bags, up in lights – orange on a yellow background. ‘No need to go anywhere else’ he adds. ‘No need to have to choose. It’s all done for you, here under one roof. Cheap, quick, convenient’
‘But no actual apples,’ she says, clearly quite upset.
‘No demand’ he says simply, and we move on. I see Amireh open the little box and try some. She doesn’t look impressed. She offers some to her husband but he is not tempted.
‘I suppose nobody really needs to eat here’ she says, but we all know it’s not the point.

Back at the hotel, we reconvene in the Sadeghi’s room (Security don’t stop us moving between rooms now). Agnes and Mike are nowhere to be seen but the rest of us sit around and drink coffee as the tropical fish swim past outside. It’s deliberately surreal so we won’t forget, but not as disturbing as the concrete, which none of us could stand for very long. We all sit about, shocked and disorientated.
Nicky is the first to speak ‘I can’t spend eternity as a teenager, and especially not here’ she says. ‘You couldn’t imagine some of the so called “opportunities in the hospitality industry” they had in mind for me.’
We all look surreptitiously at each other. We can imagine quite well I think.
‘I asked about journalism’ says Shamim, ‘not that I’d want to stay anyway.’
‘What did they say?’
She shrugs ‘As you’d expect really. The money’s good but there’s no real investigative reporting. It’s all just regurgitating PR for the people that run this place. Nobody wants to read about what’s actually going on, apparently...’
‘And the police are essentially their private security firm’ adds Amireh.
Her husband says ‘They were asking me about legal matters. They use a lot of lawyers here.’
‘I never asked you what you did in life Enayat’ I ask.
‘I was a lawyer’ he says. ‘We both were. They spoke to you too didn’t they dear?’ She nods and lays her head on his shoulder. She looks exhausted. He takes her hand.
‘It’s all insurance and compensation law. Not really our field, is it my love?’ She shakes her head and closes her eyes.
‘What about you Muriel?’ says Nicky. Muriel also looks like she’s had enough and Nicky goes and cuddles down beside her. It’s a very touching scene, because although Muriel doesn’t look more than ten years older than Nicky (and she’s about half the size), there’s a real mother and daughter relationship developing. Muriel looks blankly at the ceiling. ‘They haven’t said anything’ she says. ‘I don’t think they have anything for me.’ Nicky snuggles in closer.

Later on, when most of us have managed to doze off Amireh takes me aside and asks me what my intentions are toward her daughter, or words to that effect.
‘Do you love her?’ she says, with more worry in her voice than challenge.
‘I think so, yes’ I say.
She sits and thinks. ‘I don’t know what to do’ she says. ‘Everything is confused here, and we have allowed things to happen...’
‘We haven’t...’ I begin but she holds her hand up to stop me.
‘So she says.’ She gets up again and walks around. ‘You must try to understand, we could not very much influence her life in London, although I trusted her to be sensible, and she has never let us down. Now she has met you, and we are here with you, watching it happen, and we do not feel in a position to make demands, but you must understand it is not easy for us.’
I want to say it’s not easy for any of us but I keep quiet.
‘Under any normal circumstances I would hope you would want to make an honest woman of her.’ I go to interrupt but she holds her hand up. ‘Let me finish, please. In life that would mean certain obligations, religious obligations, worked out, somehow, between you two. My daughter is not especially devout, but one day... and there might have been children...I would like to have been a grandmother...’
We take a few minutes to regret what she missed.
Then she looks up and directly into my face. ‘I know none of this is clear now, here. I don’t know what to believe. We want to trust... And of course we have no idea what will happen next. What I am trying to say is that nevertheless I need something from you, some commitment to Shamim, to us. And I think she needs it too.
‘A wedding you mean? Can I discuss it with her?’ I say.
‘Or at least an engagement’ she says. ‘And Gabriel, please tell me you are not considering settling in this place.’
‘Absolutely not.’
‘Fine. Well, now I must try to sleep more, if you’ll excuse me...’
‘Er, Mrs Sadeghi? Er, what about the sleeping arrangements? Shall I...?
‘I think it’s a little late to worry about that now, don’t you?’
I smile apologetically and wake Shamim to see if she wants to go back to our room. She nods blearily and we stumble through.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Voyage XII – Shamim

I’m awoken next morning by a knocking on the door, subtle, but persistent. I look around my cabin. Shadows are still sharp and deep but it is undoubtedly morning. Nobody’s come calling before. It occurs to me it could be the girl from the library. She looked a bit desperate somehow. I deliberately dress carelessly with just a sarong, loosely tied around my hips (I am such a tart). But it’s Shamim. She looks me up and down and grins broadly. She looks as completely fresh and well-groomed as always. ‘Breakfast?’ she says brightly.
I mutter a vague agreement and she closes the door so I can get dressed. I let the sarong drop and it hangs there on the morning glory. ‘Bloody hell’ I think. ‘Now there is a woman.’

Up in the bar, (or the bistro as we now jovially refer to it) she’s got a table on the eastern side and the sun is dazzling. In front of her are waffles and maple syrup but no bacon I note. Plus there’s coffee and orange juice.
‘I didn’t know what you like to eat so I just got coffee’ she says.
I’m not used to this. What’s she up to? I think about what I want. Waffles and syrup looks good, but with bacon for me. I hope she’s not offended. I get up to go and fetch it but she pushes me back and asks me what I want. I don’t mention the bacon. She goes and gets it. When it arrives there’s bacon on the plate. I ask how she knew and she narrows her eyes and taps her nose.

