Maradona in Harlesden

Midsummer 1986 I went on a weekend retreat at Avebury.

A bunch of us, nine or ten, met that Friday afternoon near Notting Hill station, outside the studio of the man who was to lead it, a reiki practitioner. I’d found out about it through an ad in Time Out. We were to do a sun worship ritual and dowse for earth energy. We got in a mini-bus, the usual procedure, and a few hours later disembarked at a communal farmhouse in Wiltshire. Late that night, with the sun hardly set, the Reiki Man led us through a meditation.

Why, I don’t know, but I must have said I thought I could do better. He said, alright, you lead the meditations and handed them over to me. I’d been meditating for all of half a year at a Buddhist centre just off the Portobello Road: this was my first retreat.

On the Sunday afternoon we were dropped off back in London. On the way we’d stopped to look at at Silbury Hill. There was warm, blue sky, the same blue as over the stones at Avebury, but here in Harlesden the air was steeped with dust mites, sun-flecked above the tired Victorian streets. Coming out of Willesden Junction by myself I saw a board outside a pub advertising the football, the World Cup was on: England v Argentina. I remember thinking ‘Why not?’.

The pub was one of those — back then there were hardly any others — that sucked the light out of the street, sucked it into the matted carpets, the moulded plaster walls and the high ceiling. When my eyes adjusted I was in a large, smoke-filled room of maroons and ochres. It was crowded, but most of the men paid little heed to the screen, a kind of projection sheet hung at one end. The shadowy images and the muffled commentary were hardly advanced on the moon landing. I found a stool at the bar and took a Guinness. I was 30 years old, had short salt-and-pepper hair and wore my summer jacket of pale blue linen.

Then they scored. Everyone cheered. The men stopped playing pool, held their cues aloft, laughter and cheers all round. Black, Asian and Irish. I couldn’t say the cheers were malicious: ironic, mischievous, comradely: a common enemy had got his comeuppance, that’s all. On the screen some blanched out England players were hovering round the referee. ‘That won’t do any good’ I thought, not knowing what they were complaining about.

The game ended. On the screen Terry Venables said something about if Shilton had a weakness it was dealing with crosses. They showed Maradona’s mazy run again. Amongst the crowd of men who were beginning to disperse a woman circulated; almost middle-aged, she was dressed in a light summer coat and holding a rattling collection box: ’Have you anything for the Bhoys?’ She was asking, ‘For the Bhoys?’.

As she drew up to me she said ‘You wouldn’t be an Irishman yourself would you, sir?’ The sun had dropped and its light caught her face. I shook my head and we both smiled slightly. Days later I heard of the Hand of God.

Life Is Good

Don’t start in the carpark (again).

On 10 October 2015 in the late afternoon, I tramped along the footbridge over the A272 and into Winchester at the end of my walk along the South Downs Way. A walk that I’d done over six months and in thirteen stages. I’d walk for up to a day at a time, setting off and getting back home on foot or by bus or train; only on the last two days did I stay away overnight. I felt tired most of the time.

Life Is Good: I cross Meon Springs to Whitepool Farm. There’s a pond; it gulls you at first, then I see it’s set and ready for fishing. Fat trout, most likely. It’s good business round here; fat fees, too. I keep on walking; good, no-one bothers me.

I check the map, then up, keeping the copse to the right, it’s steeper now. Behind is Salt Hill, Butser Hill and, further off, the brief blessing at St Mary’s Buriton with its crossed bones and sarcophagus. No cyclists, no riders, no-one; the dusk or my own will is warding them off.

Then through a gate and onto the road. A car, a Volvo passes. Ahead, south west, the sun is dipping. And against the silver sky, the first sight of the Hill. Old Winchester Hill. Worked earth, grown soft into the land, as still and impassive as a god, taking worship. (But here’s a thing: battery’s dead, memory’s full).

Along the road and I see that the Volvo has stopped, about sixty yards off, and the man’s got out. Around 40, I guess, professional. Hair trim, he’s in smart slacks, a polo shirt with a tiny logo. There’s just me and him on the ridge road. The still sea of my mood changes. He turns to look at The Hill, takes out his phone, — his is charged — and, like a tourist with a relic, captures its likeness. Then strolls slowly on, content, nearing.

