Monday, 23 April 2012

Voyage VI – Muslims

The Muslims are up on deck again. Three of them, huddled around a table – an older couple in more traditional dress and a young woman in western clothes. What with the sleet and fog they’re all but unidentifiable under coats and hats, but I’ve noticed them before in the forward lounge – the mother in her head scarf, the father with his beard, and the daughter, dark, olive-skinned with long blue-black hair and striking olive-green eyes. Today I caught the father’s eye and I smiled at him and he smiled back, tentatively at first, then warmly.
I’ve always had a thing about foreigners, well, ever since my first year at college. We like to think of ourselves as very cosmopolitan in jolly old Be-right-on, but we don’t really do ethnic minorities, or, at least, they’re not very conspicuous. Takeaways and corner shops – that’s about it. I met my first foreigners en mass at the college – mostly Europeans but also a few Indians and Pakistanis, a Japanese girl, a Mexican chap, a couple of Brazilians, a Nigerian or two and one bloke from Russia who was very strange. Plus a heck of a lot of Aussies and Kiwis but they’re not really foreign are they.
I have this prejudice about foreigners, or some of them anyway. I always tend to assume they’ll be nicer than English people. Whereas, walking into a bar full of my compatriots, I would avoid eye contact, keep a straight face and make sure I had a book with me, if I come across an African, or hear people talking Spanish I can’t help but smile and nod. I know it’s a weird generalisation but I’m rarely disappointed. Whereas if I nod and smile at a bunch of English lads they’ll wonder what I’m looking at and probably assume I’m gay, with the Latinos at college they called me over and bought me drinks. I thought at first maybe it wasn’t a very representative sample, them being abroad, and therefore perhaps a more outgoing type of people, but then I went travelling and found they were all like that – at least in the Mediterranean, and in Scotland and Ireland as well for that matter (but not in Wales for some reason. They were more English than the English). I also thought maybe it was something to do with my expectations of my fellow countrymen. Maybe I’m more cautious. Maybe it’s me that looks shifty, but then I’m not exactly Mr Personality abroad. I never had to be. It was just easier. They fed me, gave me lifts, the women flirted with me. They even took me out for the evening.
I admit it’s also easier to find something to talk about – you know – where are you from? What are you here to do? Or the reverse if I’m over there. So when Mr Sadeghi smiled back I just had to go over and say hi and introduce myself. I asked what they were doing sitting out here in the rain. Mr Sadeghi said they liked it but his women folk didn’t look so sure. The younger woman turned to me and gave me a radiant smile from under her sou’wester. ‘Take a seat’ she yelled up at me through the wind and she budged up to let me in. I looked doubtfully at the view and the banks of wet cold weather rolling across it, then down at the wet bench. I didn’t like to say no so I tucked my waterproofs under my bum and sat.
‘My wife Amireh...’ he said, patting her arm ‘...and my daughter Shamim. Amireh was from Granada in Spain, originally’ he told me. I said I’d seen the Alhambra and my wife had been Spanish too and he really liked that. ‘We are from Iran now, since the revolution.’ I didn’t know what to say to that. I’d read a lot about what happened there of course, with the Ayatollah and so forth.
‘What were you doing in England?’ I say. ‘You know, when you died’ I hope he doesn’t think I’m implying they weren’t welcome. His face shows no untoward reaction.
‘Visiting Shamim. She’s at university, in London’ he says.
I turn to her. It’s a complicated manoeuvre, with all the folds of waterproof between us. ‘What were you studying?’ I shout at her. The weather really is appalling. What the hell are we doing out here?
‘I’m going to be a journalist’ she yells back. I had stupidly assumed she was the dutiful daughter, more or less forced to stay with her parents, but apparently not. I ask her about living in London and she tells me about the clubs she goes to and the bands she’s seen. ‘I don’t drink though’ she adds, possibly for her father’s benefit. He looks very proud of her.
‘I don’t want her to come home’ he says. ‘There is no future for a modern woman.’
‘I want to work for Al Jazeera’ she says and her father shakes his head in mock despair.
‘Bit late for that now’ I say.