After the initial rush of nourishment to my brain I look up and see her watching me. I look about self-consciously. ‘So what’s all this about?’ I say, hoping I don’t sound ungracious.
She considers for a moment. ‘I thought you might ask that,’ she says. ‘I just thought I’d like to get to know you better. Is that alright?’
‘Fine’, I say, suddenly aware that my chewing is not very dignified.
‘Also you are the only person here who’s had the nerve to come over and sit with us so far.’
‘Oh, the others are polite, but you know...’
I finish the food (excellent, as always) and sit back with my coffee. I find it hard to meet her gaze, which is very candid. I try to make small talk – about the weather, and the décor, and the food. She smiles serenely throughout, as if slightly amused by something. Then she asks me about my life and I pencil in the outline for her, avoiding the messier parts. I really want to ask about her life but feel inhibited. Eventually she leans back in her chair – they’re the wicker curve-backed sort, crosses her arms and looks quizzically at me. ‘You’re a little afraid of us too, aren’t you.’
I think about my answer ‘Not afraid exactly.’
‘What’s wrong? You’re very friendly and polite and so forth but...’
‘It’s just... all the things that are happening in the world, Palestine and Kashmir and everything...’
She frowns a little and looks at me more intently. ‘In the Muslim world you mean.’
‘I suppose we all feel like we have to tread carefully’ I say.
‘Are you as careful with Christians?’
‘No but...’
‘But they are at war too. They have terrorists. What about Ulster? What about Oklahoma? Are you a Christian by the way?’
‘No. I don’t really have a faith.’
‘Hmm’ she says, stirring her cup. A waiter comes and asks if we want more coffee and we both nod enthusiastically. I comment that I know we shouldn’t but she tells me there’s good evidence that coffee is actually very good for us, in moderation of course. ‘And here... Who knows or cares?’ she adds, taking a good slurp.
We smile at each other and enjoy our second cups of the day.
‘You said you went back to Iran after the revolution.’
She nods. ‘I was very young then but I still remember. You suspect us of being raging fanatics?’
‘I didn’t say that. It’s just...’
‘Were your family religious?’
‘Not really. I guess we all put C of E on our hospital forms, but no, we never went to church much – weddings and funerals, you know.’
‘Hmm’ she says again.
‘I was interested in paganism.’
‘Which is not devil worship, in case...’
‘No. I know what paganism means.’ After a pause she goes on ‘My father had very high hopes after the overthrow of the Shah. He thought it would be the beginning of a wonderful new age of enlightenment and wisdom. And it wasn’t so bad... I know I know, the pictures in the western media, but it wasn’t all like that. I went to university, worked in a newspaper office. I was especially interested in environmental issues believe it or not. You all think Iran is a land of sticks and stones but it can be very beautiful, especially in the north, in the mountains.’
I say ‘About ten years ago a friend of mine travelled all through the Middle East into central Asia, and he had a fabulous time. He said the people were fantastic, inviting him in, giving him food and so on, taking him to parties.’
She nods passionately and says ‘It’s still like that’ but I see there’s some sadness in her face nonetheless.
‘So is it all media hype?’ I say, ‘all this stuff about forced marriages and adulterers being stoned and women having to cover themselves up completely?’
She sits back straight in her chair and puts her cup down. ‘Ok’ she says, ‘first, I don’t take you to task because of the prevalence of domestic violence, or anorexia or, I don’t know, child pornography in your country. You can’t write off a whole nation because of the practices of a misguided minority.’
‘I wasn’t, that’s why I asked...’
‘Secondly, only a short while ago Europe was a basket case – not just the Second World War – in Spain there was a fascist regime until very recently, Portugal even more recently – were you aware of that? Then there’s Russia and the whole Iron Curtain atrocity, which I know is gone now but it’s only been ten years, and then there’s Yugoslavia – ah – I see your face, you think all this is in the past. You think that sort of thing couldn’t possibly happen now. Think again.’
I decide to sit quietly and wait for her to finish.
‘Thirdly I don’t think you perhaps realise that the part of the world I come from has been meddled with and exploited by your country among others for generations. We’re not just a bunch of semi-literate peasants you know. Persia had philosophy and mathematics and science long before you guys even knew what writing was for. Religion aside we’re deeply pissed off with you guys. We won’t put up with it forever, just so you can have all the oil you want.’
I look around the room. I can feel her eyes on me, intense, challenging. I don’t feel I deserve this. I had a lot of sympathy for the Palestinians. ‘Actually you don’t know anything about what I think at all’ I say, entering the fray with gusto (just like at college). ‘Actually I think the way the Palestinians are reacting makes perfect sense, after the way the Zionists behaved and the Algerians with the French...’
‘Excuse me?’ she says, clearly outraged, ‘Blowing up innocent children Gabriel? Hostage taking and torturing? Have you any idea whatsoever, what you’re talking about?’
‘I just think, maybe, if nothing else works...’ but my voice tails off. I suppose I’d been expecting a different reaction from her. This had been a popular debating topic back in the refectory, or down the pub – The IRA - terrorists or freedom-fighters? We all thought we were very impressive, being so broad-minded.
‘Oh yes’ she says mock cheerily, ‘Diplomacy has failed! Let’s kill a lot of random by-standers. That’ll help!’
She looks really pissed off. Well so she should. It’s a bit more real for her I suppose. We sit quietly for a while, gathering ourselves, catching our respective breaths. Then she turns and looks intently at me, searching my eyes. ‘Violence never works Gabriel’ she says. ‘I don’t know why anybody ever thought it might.’
‘Ok’ I say, feeling oddly guilty.
I feel her take hold of my hand. She looks into my face.
‘I’m sorry Gabriel’ she says, ‘but you people need to understand this stuff.’
I stand up, gently but firmly extricating my hand. That ‘You people’ stung. Who does she think I am? I look about for the others. The dining room is gradually filling up. I see Olly wave and I wave back, but he can tell from my face not to come over. Lou and Ned are there too I note, but I don’t feel the need to go to them. I sit down again.
‘Do you talk like this to all westerners you meet?’
‘No. Only those I think might understand.’ She smiles warmly again. ‘No disrespect, but most westerners I meet are just so very ill-informed, even the supposed intelligentsia, the ones at university I met.’
‘You shouldn’t assume I don’t know anything though.’
‘I know. I get on my soapbox. I’m sorry.’
‘What I meant about the Palestinians was, I just don’t get it how the Israelis can be so astonished at the Palestinian response to their occupation – as if they expected the Palestinians to just step aside and say “God said you could have it? Good enough for me. There you go mate, help yourself. Don’t mind us.”’
She smiles. ‘It might surprise you to know I had a Jewish American boyfriend back in London. Father doesn’t know about it incidentally. I don’t think he’d mind especially, but you know, what with one thing and another...’
‘What did he think, your boyfriend?’
‘Oh, he said the Zionists should have taken Manhattan. There’d have probably been less resistance.’
She laughs lightly, shaking her head. I smile uncomfortably. My politically correct education means I’m not sure if I’m allowed to laugh at anything to do with Jews.
‘Do you feel better now?’ she says.
‘Now we’ve got all that out in the open?’
I have to smile and acknowledge I do feel more relaxed with her now.
‘Good. Now. I believe my parents will be along very soon and I’d like to meet them. You can join us if you want to.’
‘I’m going to see my friends, over there.’
She nods and smiles ‘Don’t be a stranger’ she says with a perfect Brooklyn accent, and I laugh and weave my way among the tables and chairs across to where Ned and the others are seated.

Journey X – Career opportunities

It is a great relief to see the rest of the gang again, and looking so well. Shamim and her parents are reunited and the rest of us hug and smile and generally behave as if we’re the oldest friends and not seen each other for years. Once that’s been done we look around at the other guests (dressed as we are, in classic evening wear), at the magnificent buffet with waiters and chefs in attendance, and the plush antique furnishings. The room is a ridiculous confection of what appears to be gold and marble, old masters and enormous mirrors but the ceiling seems too low. Everything seems to be on slightly the wrong scale. A string quartet plays in the corner and there appears to be no end to the champagne cocktails on offer. I go over and stand beside Shamim once they have finished hugging and crying, and make polite conversation with her parents. I feel guilty about Shamim and me sharing a room even though I have no real reason to be. Nicky of course spots it immediately and nudges me unsubtly and gives me a dirty grin. She does a twirl for me – clearly very excited about the golden silk ball gown she’s been given. ‘They spent three hours on my hair too’ she says. I'm surprised how happy I am to see her. Agnes greets us formally but Mike and Muriel seem very pleased to see everyone.
‘Fantastic duds don’t you think?’ he says, looking down at his tux and I have to agree – we do look very 007.

We stand about and chat for a little while, speculating as to what became of Charles and Georgia. (Were we betrayed? Were they captured and tortured to reveal our whereabouts? We daren’t think.) For a short time we allow ourselves to ignore our predicament and we sample the canapés, drink some wine and size up the other guests, who seem civil but rather reserved. Nicky comes back a little confused when her charms produce no reaction. Enayat agrees with me that we should not get drunk, but stay alert. ‘Not that we would’ he adds, for his daughter’s benefit I think.
We stand around and wait to see what happens. We’d like to talk but it’s too tense, too weird.
I notice with some bemusement that all the plates and bowls on the table appear to be slowly revolving. At first I thought my eyes were doing something odd but a man in a sharp suit who has been rather too obviously lingering nearby says ‘Isn’t it fun? I thought of it. Look...’ He holds up a little silver canister that, at the touch of a button, whirs and deposits some ground black pepper on the tablecloth. ‘No more of that tedious back-and-forth we used to have to do.’ He mimes the pepper grinding action as if it’s the equivalent of having to haul a grand piano through an upstairs window. ‘It is our mission’ he says with some pride ‘to incorporate an electronic device into every single household object. Cut out the labour. Sell more energy.’ I look down at his, even by the standards of this place, very paunchy body. Evidently he’s not made the rather obvious connection between labour saving devices and flab. I'm wondering if it's possible to lose or gain weight in the afterlife. He thinks I’m eyeing him up and gives me a look that suggests I might be in with a chance later. I move away from him.

Eventually we become aware that something is happening at the far end of the room and soon we see the arrival of a very impressively dressed individual followed by several ladies – also strikingly dressed, and then a few other men in formal wear. I assume this is our host. He has that way of speaking to everyone he passes without paying attention to anyone in particular. We look about and see that, whereas everyone else is milling about animatedly, chatting and laughing in a way they weren’t before, that without meaning to, our group have gathered with our backs to the door we came in through. All of us that is except Nicky that is who is still trying to chat up a group of men near the bar. They look on impassively, not even eyeing her bosom, which is, as usual, very much in evidence. That’s when I know something is wrong.

Eventually she gives up, looks about, wondering what is happening and then sees us and rushes over as quickly as her shoes will allow. ‘What’s happening?’ she says, but before anyone can reply, we realise the impressively dressed individual is approaching.
It’s strange how predictable our reactions can be. We all feel we are in the presence of royalty, and Agnes even does a little curtsey. Even my more anarchist sentiments are compromised and I wait politely to be spoken to.
It wasn’t really until later it sank in, at least to some of us how kitsch the whole thing was – like he thought he was in a Bond movie. He began with ‘Rit Large, at your service.’ and went on to tell the ‘ladies’ they looked ‘charming’ and that he was ‘honoured’ to meet us.
‘Who does he think he is?’ whispered Mrs Sadeghi over my shoulder.
I was worried to note that Agnes and Mike were totally charmed and took the opportunity to be introduced to the other guests with pathetic eagerness – as if they hadn’t been snubbed for the whole of the first part of the evening. Nicky also made the most of being the new-found centre of attention (Large certainly did look at her bosom, at length and with some wonderment, and after that, everyone did. Some of the ladies with him did not seem so impressed however.)
Wandering about, attempting to be sociable we discover that the other guests will communicate with us only in the smallest talk possible (a language in which Agnes, Nicky and Mike seem entirely comfortable) and some of them will not talk at all but watch us extremely closely (‘Security’ says Enayat). After a while Muriel comes over and says ‘I don’t like it here’, and takes refuge between us and the table. A little later Nicky comes over, and after giving a detailed and breathless account of what she said and what they said (we weren’t really listening I confess), finishes with ‘It’s weird here. I don’t like it’ to which we all nod our agreement. The chamber music seems to have come to an end and a small jazz combo has taken their place. Other guests are dancing and Agnes and Mike are jiving and gesture to us cheerfully to join them. Only Nicky gives in to the groove.
So the rest of us just sit down and chat among ourselves, comparing notes, talking about our accommodation, skirting tactfully around the sleeping arrangements in our room. That’s when Enayat mentions the fabulous view of the ocean just below his window, and how strange it is, since we assumed we were so many floors up. I look at him quizzically. Shamim tells him it is a forest from our window.
‘But our rooms are next door to each other, surely’ says her father.
‘There is a dial, just under the sill – did no one tell you?’ says an affable voice from behind us. It’s Large.
‘You can make a choice, at the turn of a switch. Look, I will show you.’ and he goes over to the far wall which is curtained from end to end. We sit there like lemons and he has to beckon us over.
He flicks a switch and the curtains open revealing a view of tree-tops exactly like the one from our window, but in darkness of course since it’s night time. Large moves his hand to another control and the tree-tops fade into a bay with sailing boats and palm trees. He does it again and suddenly we’re on a coral reef, under the water, then once again and we’re in a deserted market place somewhere in Latin America perhaps. ‘It’s not so interesting at night of course, but you can...’ and the view skips, getting lighter and lighter ‘Three hours ago, five hours ago, eight hours ago, you see?’
‘Where are these places?’ asks Shamim.
‘Oh I don’t know exactly. We have researchers find the locations for the cameras. There are hundreds to choose from, thousands perhaps, but these are our best sellers.’
Mrs Sadeghi asks ‘So what is the real view like?’
‘You really want to see?’ he says with an evil grin. She doesn’t look so sure now. He flicks another switch and we’re treated to a view over the city from far above. Around us the darkened masses of tall buildings loom, liberally splattered with neon advertising, and beyond, the suburbs, industrial districts and slums stretch far into the night. The red tail lights of helicopters can be seen buzzing around, doing their hornets-from-hell routine, and in the deep ravines below us, glowing with sodium, are the red and white lights of vehicles, all either going way too fast or snarled up in traffic jams.
‘Hey Erwin’ calls our host to one of the other men who came in with him and who is also surveying the scene now. The man looks over impassively (or possibly contemptuously). ‘Looks like the west side’s alight tonight. Is that yours?’
‘Could well be’ says Erwin.
We all look where Large points and sure enough, a whole block seems to be in flames.
‘Fire department’ he says.
‘Is that normal?’ asks Nicky.
Large shrugs ‘There’s always something. I try not to get involved. Hey, anyone for ice-cream?’ And the desserts are brought in. We stand and look at the chaos below. Nicky is finally tempted away by the promise of profiteroles but the rest of us – Shamim and her parents, Muriel and I, stand and survey the mayhem.
‘I’m glad it’s dark’ says Shamim, clutching my arm.

As soon as Shamim and I get back to our room I go over to the window and flick the switch to extinguish our forest and try to keep it real as they say, but the view from our room is far worse than that in the penthouse. I stand and look at it for quite some time, taking it in. Shamim comes through from the bathroom and stands there beside me. We’re both speechless for there is no view at all –  just a concrete wall behind the glass.
I feel something break inside me at that point and I go and sit on the bed with my head in my hands. Shamim stands and looks at it for a moment longer, then turns the dial back to the forest. It scares me how comforting it feels to have it back, even though I know it’s a lie now. Then she comes over and sits with me, holding my hands. I have nothing to say. We are so very lost.
‘We’ve got a busy day tomorrow’ she says, softly, to my neck. ‘We should sleep.’
I look at her and she kisses me and I go and get into my pyjamas.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Voyage XI – Faithless

‘Hey Lou. What are you reading?’
‘Gabriel. Er... I’m not entirely sure. It appears to be about trees.’ He flips the book over and looks at the cover, then shows it to me.
‘I’d never really considered before, just how improbable a tree is. If you think about it, if you’d had to predict what life on earth would look like – I’ve no idea when or where you’d be doing this, nor who you’d be addressing by the way, but still I don’t think you’d have predicted trees. I mean, the sheer scale for a start, even some of the more modest ones. But then you have to take into consideration their holding their branches, each often the size of a smaller tree in itself, out, rigidly, possibly at right angles to the trunk, and you think of the sheer mass of wood there, the bulk and mechanical strength involved in lifting what is, essentially just a thin fuzz of green stuff, essentially no different to a nettle leaf or a blade of grass, up into the air, merely to lift them out of the shade of other, smaller plants. Don’t you think that’s fantastic? And look here...’ I bend over and look at the diagram he has. It looks like a map of the most congested city road network in the world, with railways and tramlines and blocks of buildings all shoved together, squeezing transport between them. ‘Sapwood’ he says. ‘Just a thin layer of live tissue under the bark, sustaining all that...’
‘Green fuzz – precisely, at the tips. Don’t you think that’s marvellous?’
I nod my head vigorously and sit down beside him.
‘All the years I worked at the university – researching and teaching the diversity of life I wish I’d had books like these. I never saw it so clearly... I wonder...’ and he gets up and looks along the shelves. After some quick movements, running his finger along the spines he swiftly pulls one out and brings it over.
‘I was looking at this one the other day. Marvellous. Look at that.’ He places it open on my lap and the pencil lines seem to heave and seethe with life as I survey them. At first it’s not clear what I’m looking at but he points out the coral masses and their tiny polyps, and the sunlight streaming down through the clear tropical water and the tiny algal cells embedded in the coral matrix photosynthesising away, bubbling out oxygen. It takes my breath away even though I don’t know anything about it. It makes me think my drawings will look very different in the next life, if I ever get there. I want to ask about how he thinks all this got there, all this variety of life but I don’t want to spoil the moment. It does seem strange that he so obviously has a deep appreciation for the wonder of nature and yet has no sense of the meaning behind it all. Maybe I’ll bring it up later.
‘How is Olly?’ he says, unexpectedly. I look at his face. His head is bowed and as usual the library is in shadow so I can’t see his expression but there was a slight catch in his voice.
‘Erm... Ok, I think.’ Actually I’m worried too.
‘I didn’t mean to hurt him. It’s just...sometimes... Have you spoken to him?’
‘A few days back.’
‘What did he say?’
‘He said he’d never thought of himself as arrogant before.’ I hadn’t intended to be so harsh but Lou needs to understand how thoughtless he’s been. To my surprise he tuts and says ‘He’s such a drama queen sometimes. I’ll go up and see him later – eat humble pie. I don’t know.’
‘I don’t get it though. You call him arrogant.’ I jab at the page in front of us. ‘How can you explain all this away?’
‘I don’t’ he says ‘and I don’t pretend to. But he does. He says God did it and he knows this because he sat down and thought about it, or read an old book written by another man who sat down and thought about it. I’m sorry but it’s not good enough. I may have a rather pompous manner at times but I’m not so arrogant.’
‘But what about evolution and all that?’
‘What about it?’
‘You believe in all that don’t you?’
‘I’m not sure I believe in anything per se.’
‘I think there’s compelling evidence for evolution by natural selection. I think it’s an excellent theory but I’m not sure I believe in it exactly.’
‘Then, what do you believe in?’
‘Well, like I said...’
I stand up and pace a bit. ‘Don’t you have any sense that the world, life, is...? There has to be, surely, something. Otherwise...’ I shrug. I’ve never been very articulate on all this but I feel it very strongly – whatever it is.
‘What about all this?’ I say – indicating the open book, the reef and all it’s processes. ‘I can’t believe that all that could just “happen”, without some sort of...’
‘Ah the Argument From Personal Incredulity’ he intones, nodding sagely (and sarcastically). I stand and look. I don’t want to gratify him by asking what he means. I think I know, but he tells me anyway. ‘I.e. you don’t happen to personally believe it. But I’m afraid that doesn’t get us very far.’ He leans back in his chair and looks wistful. ‘I have to say I rather miss the days when stories were prefixed with “ ‘tis said among the peoples of the east...” or “I’ve heard it said that...” and no one could be under any illusion about the reliability of what was about to be claimed. These days every Tom, Dick and Harry who has read an article somewhere in the Sunday supplements or found something on the internet considers himself well-informed.’
‘But we’re all entitled to our opinions.’
‘Certainly, but we are not all entitled to have them taken equally seriously. I may have an opinion on painting but I would not have the temerity to correct you on a point of technique, nor art history. I may see a problem with a point you make but I hope I would ask for clarification rather than dismiss your expertise out of hand.’
There’s a problem with what he is saying but I can’t put my finger on it. He’s saying that intuition and opinion are not good enough. Fine, but then we can’t all be experts, and in any case experts disagree. I never trusted the ‘experts’ anyhow – you never know who’s paying them. We sit and look at the sun’s rays streaming in onto the dusty tabletops and densely upholstered benches. It’s very peaceful. I look down at the pages before me. Fish dart among the coral heads. A turtle cruises the dark waters below. The question is here somewhere, in the marine drop-off where everything sinks down into the abyss.
‘You can’t just explain all this away’ I say at last.
‘I don’t know why you think I might want to explain it “away” as you put it’ he says gently.
‘But you make it all just chemicals and processes and forces.’
‘I don’t know why you think explaining things makes them any the less wonderful. I never found it so, speaking personally. As far as I’m concerned, life, the universe, consciousness, humanity – they’re all just as wonderful whether God is behind them or not. In fact, for me the science makes it all the more wonderful – that it makes itself, independently, don’t you see?’
‘Not really...’ I feel lost in it really. Suddenly I notice hammerheads going by – scores of them, out in the distance, beyond the reef, silhouetted against the surface at the top of the page. I wonder where they’re going.
‘You see these coral polyps in their little calcite cups’ he says, pointing to the drawing’s bottom right hand corner ‘nurturing their tiny algal symbionts?’
‘Tiny single celled plants – like the ones that turn pond water green. The algae live within the coral utilising the coral’s waste products and providing oxygen. The water on reefs is almost devoid of nutrients. It would be a desert really, if it weren’t for the coral and all the other myriad reef organisms coexisting there, endlessly recycling, circulating nutrients within the system. Nothing is wasted. Nothing is spare. And it is thought that it is this tightly bound ecosystem that gives a coral reef some of the richest diversities of life you’ll find anywhere. You’d think the greatest biodiversity would be in some luxurious land of plenty where there is always more than enough to go around but no – it’s here.’ He taps the page. ‘And in rainforests too. Now would that be any more wonderful if it was built and organised by some supernatural being? I don’t think so.’
‘But how does it happen? And how has it come to happen, from just chemicals and energy, by some random accident?’
‘Well that is a very complex question. And it is hardly “random” or “accidental”. What you mean is “unplanned”. Anyway I could try to explain – you’d have to do some serious reading, but ultimately I don’t pretend to be able to explain everything.’
‘I don’t claim to know, not definitively.’
‘We have a lot of ideas, a lot of data, a lot of research. I think we understand some of the processes involved rather well. Some of the theories seem very sound, but you want me to explain everything about this – how it works, how it came to be? I can’t. I won’t. Only you people with your “intuitions” claim to have that sort of insight.’
‘But you claim to know there’s no such thing as God. Isn’t that just the same in a way?’
‘I don’t. I never claimed that.’
‘But scientists do, surely.’
‘Some do. Others are deeply religious. One of my students was a creationist but his lab work was impeccable. I can’t speak for them. But I am not an atheist. I find the notion of God highly implausible and far too convenient but if someone comes up with some compelling evidence for His existence (something other than the fact that we haven’t explained everything) I will be fascinated. Truly. You may be interested to know that I’m very interested in parapsychology. The implications for the whole of biology would be staggering, and there is some evidence too, but so far it seems equivocal to say the least.’
‘So you believe in science then.’
‘I understand what you mean but I would still have to say no.’ He sits back and looks at me coolly. ‘You assume a great deal about what I believe Gabriel. You would do better to stop trying to catch me out and actually try to understand what I have to say – assuming you want to talk seriously about this at all.’
That takes me aback. I’ve a good mind to go and do something else. He is bloody arrogant whatever he says, and pompous with it. We sit quietly for a while, he flicking through another book distractedly.
‘I’m sorry’ he says finally, closing the book. ‘I’ve done it again and I apologise. Will you let me try to explain?’ I nod guardedly.
‘Perhaps some other time’ he says, and I leave him to his book.