‘Maybe next time’ she says, grinning cheekily at her father. He feigns a scowl for her. She leans in toward me and pretends to whisper ‘He can’t stand it that the Hindus were right about all this.’
‘Not really’ says her mother, reprovingly. Shamim gives her an indulgent, slightly mocking smile and pats her hand.
It occurs to me that I don’t feel comfortable talking about religion with these people. I’m afraid of offending them in a way I wouldn’t be with Olly or Keith or even Vincent. But there’s been so much going on in the Middle East for as long as I can remember – Libya, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Beirut, Palestine of course. It seems ridiculous now but I never had the chance to talk to some actual Muslims before. On the other hand I don’t even know if they’re particularly interested. It’s probably like them asking me what’s happening in Serbia at the moment. Still, they are Muslims. I’d like to ask them about that some time if I can think of a way to do it tactfully. I’ll leave it for perhaps another time. I do want to ask how come they all arrived here together.
‘M25’ says Mr Sadeghi, sadly and needn’t elaborate. Then he rises a little. ‘It really is bloody horrible out here. Shall we go in?’ he says.
‘At last’ says his wife, gathering her things. She seems to have some knitting with her. Shamim smiles and roles her eyes at me. We all get up and go down to the forward lounge for some warmth and dryness.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Vincent IV – Old Souls

‘When did you eventually leave home?’ he says, almost before I’ve sat down.
‘Er... ‘87? Some time around then.’
‘So, you were... twenty-two? Am I right?’
‘Yes, I suppose...’
It’s another thing I’m not proud of – leaving it so late.
‘What made you move, in the end?’
‘I don’t know really. I was just ready to go I suppose.’
‘It had nothing to do with the fact that no woman would want you once they found out you lived with your mother and father...’
I look at him. There’s something so... slapable about him, smug, patronising git. I decide to brazen it out.
‘No, not particularly. That had always been a problem... not just then.’
‘Ok, when did you have your first real relationship?’
‘I am simply building a picture. Tell me.’
‘You sound unsure.’
‘Well, she wasn’t the love of my life exactly’
‘But you had sex.’
‘When we could.’
‘When your parents went away.’
‘My parents never went away.’
‘Oh? Why not?’
‘Dads bloody alpine plants. Don’t get me started...’
‘Ok, but at other times, when they were at work perhaps?’
‘Look, is this really relevant?’
I’m beginning to suspect him of just being a voyeur, or a sadist, or both.
‘I hope so.’
‘We had sex sometimes at her place, yes.’
‘How old was she?’
‘Twenty six?’
‘Ah. An older woman.’ (Hah, that surprised him.) ‘Good for you’ he says. ‘What made you choose a woman older than yourself?’
‘It wasn’t so much a matter of choice...’
He looks at me. I know what he wants to say about making choices. I back-track a little. ‘She was one of the carers at the nursing home. She took me in hand, if you know what I mean.’
‘I can imagine. But you would not have been with her from choice?’
‘She was quite domineering. And quite, er... large...’
I see him smile broadly. It is quite funny, in retrospect, but at the time it was a bit intimidating. I really didn’t feel I could say no, and in a way, I did enjoy it. ‘She was rather smothering, if you know what I mean.’ I deliberately include the double meaning but he reacts as if he’s noticed an unintentional Freudian slip.
‘With her on top?’ he says with a slightly queasy smile.
‘Yes, exactly’ I say, humouring him. ‘But motherly too?’
‘But not like your mother.’
‘God no.’ (Perish the thought. Yuk!) ‘My mother never... She wasn’t very touchy-feely if you know what I mean.’
‘Like the mother you never had then.’
‘Maybe’ I say doubtfully. Actually, now I come to think about it a few of the other care workers were very solicitous, if you know what I mean. A lot of them were middle-aged women and they were always covering for me when I was late and helping me out and I think one or two of the old queens there were convinced I was just being shy, so they were extra nice to me a lot of the time too. Actually I think I brought out the mothering instinct in almost everybody except my own mother.