Vincent VIII – Maria del Mar

I’ve been thinking about my work at the college. Vincent is arranging his papers, getting ready to start. I feel I need to explain something.
‘To be fair I think they might have been partly right, the tutors...’ I begin. He looks up, a quizzical look on his face.
‘They said my work was dated, as well as parochial. That was the other criticism they had. It wasn’t really surprising. I hardly looked at anything anybody had done since the Second World War – abstract expressionists and pop art and everything. I just wasn’t that interested. Actually I was going backwards – by the middle of the second year I was into the renaissance and such like. Before that I thought they were just a lot of boring old religious paintings but I went to Florence at Easter, and you know you think you know what The Birth of Venus looks like because you’ve seen it loads of times in books and prints? But then you see the real thing and...’ He’s holding his hand up. I stop talking.
‘Today’ he says, ‘I wanted to move on to your relationship with er... Maria?’
‘Mar’ I say, looking at him somewhat coldly I hope. He’s so rude sometimes.
‘Mar. How did you two meet?’
It takes me a while to think. ‘I met her on a holiday I went on the summer I graduated.’
‘Ah. I see. And you fell in love with each other?’
I’m not sure about this. I look back now and I don’t really know how she ever really felt about me. She married me though, and came to England. I suppose that counts for something.
‘Well I fell in love with her. Maybe I was infatuated. I don’t know.’ The image of her furious face and the sound of her shrieking voice come back to me suddenly – an incident involving a plate of curry just missing my head and landing on the pale carpet. Well at least I don’t have to worry about not getting that deposit back now. She’ll have to deal with all that.
But all the trauma later on has contaminated, no, all but obliterated, what went before.
‘What happened when you first met?’ he asks.
I smile and laugh a little at the memory. I don’t know what came over me. It was one of those fiestas the Spanish seem to have almost every weekend in the summer. I was sitting alone at my table, at a bar. I remember I was pretending to read a novel – one of Laurie Lee’s Spanish Civil War books, but secretly I was keeping an eye on what was going on, and sipping my vodka and coke, trying to look sophisticated and cool. The trees were strung with lights and there was some terrible euro-Latin pop playing and everybody but me was out in their Sunday best (I was in my usual shorts and hoodie) and I remember thinking that here was something we had lost back home in England. People there went out clubbing, or to parties, but this was a whole town together, old people and children too, tapping their toes to the music and these magnificent young and not so young men and women dancing the steps they’d learnt when they were babies, and all done up in their neatly tailored outfits. Everyone looked their best, cool and stylish. I felt like a mangy jackal hanging out with a pride of lions. But at least I wasn’t one of those warthogs in their shell suits and Fred Perry shirts down on the coast. I was a traveller after all, not a tourist.
And yet they more than tolerated me. We were far enough I suppose from Benidorm for the men to consider me a novelty and to buy me drinks and to ask me where I came from and what I did, and for the girls to eye me up and get me to dance, which I did, hopelessly, comically, and in a way I would never have conceded to at home. I had a great time.
Mar was also a bit of a miss-fit. She wasn’t local either as it happened – just visiting, and her hairstyle and clothes made this obvious. I remember that night she wore something like a sari in yellow silk but with a broad leather belt. Her hair had flashes of blue in it and a lot of bangles hung on her slender brown wrists and ankles. Silver chains hung around her throat and looped between her lovely brown breasts. She sat, half reclining in a wire chair, side-on to where I was at my table a few yards away and I could see the whole length of her from the sunglasses on top of her head to the rings on her toes. She was magnificent.
I never caught her look at me overtly but I was very aware of her, alone, pretending to read a magazine. Nobody spoke to her. Normally I would have thought, or rather known for a fact, that she was way out of my league. The fact that I was certain she had been looking at me merely confirmed what an oddity I was.
And yet a voice in my head told me to go and say something. So I went and asked what she was reading. It was totally out of character. She smiled up at me and shrugged and told me it was just some trashy article about celebrities and what did I have? I showed her the book and that was it. We didn’t stop talking for three months except to have sex and to sleep. More than anything about those early days – more than the actual adventures we had, the food we ate, places we saw, people we met, it’s that first contact - the fact that I actually went over and did it, made the move, said something, that makes me really pleased with myself now. For the first time, my wish to get to know someone had overcome my fear of demolition. I had arrived. I was a man. After everything else between us had died, I believe I stayed with her because of that.