But I have to admit, I did like Pamela (that was her name) taking care of me and all I had to do was perform a few times a week. If I’d fancied her more it might have been a very good arrangement indeed. She had these immense breasts, which was quite an experience for me, as a barely post-pubescent lad, but it was all a bit too much to be honest.
‘But she was good for you, no?’
‘She showed me the ropes’ and I know what I’ve said almost before it leaves my mouth. He gives me the saucy grin again. Unfortunately he’s right this time. It was a Freudian slip, and she did tie me down a couple of times. I didn't really like it.
‘I can imagine she did’ he says, knowingly.
‘Anyway...’ I say, trying to change the subject, or at least, move it along ‘I learned a lot.’
He nods and writes. I wonder briefly what kind of doodles this session will inspire. Maybe it’s his way of taking notes. I could imagine doing that but it’s hardly short hand.
‘And before her did you have other girlfriends?’
‘Nothing serious’ I say. Nothing sexual is what I mean.
‘But you would have liked to.’
‘God yes’
‘Do you think you could stop saying “God” for me? Thank you very much.’
I look at him. What a very strange little man. I feel like starting an argument but can’t be bothered. He looks up at me, realises I’m watching him.
‘I know this is irrational’ he says. ‘It is an old habit but I can’t seem to change it. Blasphemy hurts even though I am no longer sure there is anything to blaspheme against. However, I would be very grateful...’ He smiles slightly in a brave kind of way. I nod and smile, and once again my opinion of him is instantaneously inverted.
‘No problem’ I say.
‘What I’m aiming for here...’ he says, laying down his papers, looking into the middle distance ‘ some sense of whether this impotence you felt in life was simply about finding your place in the world of work, money, making a career, or if it extended to other things...’
‘It was everything’ I say. He could have just asked. ‘Although I wasn’t, actually...’
‘Impotent’ he says. ‘No, I’m sure, but it is all frustrated, bottled up.’ He mimes being bottled up, pulling his shoulders, elbows and knees in. It would be funny if he didn’t do it because he feels he’s trying to communicate with a moron.
‘I want to know where that comes from. You need to know.’
‘When do you first remember feeling that way?’
I think back. It must have been in secondary school. ‘Thirteen?’ I say.
‘No’ he says with total certainty. ‘Earlier. Adolescence is when it comes out, and when it begins to damage your future, but not all teenagers are alike. The causes are further back.’
‘Ok, that makes sense.’
‘I’m glad you think so. So...’ and he looks at his notes again. I’d love to have a look at them. ‘Just to complete the picture then, there were other girls you wanted before her?’
‘I lost my virginity with her, but yes, other...dalliances.’
‘A good word’ he says looking at his papers. ‘Little used these days. “Dalliances.” Excellent. Tell me a little about those.’
‘Erm, well’ I look about, playing for time. There’s really nothing to tell. It’s a bit pathetic really. There was really only one proper girlfriend.
‘There was Naomi. She fancied herself as some sort of pixie-woman – went on to go to Cambridge I think it was.’
‘How old were you?’
‘Seventeen I think, she was a bit younger.’
‘And then?’
‘And then Pamela – the auxiliary I told you about.’
‘Nobody else? No infatuations, no dates, no er... “ones that got away”?’
I try to look challengingly at him but he doesn’t flinch.
‘Look’ I say. ‘Why do you want to know all this? Really? After nearly twenty years struggle I threw my career as a painter away in a fit of pique and you want to know about my adolescent crushes?’
I look at him as he prepares an answer. I’m not angry exactly. It’s just beginning to seem ridiculous. What’s worse, I like talking about women and sex, which seems like a bad sign. Shouldn’t this delving be difficult for me? I feel sorely aggrieved about my sex life, certainly, but it seems self-indulgent. We need to talk about more adult problems surely – money and careers and paperwork and taxes.
‘Your problems are of a sexual nature Gabriel.’
‘Well, that’s all very Freudian, but...’
‘Not Freud’ he says. ‘People’s problems spring from many sources – mothering, violence, sickness, school, race, poverty, genetics... But yours spring mostly from sex, or relationships anyway. Do not ask me how I know this, but I do. You had counselling in life yes?’ I nod. ‘But it’s different here. We know which questions to ask. Trust me. We know. Ok?’
‘Ok’ I say, pretending not to be convinced but actually I’m relieved. I hadn’t really wanted to talk about tax and careers.
‘Good. Who did you first fall in love with?’
‘Girls at school, different ones, Donna, Camille, Gillian – there was always someone.’
‘From about what age?’
I think back. Donna was in Miss William’s class. That would have been... ‘Eight?’ I say, not quite believing this can be true. What kind of a perv was I? He nods and writes it down. Evidently it’s not that shocking.
‘And what did you do about it?’
I shrug. ‘Nothing. I was just a kid.’ What did he expect?
‘No little games? Doctors and nurses? Kiss-chase?’
‘I was a bit too shy. I stared at them a lot.’
He writes some more. ‘I expect that made you popular’ he says, not looking up.
‘No they thought I was a weirdo.’ Nod nod. Write write. I want to say something about how off-putting it is but decide to let it go. I look out of the window at the sea. It’s still raining horizontally out there but the sky is paler. Sea birds whiz past on the gale.
‘I asked a few girls out later on but they weren’t interested. It was all a bit sad really. Camille I think quite liked me but couldn’t bring herself to actually be seen out with me. I always felt she saw through the outer, gawky, nerdy me to the real me underneath. There was something oddly wise about her, womanly, for her age, like she knew things. Beautiful eyes.’
‘She may have been an old soul.’
I’m not sure what he means. I’ve heard the term before. New agers use it sometimes for people who they suspect might have lived before, who seem older than their years. I didn’t expect to hear it from someone as straight as Vincent.
‘She may have been one that remembered her previous lives in detail’ he says for clarification. ‘It is not common – maybe two or three percent, mostly women, as a very subjective estimate.’
I look at him some more. Is he being serious? This had really never occurred to me. People say ‘What would you do if you could live your life again, knowing what you know now?’ but it never occurred to me it might actually happen. I suppose, now I come to think about it, that I hadn’t really considered how we might carry this experience from here into the next life. I thought maybe it would come in confusing flashes, like deja-vu, or maybe just an instinct about things, but not this, this Groundhog Life. I’m lost in thought when he speaks again.
‘And Gillian?’ he says.
‘What? Oh, Gillian. Oh she was gorgeous, and a really lovely personality. She was quite popular generally, but I think she liked me. Well, most girls completely ignored me, so for one to even acknowledge my existence was a breakthrough.’ I look at Vincent for a smile of fellowship but nothing comes. At least he’s put his notes down and is looking at me properly now.
‘But nothing happened between you.’
I look at him before I answer. There’s something so condescending about his responses to what I say – like all his questions have full stops, and all my answers have question marks. I think a bit more about Gillian. She was gorgeous. I didn’t really stand a chance.
‘It’s a weird one – I was going to go to a party, which was quite an event for me – I didn’t get invited to a lot of parties back then... and this one, I wasn’t exactly invited, but I wasn’t excluded, if you know what I mean. Everybody at the shop was going.’
‘How old were you by this time?’ and he’s got his bloody pad out again.
‘Eighteen. I worked at a DIY shop for a while, a few months. I knew her from school but she was on the checkouts. Anyway, I knew she was going to this party – as I say, everyone was and I was quite keen to go, so I turn up at the pub where we were meeting that evening. I’d deliberately made an effort to not wear my usual geeky outfit – you know – the old school shirts and anorak and so on. I’d been out and bought some black tee-shirts and jeans and I got my hair cut and everything and I felt pretty cool that night actually. Anyway, I get to the pub, and there they all are, and Gill sees me and says how cool I look, which just makes me feel ecstatic. Anyway, later, as we’re about to leave I realise I don’t have a bottle to take. The off-licence is just next door and I tell Gill that I’ll be back in a moment and don’t go without me. It’s raining outside and I’ve not got a cool new jacket to go with the rest of my cool new outfit so I’m freezing but I don’t care, and the next thing I know, she’s followed me out, and she turns me around and looks at me and laughs, because the tee shirt’s quite tight, and my nipples are really poking out. And she says – I’ll always remember this – she says “Are those torpedoes in your shirt or are you just pleased to see me?” At first I’m really embarrassed but I can see in her expression that she quite likes it. And for a moment, I think she might come with me, we look at each other for a while, out there, in the drizzle, and she bites her lip and says, apologetically ‘You know I’m with Dave (or whatever his name was), don’t you.’ and I look at her and suddenly I know that going to the party is a really very bad idea. I’m disgusted anyway. This guy Dave is a total wanker and it sickens me to think of them together. “Come with me” I say, or something like that, and she looks uncomfortable, and says she can’t, and anyway she has to go, because he might see us and she kisses me, properly, on the mouth, and runs back inside. It was the most romantic thing I think that ever happened to me.’