‘So you travelled back to Spain when the project went “tits up”. Did you like teaching?’
‘It was ok. I liked being in Spain, away from everything. Teaching paid for me to do that.’
‘What did you like about Spain?’
‘Oh – where to start?’ I sit back and look at the ceiling with my hands behind my head and a broad grin on my face.
‘All those sunburnt English tourists?’ he says, ‘Watney’s Red Barrel on the beach?’ I can’t tell if he’s mocking me.
‘You have to go a little way inland’ I reply evenly. ‘The English don’t go more than two hundred yards from the beach.’
‘And where were you?’
‘A little town in the Alpujaras.’ There’s nothing I can say about it here that will do it justice. It was paradise. That first trip I’d never been so pathetically happy in my life. It was like I’d come home.
‘So you fell in love’ he says again.
‘With everything – the heat, the music, the women, the food, the... everything. I went back and did some teaching while I was waiting for the post grad thing to start and then she came back to England with me.’
‘And she married you then – when you came back.’
‘I see. Can I ask you why you married her? It seems to me that you do not seem very sure she loved you. She did not need to marry you to move to the UK, so...’
I don’t know the answer to this either. I’ve been over it time and time again. I take a sip from my glass – time to think. I’d been mad about her – possibly literally. I’d have done anything for her. Here was this classically exquisite raven haired, doe eyed, fragrant woman who apparently quite fancied little old me. I couldn’t believe my luck. It hardly seems real now.
‘She came from a quite traditional background I guess. She wanted children... She wanted to come to England. I suppose it made sense.’
‘But she could have chosen another man.’
‘That’s true, I suppose.’ Why did she choose me? I can’t imagine.
‘Perhaps she did love you after all’ he says, quite tenderly it seems. I look at him. The look in his eyes is sincere. Why does that surprise me?
‘It was very good, at the beginning. We did everything. We never stopped talking. Her English was better than my Spanish so I didn’t learn much. And I loved her family – they were all really good to me.’
‘She liked your art?’
‘Yes. Very much. She put my paintings up everywhere.’
‘And the other pieces?’
‘Not so much. She knew why I was doing them though, and she was extremely excited about the video project – that was when she proposed to me.’
‘She proposed to you?’ he says with a smile.
I grin at him. ‘That’s the kind of woman she was.’
‘So how did she react when you gave up your project?’
I sit back, look about. That part wasn't so funny.
‘She tried to be supportive.’
‘But you noticed a change.’
‘I think she was more upset than I was. She didn’t really understand I don’t think.’
I think back to that horrible time. The bewildering change, the terrible surprise. When you fall out of love with someone, suddenly everything shifts. It’s like one of those optical illusions. All the time you’ve seen it as an elegant vase and then all of a sudden it becomes two faces snarling at each other and somehow you can never see it the way you did ever again.
‘You think maybe she loved the idea of you as the great artist more than the more humble reality.’
I think he may be right. I think at first she liked me naïve and sensitive and strange, but then she just came to see me as immature and unrealistic and difficult. I knew at the end that on one level she hadn’t ever really tried to understand me at all but then on another level I was still my father’s son and I hated myself for my stupidity, throwing it all away in a tantrum. I didn’t really think I could expect anyone to understand.
‘I think she saw it as cutting off my nose to spite my face, if you know what I mean.’
‘But if thy nose offend thee...’ he says with a smile.
I look at him and arrange my thoughts. ‘I think, maybe, for her, as a Spanish woman, she would have done anything to get on in her career. A successful career in a male dominated world was still something unheard of for her, whereas for me – a middle-class, white Englishman... maybe I just didn’t want it badly enough. I guess you’d maybe understand her point of view more.’
‘You think just because I’m black I would be content to put up with any amount of shit from the boss, just to make a career in England?’
Now I really am embarrassed but he smiles at me like he thinks it’s funny and leans back.
‘You are proud’ he says, standing his papers on end and tamping them into a neat pile. ‘But it is not always a sin. It inflicts certain limits on your options, but it is not always something to be ashamed of. Some things are very hard to do.’
And it occurs to me quite suddenly why that simple phrase means so much to me - about things being hard. It’s the way he says it – with sadness and understanding in his voice – and with compassion – because he too has had to deal with these things and I am not alone. All my life that phrase just meant ‘Stop whingeing! Put up with it, like we do.’ And all my life I had taken these words as a kind of punishment – to make me ashamed of myself – a lesson from those around me – the business-like, no nonsense adults, looking down on me – just a weak, lazy and self-indulgent boy. And I had rebelled – because I knew people were petty and vindictive and it couldn't all be my fault.
And now here is this man saying ‘Some things are hard’ and I can tell from the expression on his face and his tone of voice that he’s been there too. He is on my side. It’s not just me. We all have trouble. Sometimes things don’t work. It’s not necessarily anybody’s fault. Some things are hard. Some things are complicated. It’s not always about blame.
And suddenly I feel very light and tranquil.
I think we have maybe two or three more sessions to go.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Voyage X – Teens

The weather had been improving steadily over the last few days and more and more of us were spending time up on deck. The surf dudes especially were taking the time to expose their manly torsos and be athletic and the shop girls (as we rather sniffily termed them) were suitably impressed. Bermuda shorts and bikinis appeared from somewhere. I got a black pair (shorts, not a bikini) and looked forward to making my entrance somewhen or other, to no doubt breathless admiration and numerous offers (I wish). I’d like to have been up there, being impressive but the only girl I fancied was here with her mum and dad, and in any case I didn’t really feel available. I tried to look at a book on ecology.

What Lou had said to Keith was bothering me, that rather sharp comment about him not knowing what he was talking about. Surely you could have an opinion without having to be an expert. After all, where would democracy be if only people who knew what they were talking about got a say? He’s offended my egalitarian conscience, my anarchist temperament, and, worst of all, he’s insulted my intelligence. On the other hand, even in the realms of art, where individual opinion and personal taste are paramount I’d been neverendingly infuriated by pompous opinionated prats making the most fatuous observations about this work of art or the other, based on totally spurious factoids they’d heard somewhere on the telly. You can like whatever you like but some opinions are certainly more worth listening to than others.
But I digress. I wasn’t keen to challenge him on the science. I guess that’s the appeal of religion – although there are those who know their scripture backwards and have fully mastered all the theological hoopla you could wish for, in religion there is still the unassailable truth of personal conviction that anyone can have and of which any man’s is as good as the next. So there. I look at the pictures.
I see a cut-away diagram of a forest floor – an exquisitely detailed line drawing exposing the roots of what they claim is a kapok tree. It has strange webbed roots standing taller than the tribesman drawn there for scale. (Evidently things are very different here – I was sure kapok came from some sort of goat, but I wouldn’t be surprised to turn the page and find something on the nesting habits of bananas.) As I look closer I see there is a wild menagerie of microscopic organisms there twisting and swelling and probing among the leaf litter. Roots mate with fungi and pale threads envelope every crumb of soil and digest every particle of debris. And over everything, bacteria swarm – swamping the trees, infesting the tapir peeping out from behind the tree, and growing all over that toucan on the branch. I close the book before they engulf me too. What a bizarre idea. Strange books they have here. I hardly dare look again when I see there’s someone else eschewing the frivolity outside. She sits curled up on one of the benches under the windows opposite me. I hadn’t noticed her because of the glare but now someone is standing on the deck obstructing the window and I can see she is looking directly at me. She seems very small, like a child. Her head is bent down and she has her knees drawn up and they are clasped together by her arms.
‘I’m sorry’ I say. ‘I didn’t see you there. Are you ok?’ I see her jerk a little, as if she’s just woken up. I sit forward and try to see her properly. ‘Are you ok?’ I say again softly and edge forward. She has the look of someone who might flee at any moment. I move gently closer, keeping low for some reason, and then move to the side so I can see her properly without the glare from the window. I say something silly about this to explain my movement. She doesn’t react. It occurs to me that I’ve not seen any children on the voyage so far, and there shouldn’t be anybody crazy here. As with physical illness, death apparently takes all that away, leaves you clean, or so I’m told. I wanted to ask Vincent about congenital disabilities, mental and physical – of people who had never known life any other way but I hadn’t got around to it. I edge closer. Her hair is in a ribbon. She wears a white sleeveless top and a short grey skirt. It looks vaguely like a school gym kit. Her feet are bare. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a child here alone. I think about going and finding one of the guides. Maybe they’ll know what to do. I tell her this is what I’m going to do and she suddenly reaches out and grabs my hand ‘Don’t’ she says. ‘I’m ok.’
She lets go of my hand and I sit down across from her on one of the little round wooden chairs that surround the little round wooden tables here in the library. ‘I’ll be ok’ she says and uncurls a little. As she does so I can see she’s not small at all, just very tightly coiled. She looks about sixteen or so; plump but unusually tall, as if she’s just been through a growth spurt (I’ve heard about these things somewhere). She sits up straight, but with her legs bent up in front of her and her arms still clasped around them. I feel like I know her from somewhere.
‘I have to say you don’t look ok’ I say as gently as possible. ‘Can I get you anything?’
‘A G&T?’ she says. ‘With a slice of lime.’
‘Er... is that such a good idea?’ I say (a little condescendingly I admit.)
‘I need a drink’ she says firmly. It occurs to me that alcohol doesn’t really work here, not like it does in life so I guess it can’t do her any real harm. I turn to go.
‘Oh don’t worry about it’ she says, grinning as if she’s been testing me to see if I’d actually do it. ‘Come and sit down’ she adds unexpectedly and with a disquieting self-confidence. ‘It’s alright, I won’t bite’ she adds, but I’m not so sure.
I stay standing and look at her suspiciously.
‘Well I’m going to get myself a drink anyway’ I say. ‘Are you going to be here?’
‘Probably’ she says vaguely, looking away.
Ok, whatever, I think and head for the bar.
‘Lots of ice’ I hear her yell after me when I’m out the door.

She’s a scary kid I think on the way, and wonder what has happened to her. Probably there just aren’t that many children dying on any given day. It must be terrifying for them. I hurry back and at first I think she has gone but then I notice her looking at the shelves at the far end. Her skirt is very short indeed. Her thighs are chubby and pale.
‘Here’ I say, ‘G&T, lime slice, lots of ice.’ She turns and smiles, comes over, picks up her drink and resumes her previous position on the bench under the window – her knees drawn up under her chin, drink balanced on them. She peers at me from behind it.
‘I’m sorry if I startled you before’ she says.
‘I didn’t see you come in.’
She shakes her head distractedly, as if getting rid of an unwanted thought.
‘Of course not’ she says, irritably. Then she looks hard at me and sips her glass. She narrows her eyes at me. Actually I think I’m more frightened than she is. I expect her to pounce any moment. ‘Actually, you’ll do’ she says quietly and then I really am worried. I know we can’t hurt each other here, but still...
‘Do you like girls?’ she says suddenly ‘I’m sorry – what’s your name?’
I tell her, but don’t feel invited to ask for hers in return.
‘Ok, Gabriel, you like girls?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Sexually Gabriel. I mean sexually’ she says impatiently ‘God...’
‘Erm, yes. Yes I do, rather than boys, if that’s what you mean.’
‘And do you like pornography Gabriel?’
I don’t like this line of questioning at all but I don’t want to avoid it. I haven’t done anything wrong have I? ‘Some, yes, I suppose...’
‘Would you like to see me naked Gabriel?’ she says, leaning back, displaying an impressive cleavage and giving me a broad, rather disturbing grin, showing her teeth.
‘What? No. Of course not.’
‘Really? You don’t think I’m sexy?’ she says moving forwards, leaning on the table...
‘Well, yes, but...’
‘Don’t lie Gabriel. You want to see my body, don’t you? I saw you look, when I sat back here, you checked to see if you could see up my skirt. Now you’re having to stop yourself looking down my front. Admit it.’
I look at her. I feel it’s time to take control, at least of myself. I lean back and take a few breaths. I still don’t know what to say but I sit back and breathe and watch her. She settles back and watches me back. ‘Admit it’ she says, more quietly. There doesn’t seem to be any point in lying, even if I could. I was looking at her breasts. Who wouldn’t? They are remarkable.
‘Ok, I admit it’ I say. ‘So?’
‘So?’ she says, contemptuously, then ‘So...’ considering what to do next. I watch her think. Then she puts her head in her hands and says something muffled.
‘What?’ I say.
‘You can go’ she shouts at me.
‘You bloody well go’ I say, affronted. ‘I was here first.’ She looks at me, a weary teenage expression on her face. Then she gets up and goes back to the shelves. I try to ignore her looking at the books. I look at my own book but can’t concentrate. The snakes and wild pigs refuse to come alive on the page. I turn to her. She’s obviously pretending to look at the books. I put mine down. What the heck, I think. I was bored anyhow.
‘What’s all this about?’ I say.
‘What?’ she says as if nothing has happened.
‘All this stuff about seeing your body. What’s all that about?’
‘I just wanted to know.’
‘You could have just asked me politely.’
‘Would you have told me?’
She looks at me coolly. It occurs to me that she actually looks more mature than sixteen. Her expression is older. I wonder if this is the old soul thing again but I can’t see how that would work here. Here surely we are all quite aware of what’s happened to us previously. She sits down heavily on the chair next to mine with a book in her hands. She’s uncomfortably close to me, almost touching shoulders. She studies the spine for a long time, then spins the book between her middle fingers, then slaps it down on the table. ‘Tell me about pornography’ she says suddenly, getting up and marching across the room.
‘Why do men like pornography? Why do you like pornography?’
I sit back and think how to approach this. I’ve thought about this. We used to discuss it in the refectory. I feel defensive but I know what my answer is. ‘Well, it’s a bit embarrassing actually...’ I begin.
‘I do know about masturbation, in case you were wondering’ she says and my face does the same involuntary grimace my father’s would have done hearing that word from a child’s mouth.
‘Oh for God’s sake, I’m not a child’ she says. ‘Wank fuck cunt cock. Ok?’
‘How old are you?’ I say innocently.
‘That’s a rude question to ask a lady’ she says, haughtily.
I have to smirk. ‘Whereas saying “cunt” is not rude at all.’
‘What age do you think I am?’
‘Not more than sixteen.’ She looks at me with this very weary and very womanly expression. Then she smiles. ‘How old were you when you died?’ she says.
‘Thirty-five’ I say, bemused.
‘And you look that age now do you?’ And I realise I certainly don’t. ‘Twenty-eight, twenty nine?’ I guess. ‘So how old were you?’
‘Twenty’ she says.
‘No!’ I say, genuinely shocked ‘but... Is everyone? Er...’
‘Yep. I can’t believe you didn’t know this’ she says, clearly very chuffed with herself.
‘Well, I didn’t change much’ I say. ‘I wasn’t that different to look at I suppose. How come you look sixteen?’
‘Why shouldn’t I look sixteen?’ she says and gets up again and stands in front of the shelves, not pretending to look at the books. She’s got a cigarette from somewhere and is trying to light it. Once it’s lit she breathes the smoke out in an affected fifties screen icon sort of a way. Now I know where I’ve seen her before – in the bar with the shop girls, with a lot of make-up on, and some rather more eye-catching outfits. I’d seen her looking at me more than once but pretended not to notice.

Finally she comes over and sits down across from me, her legs crossed demurely. ‘Sixteen was when I was happy’ she says. ‘Was twenty-eight a good year for you?’
‘I suppose it was. Not bad’ I find my glass and take a long drink. ‘They have some excellent brandy here’ I say. We sit quietly for a time, smoke accumulating in the ceiling, a haze lit by the sun streaming in.
‘Tell me’ she says after a while. ‘Did you ever know a woman you truly liked? Honestly? Like a proper friend, nothing sexual, just someone you could talk to, have a laugh with, you know?’
I think about it for a while. ‘In retrospect I’m not sure I had a proper friend at all.’
It’s not the answer she was looking for. ‘That’s sad’ she says, flicking her ash. ‘But I know what you mean.’
‘I slept with a couple of women I’d have preferred to be just friends with, if that’s any help.’
She smiles serenely. ‘But would you?’ she says. ‘Would you have wanted to be “just friends” with them?’
‘I don’t see why not. Sometimes I think I prefer talking to women. I never felt very comfortable with men to be honest.’
She nods, taking this in, as if it’s evidence. Looking away, she sucks hard on her cigarette.
‘Actually’ I resume, ‘now you come to mention it there’s been a couple. Colleen was about as close to being a best friend as I had at college.’
‘And you didn’t ever think...’
‘Oh, at first, certainly – she was a very good looking woman – Irish, like a real colleen if you know what I mean – very white skin and black hair, but then it became apparent she didn’t see me the same way and after that, well we really were friends. Sex would have ruined it.’
She looks at me sceptically and smokes theatrically. She really does seem very adolescent – trying on a look, a pose, a tone of voice.
I say ‘You believe there can’t be true friendship if there are any sexual feelings present at all?’
She considers this and leans back. ‘Not in my experience, no. Sooner or later... it gets messy.’ and then she laughs a little. We sit for a while, and then she goes over and resumes her position on the bench facing me. I notice now she neglects to arrange her skirt to hide whatever’s underneath this time. It’s an obvious challenge. I make it clear I know what she’s doing by shifting sideways so I’m looking away. She laughs a little again. It’s not a happy laugh. It’s the laugh of someone who’s perhaps seen too much and allowed herself to become somewhat cynical, or at least, wants me to think that she has.
‘Don’t you want to know why I was happiest at sixteen?’ she says, taking a drag, and I can already tell it’s not going to be a nice story. ‘It was the year before I let them take photos of me playing with myself. Imagine that – oh well, you probably already have.’
I don’t know what to say. She lights a new fag from the butt of the previous, then watches me sideways for a response. I meet her gaze. She has cool, pale eyes in a wide, freckled face and long fair hair. Have I seen the pictures? On the internet maybe? Could be. She looks down, like she can’t sustain the staring. I look away and look at the dark shelves around us.
‘Do you want to know what happened?’ she says, less stridently now. I’m curious, in, I’m sad to say, a not entirely innocent way, but also she worries me. Again I’m reminded of Vincent’s lost soul. I wonder why she wants to tell me but I decide to listen first and ask questions later.
‘Ok, what happened?’ I say, and her original, more arrogant demeanour returns. She spreads out onto her side, propping her head on her hand, smoking with the other. Her skirt is worryingly short. She has very long but not slender white legs. She smiles at me, a dirty smile, but not inviting.
‘My hairdresser wanted to do some modelling shots of me. Mum was a bit worried but I said don’t worry – we’d been going to him for years. I went up to his studio and he took some photos of my hair, for posters for the shop, and then he said it would be better if I let my top down off my shoulders, which I did...’ She looks at me again, appraising this time, then challenging. ‘You’re already turned on, aren’t you. I can see it in your face. You can see what’s coming.’ I say nothing. ‘But what you don’t know is I was already quite experienced.’ She sits up and leans forward, her strap coming down off her shoulder. She’s doing it on purpose. ‘I wasn’t a virgin. I’d had a couple of the boys at school and an older man when we were on holiday.’
I go to speak and find I have to clear my throat. What a cliché.
‘I (ahem, sorry) never really understood that thing about virgins actually.’
‘No?’ she says with that amused yet humourless smile.
I feel like a dirty old man. I’d wanted to point out that I wasn’t into underage girls but it sounds weak.
‘No. Actually. I preferred a bit more experience...really...’ Why do I feel so nervous? She’s just a kid after all.
She grins and stubs her fag out.
She sees me glance at the ashtray. ‘I suppose this is one good thing about the afterlife’ she says. ‘You can’t die of lung cancer.’ She lights up another. Without the choking effect of smoke in the real world it actually smells quite pleasant. Menthol. She offers me one. I decline.
‘Thing is...’ she continues, ‘having some experience, as I thought I did, just made it worse. I thought I knew what I was doing. I thought I was in control. The barber did some topless shots that day – he didn’t ask, I offered, and I was quite well developed as you will have noticed’ she jiggles them at me ‘and I thought I was being very adult, very daring, getting out from mummy’s clutches, and when he offered me money for next time, well, I was just up for anything.’ She looks away, toward the window and sighs. ‘In fact, of course all I was doing was being a naughty little girl, as usual, flashing my knickers at daddy’s friends. I thought it was all very sexy, and I liked being naughty. I did the photo shoot – full frontal too, and I did feel sexy. There was a woman there with us and she seemed nice – did my make-up and props and so on. It was all very – er... who was that chap with the young girls in soft focus – big in the seventies? Hamilton somebody?’ I shake my head but I know who she means. I’m waiting for the horrible denouement. I can’t stand the suspense, but instead she goes back to asking me about pornography and what I get out of it. I tell her that firstly it’s just what men do when they haven’t got a girlfriend.
‘No way!’ she says, amused and amazed.
‘Why not?’
‘But no. I don’t believe you.’
‘When couldn’t you get a “girlfriend”? and by that I’m assuming you mean a shag...’
‘You don’t know the half of it’ I say wearily. ‘I went months, years sometimes.’
‘No way!’ she says again. ‘But what are you? Is there something wrong with you?’
I give her a little rueful laugh. ‘I think you have some funny ideas about men.’
‘I think I know a little more about it than you do buster.’
‘I think you make a lot of assumptions.’
‘And I think you should shut the fuck up.’
‘Sounds like you fell for a lot of bullshit...’
‘Shut – the – fuck – up.’
‘You shut the fuck up.’
She’s seething, pacing. I should leave but I really want to stay. She just wants to beat me – I can see that. She’s angry at me, as representative of all the men who’ve screwed her over no doubt, and she wants to take it out on me. And I’m too intrigued to leave. Plus maybe I want to beat her a little bit too.