I look at Vincent. For some reason he’s grinning extremely broadly at me.
‘Well done’ he says. ‘That was the one I wanted.’
‘What? Why?’
‘I don’t know why. I simply know it was important. You know this too, no?’
I sit and think about it. Yes. I’ve always known it was important. I don’t know why or how.
‘We will continue next time. I want to hear about your time as a student, and about your wife. Ok?’
I nod and leave. For some reason I feel hugely uplifted and drained at the same time. I go to find Ned and the others. I want a huge drink. I feel like celebrating for some reason.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Journey IV – Stupid Girl

Nicky runs away on, I think the eleventh day. All the days are blurring together and it’s impossible to be sure. Earlier that day we’d crossed the river at a ford and begun the slow ascent of the far side of the valley. The trees there were tall and spiky – like some sort of monkey-puzzle and with a tangle of straggling creepers beneath.
We stopped for a break on the riverbank and Jeb said something about making it to a place he knew before it got too dark.
I don’t know how it started but we all heard Agnes shriek at Nicky that she was a stupid girl and the next thing we knew, Nicky let out a sad little cry and was bounding surprisingly nimbly over the arching stems of what looked and felt like brambles into the trees. We could hear her crashing about in the undergrowth long after we lost sight of her.
Jeb just looked exasperatedly at Agnes, who met his gaze defiantly. She never would tell us what happened.
Jeb, Muriel, Shamim and I all set off after her. The others stayed behind to keep an eye on things. It was hard going. I was getting cut and stung as I went – we all were and we could see no easy way through, especially in the shorts and sandals we had on. Here and there were little patches of grass – perhaps places where rabbits or something similar rested. (Shamim pointed out the network of runs under the briars). Evidently Nicky’s long legs had allowed her to use these little clearings as stepping-stones to get through as fast as she did. Either that or she didn’t care about the pain.
Presently Mike arrived in sturdy boots and long trousers with a machete, and proceeded to cut us a path.
In the shade of the trees the going was a lot easier but she had a considerable start on us. Now, unless Jeb had some special tracking skills, she could easily disappear if she really wanted to. Well he didn’t and we just had to hope she didn’t really want to. We gave up when it got dark and went back to the camp to find a fire going and the evening meal well under way. Agnes was in tears now, and Mike gallantly went to comfort her. Later I heard her say ‘Well she is a silly girl.’ I don’t think any of us would have disagreed with that but I’m sure Nicky didn’t need telling.

Next day we have to assume she wants to be found because otherwise there’s no point in looking. We wander the hillside calling her name with no result. Jeb said he thought there was a fifty-fifty chance she’d come back in her own good time but he had other worries. Part of the guide’s role is to discourage attack from predators, and hence, Nicky had no such protection. As if to drive the point home we found one of the grazing animals still alive but torn almost in half, lying under a bush near the river.
‘Stay close’ was all Jeb had to say.
We combed the area calling her name all day then went back to the camp for supper. As we gave up the hunt, Jeb, in an otherwise unnecessarily loud voice said ‘Well, if she doesn’t turn up by tomorrow morning we’ll have to go. We can’t stay here another day.’ I hoped she heard him.
‘I don’t get her’ said Mr Sadeghi once we had eaten. ‘I don’t understand how she is.’
Shamim looked at him, then at me and bit her lip.
‘I guess there aren’t girls like her back in... er... where’d you come from?’ says Mike.