She turns to me, apparently having calmed down a little. ‘So it’s alright to look at porn when you’re lonely, huh?’
I shrug but don’t commit myself.
‘So lets just say, in that wacko world where a guy like you can’t just go and get laid when he feels like it, you pull out the magazines and jerk yourself off. Ok?’
I nod, and wait.
‘But if you’re in a relationship? Tell me you had a girlfriend.’
‘I did. I was married.’
‘And you still looked at porn.’
‘Did she know?’
‘I suppose.’
‘What did she say?’
‘She didn’t say anything. We weren’t...Well toward the end...’
‘Ok’ she says, less aggressively. ‘I get it, but otherwise, when it was good did you still look at porn?’
‘Yes, sometimes.’
‘Why? What the hell for?’
And it feels like she’s got to the end of a very long preamble. This is the question she wants answered. Why would I choose to look at porn if I had a perfectly good woman, possibly stripped and ready in the next room?
‘Porn’s different’ I say quietly. ‘It’s a different sort of sex. It’s a fantasy.’
There’s a long pause then. I watch her contemplate her nails and her cigarette. Then she looks at me, apparently trying to decide something.
‘I was in the porn business for four years’ she says, also quietly. I suppose I look impressed but try to change my expression to concern.
‘Oh, don’t worry about me. It was ok. Hell, I could have spent four years on the checkouts at ASDA. Talk about exploitation.’ She smiles to herself and looks at her latest cigarette, which has somehow got bent. ‘Filthy habit’ she says to it. ‘I always wanted to give up – cost me a fortune, but I never could.’
I can see her at twenty now, but she looks very world-weary.
‘So, what sort did you go for?’ she asks. ‘Blondes, teens, amateurs... Fisting?’ She’s grinning but it’s not funny.
‘Just the ordinary stuff really’ I say. ‘I liked the lesbian stuff...’
She laughs and nods her head, still looking down. ‘They’re not real lesbians. You do know that.’
‘Well, some of them do a pretty good impression... But anyway I always tried to avoid anything that looked like they weren’t happy with what they were doing.’ I expect her to ask how I could possibly tell whether they were happy or not. ‘And anyone that looked too young. I avoided that...’
She doesn’t challenge me on any of this and instead asks me about my penchant for what she calls ‘girl-on-girl action.’
‘I don’t get it. The man is completely left out’ she says.
‘Maybe I don’t want other blokes near my women’ I joke.
‘You’re jealous? Do you think you’re the only man who looks at those pictures?’
‘Of course not. I was just joking.’
‘Anyway I thought the idea was that you were supposed to identify with the blokes – think you’d like to be them, you know?’
‘What? God no.’ What a disgusting thought. I am nothing like them.
‘So you’re different to other men?’
‘Well... I don’t know. Maybe I just like looking at women having sex but I don’t want to have to look at men.’
She takes a moment to look around and think.
‘I have to ask – did you have to wear all that porn star blonde hair and makeup and implants and stuff?’
‘I didn’t need implants darling. I had the hair and the fingernails for a while though. Mostly I went in for a more “natural” look... I was in Top-Heavy Totty. You may have seen me.’
I shrug once again and smile. It’s all too likely. We sit and look at the windows together for a while, she steadily smoking, me nursing my empty glass. ‘Top up?’ I say. ‘Please’ she says. I go to the bar again.
While I’m there I look about and breathe more freely. She’s pretty intense company but I’d always wanted to talk to someone who had actually been in those pictures – find out what it was actually like for them. There must be millions of them.

‘Cheers’ she says when I give her the glass. I sit down. The light is beginning to change, and the library is getting gloomy. Some people come in, turn the lights on, get out some books and settle at another table. ‘Let’s go somewhere else’ she whispers and we get up and go up on deck. Most people have gone down for dinner. An evening breeze has blown up but it’s still very pleasant. I can smell something new. Something like eucalyptus, something like land. The sky is turning to jade in the west. It’s a beautiful evening. She moves closer but I really don’t want that. I’m not sure why. She feels me flinch. ‘What’s wrong?’ she says.
‘It’s ok. It’s just weird’ I say. She leans around and looks into my face, biting her lower lip, looking into my eyes.
‘Is it because I’m a porn star?’ she says, jokily.
‘I’m sorry’ I say, ‘but I just don’t feel that way about you.’
‘You don’t fancy me?’ She looks bored and hurt at the same time. ‘So... Why have you been talking to me all this time? What’s this all been about?’
‘I just thought it was interesting... you were...interesting.’
She looks me up and down. Disgust or derision moves across her face but it’s not clear if it’s directed at me or herself. ‘Shit’ she says. ‘Typical. I can’t believe it. Sorry, I can’t believe it.’
‘Believe what?’
‘I don’t know, forget it.’
‘No. It’s just all lies isn’t it. I should know by now.’
‘I haven’t lied to you. I don’t think it’s possible here anyway, for some reason...’
‘The truth comes out here. Vincent, my guide said. Apparently lying doesn’t work here. He didn’t say why.’
She looks about, her little pink tulip mouth a perfect ‘o’. She looks like she might cry. She bends over the rails as if she might vomit or howl but nothing comes. Then she turns to me, her mouth still open.
‘But then...’ She looks about again, as if searching for a clue in the darkening sky or the bridge. ‘...they must have been telling the truth...’
I stand silently beside her, waiting to see if she’s ok but trying not to crowd her. I have no idea what just happened. I wait for some sort of explanation but nothing comes.
‘I’m sorry. I have to go’ she says and walks unsteadily away toward the entrance.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Journey IX – Hotel Gomorrah

I sit at the vast picture window that fills the west wall of the room in a heavy towelling gown in a recliner. I watch the breeze flow through the flowering trees a couple of storeys below and a flock of blue birds twitter and whirl together among the highest branches. It’s very peaceful here. I sip my coffee and try to think. In the next room Shamim is moving about – I can hear her humming to herself, probably getting dressed after her shower. I swivel round in the chair and then get up and look at the pictures on the walls. They seem to be reproductions but at least someone here has a modicum of taste. I look about the room a bit more, or the suite I should say. It reminds me of those hotels you see in American cop shows – rather too much chrome and vinyl for my liking but it’s comfortable nevertheless, with a king-size bed and thick carpets and a wide, flat-screen TV, should we want it. I flick through and find an apparently infinite selection of old movies, shopping channels and some quite heavy pornography, which I swiftly change in case she comes in. On the table there is a bowl of perfect peaches and mangoes, and a plastic bucket with melted ice and the empty champagne bottle we finished off last night. Breakfast comes with room service. I order eggs Benedict with smoked salmon rather than ham in a vain attempt to avoid corrupting Shamim any further. I call through to find out what she wants and she appears in a white linen gown, rubbing her head with a towel and looks at the menu. She orders waffles and syrup with bacon, and some orange juice. After the girl has taken our order and gone I make a light hearted comment about the bacon but she just smiles and shrugs and goes back to the bathroom.