‘Iran. No. She’d be in huge trouble looking like that – not that I would condone... I don’t judge her. I pity her. I don’t understand what’s happened to her to make her that way.’
‘I don’t like to judge’ says Agnes ‘but I think she’s been given a little too much head by her parents.’
I stifle a laugh at the double entendre and Shamim slaps my leg and smiles mischieviously over her shoulder. She is flirting with me. I try to concentrate on Nicky.
‘I saw it all the time’ Agnes adds. ‘I didn’t like to judge...’
‘Yes you do. You love to judge’ says Muriel, scolding her. ‘You know nothing about the girl and yet you wade in, heavy handed. The girl needs love. Can’t you see that?’
‘She needs a firm hand.’
‘She’s a twenty year old woman’ says Shamim angrily. ‘You can’t just...’
‘Well that’s all the more reason to...’
‘Please, ladies.’ says Jeb.
‘I’m just saying Jeb.’
‘Agnes. Please. Now then...’ He collects himself, clears his throat, but before he can begin I ask if I can say something. Jeb nods.
‘She spoke to me’ I begin, ‘back on the boat a couple of times. I can’t go into the details. She swore me to secrecy. All I want to say is...’
What do I want to say? Suddenly I feel terribly self-conscious. I don’t know how to put it. I don’t know if she’s listening. They’re all looking at me.
‘She’s had a hard time’ I begin. ‘I do think she needs love, as you said Muriel,  but I don’t know if she’ll be able to accept it. One thing she doesn’t need, Agnes, is yelling at. She acts silly, it’s true... but she’s not stupid and there’s a good reason for the way she is and I believe there’s a really lovely person there... if she’s given the chance.’
The last part was all mumbled. I felt almost faint with embarrassment. I didn’t know if I wanted her to hear me or not. Part of me imagined her dismissing my words with contempt and cynicism, the other part imagined her trusting me and accepting... what? My love? I did feel for her. Actually, now I think about it, I felt like I knew her rather well, poor kid.
After a brief lull the conversation begins again and Muriel starts to sing a slow, gentle melody. I don’t understand the words. It sounds Yiddish perhaps.
I lean back on my mat and Shamim lies down facing me.
‘Sorry’ I say, for what I’m not sure, but Shamim seems to understand.
‘It’s ok’ she says.
‘How do your parents feel about her?’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Do they think she’s a slut? Will they think less of me for defending her?’
‘You want to know if they’ll prefer me not to spend so much time with you.’
I grin sheepishly. I hadn’t realised that was what was worrying me, but yes, she’s hit the nail on the head.
‘I’m here aren’t I?’ she says in a whisper. I look over at her mother and father and they are completely preoccupied with each other, paying us absolutely no attention at all.
‘Are you in love with her?’ she whispers unexpectedly.
‘I can relate to her. I feel for her. What she’s going through makes sense to me. And sometimes I want to have sex with her...’ And she rolls on her back and laughs.
Then we sit as before but a little closer and watch the fire. Shamim is the single most self-possessed woman I’ve ever met, but gentle and understanding. So many of the very independent western women I’ve met seem to have felt the need to rub men’s noses in it – Cat being the obvious example, but Shamim doesn’t. She just is.
‘I don’t think my parents have had the chance to be like this together for years. It’s very beautiful don’t you think?’
‘They’re lovely people, your mum and dad’ I say.
‘I’m glad you like them. They understand more than you think. Sometimes they understand more than I think.’
Later still, when the others have all more or less passed out she says quietly ‘Do you think you only want to have sex with her because you can’t imagine anything happening between you and I?’
‘Well...’ I look into her eyes. There’s a quiet, sultry smile there, a beautiful power. All I can do is grin and nod and look sheepish again.
‘I don’t know why you think that’ she says, and lies down in her sleeping bag and closes her eyes.
I look about. I’m not sure what just happened there but it sounded bloody good. I lie down too, with my hands behind my head. I think I’m in love.
Then I think of Sophie.
Then I think of Nicky, and I wonder what’s happening to her. She must at least be terribly cold.

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.