The events of the day before are still a bit of a blur. There were high, narrow slit windows in the armoured van so we could see the streets as we careered along, horns blaring and pedestrians scattering. The main streets in fact looked increasingly like a lot of city shopping streets I’d seen in the UK, with bland-looking chain stores and banks and cafes still closed and barred because it was so early. There were CCTV cameras on almost every post. Any direct sunlight was excluded by the many storeys of what I assumed must be offices above. Everything was wet and beginning to steam. Workers in orange overalls with brooms and barrows watched us pass and young men and women in smart outfits trotted along the pavements, bag or brief case in one hand, styrofoam cup in the other. Unlikely looking trees in a worrying shade of green stood at odd angles in holes in the pavement, and despite the efforts of the men in orange, litter was everywhere.

Then we entered what you might call the business district and the light got even dimmer because of the height of the buildings around us. The frontages were all marble and steel and glass and the suits were that bit sharper. Our transport slowed down and they shut the horn off, out of respect for the money I suppose. I looked back in at the others. We were all pressed to the windows, shocked and impressed at what we were seeing here. Muriel alone was sitting hunched on the floor with a terrified look on her face. Our eyes met and she gave me a hopeless stare. I suppose we were all too aware of the horrific damage done to those we’d seen in the shanties and of what could happen to us when we got to wherever we were going. I caught Shamim's eye but there was no warmth there. There were no feelings to spare. I went and peered out the window again, just as we turned sharp left and entered what seemed like an underground car park. At any rate there wasn’t enough light to see anything through the tinted and crazed glass except the fluorescent tubes in the ceiling. We all turned and squatted down and looked at each other. Shamim came over and nestled against me. We looked across at her parents who were in much the same pose.
‘Take care of her won’t you’ said her father. ‘I have to look after this one.’ He kissed the top of his wife’s head.
Nicky looked bereft at us for a moment but then huddled down with Muriel, and took her tiny form in her arms. Mike and Agnes got as comfortable as they could.
Then the doors were opened and the two police bundled us out – not roughly, but not politely either. They directed us with the barrels of their guns toward a door, which opened to reveal a badly lit concrete stairwell. We all went up in our pairs as if chained together. I heard Muriel quietly weeping and Nicky trying to comfort her. We knew the worst was coming. Revolting fluids leaked out from under doors as we passed. There were screams and pleadings coming from somewhere not far away, and the smell of blood and urine. Another policemen surprised in an open doorway held a chain with some dark stuff matted among the links. We carried on up, I don’t know how many floors. I did notice however, that as we rose the air became less oppressive and the concrete less stained. Then the guardrails turned from wrought iron to steel and there were frosted glass windows letting in some daylight. Finally we came to a door that opened into a plushly carpeted, softly lit hallway with numbered doors. It was exactly like a hotel and we all, I think, relaxed a little, although still on edge, obviously.
Without a word a door was opened onto a bright, pleasantly furnished room and Mike and Agnes were gently but firmly made to enter and the door closed behind them. Then it was Mr and Mrs Sadeghi’s turn and I could see Shamim wanted to go with them but the policeman wouldn’t let her. Mr Sadeghi nodded and said it would be alright and then looked at me as if to say “It had better be.” I nodded back as resolutely as I could. The policeman gave Shamim and her parents time to hug but then shut them in their room. Shamim and I got the next room together and we didn’t have time to see what they did with Nicky and Muriel. Shamim just sank to the floor against the door and burst into tears. I sat with her but there was no place for me in her feelings. I had little to offer her myself.

So that was how came to share a bed for the first time. Nothing happened of course, how could it? She was a good Muslim girl and besides, we were terrified. We slept until early evening I guess it must have been. That was when I got up and pulled back the curtains, expecting to see a vision of hell from above but instead found a forest. I wandered about and found the bathroom and had a shower. Then I noticed the ice bucket on the table with a bottle of champagne in it and a card propped up against it, which said “With Compliments” and gave the number to ring for room service. There was a menu there too and I sat down and looked at it. It was all totally unbelievable.
A few hours later, when Shamim began to stir I rang and asked for some coffee for us and it arrived almost immediately – the waiter accompanied by a cop with a gun who waited outside. The little man smiled obsequiously. I’d never been in a hotel with room service before, and I wasn’t good at dealing with servants. I smiled at him as warmly as I could and wondered if he expected a tip, but we had nothing to give him anyway so that was out.
I woke Shamim with a kiss and showed her the coffee. She still looked terribly worried, as one would expect but accepted my solicitations graciously and gave me a kiss in return.

We spent the evening sitting around drinking the champagne. I offered to get her something else but she said no this will do fine, and drank from the bottle. I noticed the alcohol did actually work in the normal way here and we both felt quite tipsy quite quickly. We perused the menu and I phoned down for some prawns in garlic and some bread and salad. Again it arrived very quickly and was very good. I wanted to get some more champagne but it didn’t seem like a good plan under the circumstances. It was all I could do to not throw myself at her when I was sober and this wasn’t the time nor the place. (Actually, I thought, this is exactly the place. It’s what this place was designed for.) Then she said she needed to get clean and I told her where the bathroom was and she went through and squealed with delight at the size of the bath. (It really doesn’t take much to cheer women up does it.) While she was in there doing that I got in some orange juice to dilute the bubbly and some dark chocolate which I knew she’d like. Then I blindfolded myself and very carefully carried her drink and the chocolates through.
‘I thought this might cheer you up’ I said, kneeling by the tub. She laughed and wrenched the blindfold off and there she was, covered in bubbles and with her hair tied back, like some decadent fifties movie star, sipping her drink and nibbling a square of chocolate. I sat down beside the bath, looking at her and trailing my hand in the water. Then I felt her move her leg a little, so that my fingers found her toes and she raised her eyebrows at me. I ran my fingers along to her ankles and massaged her feet. She put her head back and sighed.

So when I talk about corrupting her it was the alcohol I was referring to, and possibly the bacon. We lay together on the bed that night, both of us severely aroused to be sure but unprepared to do anything about it. She rapped on the wall adjoining her parent’s room for a while but got no response. We called for room service to ask about them, but got nothing more than ‘They are being well looked after’, implying that they were in much the same situation as we were. Shamim asked when we’d see them and the policeman pulled the waiter out and said ‘All in good time miss.’
Shamim went back to the bed and lay down. I went to the cupboard and found a nightgown for her but she wanted to stay in her dressing gown, and she pulled it tight around her. I kissed her on the head but said no more and went to sit in the recliner and look out at the night, and that’s how we woke up next morning.

We had to wait another two days after that for anything more to happen, We were by turns bored and decadent, horny and frustrated and terrified for what might be happening to the others (and to us next by implication.) The horniness was almost perfectly balanced by the anxiety. I said I understood, what with her culture and so on and she laughed at me and asked if I really believed Muslim girls were always innocent and chaste. I didn’t know what to say. I suppose I had been assuming that and felt suddenly very silly. ‘But there’s still your parents...’
‘Yes’ she said sadly, as if wishing I hadn’t reminded her although I know she hadn’t forgotten.
‘Although’ I add, trying to restore the mood, ‘if we were travelling with my parents I think I’d have felt even more uncomfortable.’
She smiles and asks ‘What are they like?’ and I give her a brief account but don’t really want to talk about them. Then I begin to talk about my sisters and where I grew up and before I know it all the crap about my time faffing about and not knowing what to do comes spilling out.
When I’m done she looks at me appraisingly, nodding and smiling gently. I wait for the verdict. She comes over, puts her hand behind my head and kisses me. ‘You are a good man’ she says. ‘You try. I admire that. You don’t let them beat you.’ and once again I am reminded of Sophie and how she used to re-interpret me to myself and I can’t believe what lovely women there are in the world. I used to think maybe Sophie was a bit soft in the head where I was concerned, but here it is again – respect and understanding. I decide to tell her about Sophie there and then, sitting together on the bed, holding hands, and she listens and nods and understands and then she tells me about Mica, her boyfriend in Muswell Hill and how much she misses him. And although we hold each other and kiss, still we don’t make love. We know we can’t do that.

On the third morning there is a knock on the door. We’re both in bed in our dressing gowns watching something terrible on the TV. I go to the door and get given an envelope. The bearer stands there and waits as I open it. Shamim looks over my shoulder at it. ‘What is it?’ she says.
‘Seems to be an invitation’ I say. ‘A Mr Rit Large, whoever he is, requests the pleasure of our company... And there’s a room number. Where is this?’ I ask the porter.
‘You will be escorted to the penthouse’ he says. ‘Shall I inform Mr Large of your intention to attend?’
‘Do we have a choice?’ asks Shamim
‘Of course madam. There is always a choice.’
‘Will my parents be there?’
‘If you mean Mr and Mrs Sadeghi? Absolutely they will be there. All your friends will be there – unless they refuse of course.’ We nod and say we’ll be there.
‘Excellent’ he says and backs out, bowing slightly. I shut the door on him. Shamim looks at me with raised eyebrows, and a hopeful expression on her face.
‘I have nothing to wear’ she says.

A life backwards

It's in the nature of blogs of course that you come across the latest postings first (or you find yourself in the middle.) Normally it doesn't matter but if you want to read my novel in order, the first installment is as you'd expect, the oldest posting.
Thanks for your patience.