As we cross, I say something; I didn’t mean to, it’s from some hidden self I didn’t know, more confession than greeting: ‘Hi’ or ‘Evening.’

The man hears, absolves, smiles slightly: ‘It always takes me longer when I come this way.’

I walk on, calm now, towards the goal, yet feeling a sting like shame.

The next morning, the last morning, at the foot of Old Winchester hill, I see a gaggle of youngsters following me up the path. I hurried on. I didn’t want company. But even as I stumbled on I heard running and one of the lads calling after me, ‘Scuse me, scuse me!’ He was holding on to a map. ‘Scuse me, sir, do I know where we are?’

Back home, for three nights running I dream of Winchester and its stream, the Itchen.

© This is a rewrite of an earlier blog submitted to the Creative Future Writers’ Award 2016 run by New Writing South; it was long-listed.

A Day In Southern England

The day started with me sitting on the lid of the cat’s litter tray after I’d taken it off to clean the base out. It cracked down the middle with a splintering noise. I don’t know why I did it, maybe it just seemed like the kind of thing that wouldn’t happen, defying the logic of my weight, the angle of meeting and the flimsiness of the plastic.

Outside the pet shop, with my new litter tray, in the huge carpark that had once been the home of Brighton and Hove Albion, I got a call from my youngest brother saying that Dad had had a fall the day before. The hospital had put in place end-of-life-procedure. I’d had to call him back, the connection was bad or it might just have been my clumsiness.

One thing after another. It was a warm and sunny day, the last day of June. Now I’d have to take the train across the country. That train ride was something I looked forward to, usually, but on a Sunday, in England?

I told my wife. She started to make preparations to come too, with our daughter. Another thing. Usually I go by myself. Look out the window, read, take a beer. But in truth it was rather lovely. The three of us, a kind of rural ride by train across the south of England on a green and sunny Sunday afternoon. Shoreham by Sea, Lancing, Worthing, Angmering, Chichester, an incantation along the crowded south coast; inland, Salisbury, where I’d jumped off a few weeks before on my last home visit, to see the cathedral, Warminster and its uncanny hill, Dilton Marsh, Bradford on Avon and memories of its Saxon church, Bath. England were playing India away off in Birmingham. The girls mocked me as I checked the score, so far so good, on the mustard coloured BBC app.

We were met at the station by my brother. When we got to the hospital Dad seemed as he had 18 months earlier after another fall: stony but visceral: bones, veins, paper skin with bruises and blotches. He roused himself and straightaway recognised my wife and daughter, ‘Ah! It’s you!’ He hadn’t seen them for two years. Then me: ‘Which one are you?’ I was the last to leave, ushered away by one of the nurses; I hadn’t thought of much to say.

At my brother’s we watched the cricket highlights together, sharing a beer. My daughter explored the garden. It’s got four or five ponds and she went off looking for frogs. We watched the coverage of Glastonbury (which flags, we wondered, might be unacceptable to wave there). I was deeply asleep and had no idea where I was or the time or what was happening when my brother came into my room. He’d got a call from the hospital. It was just after midnight and the two of us walked there through a sleeping village in Somerset.

The hospital appeared like an eerily lit alien presence, we were let in via a video intercom and were led by a nurse into a visitors’ room and offered tea. You’ve got to have tea, I thought, though I didn’t fancy one. There’d been a moment’s hesitation when we’d got to the ward as one nurse whispered to the duty nurse; in the dim light I could see a screen up round my dad’s bed. A little later a doctor came to see us: a young woman, blue uniformed, blonde, calm and good-looking to tell us he had passed away ten minutes before. She asked if there was anything we wanted to know and scanned our faces for any emotion. There was nothing to ask. We thanked her.

A while later another nurse came to see us, sombre but bouncy, somehow. The three of them had held his hand and stroked his hair, she said. We saw the body, still on the bed, in the ward, with the bleeping of monitoring machines and another patient’s rasping breathing going on. ‘I always talk to them’ the nurse said, ‘listening is the last thing to go.’

My dad died on 1st July, 2019, a little after midnight.

May Day In London

A warm squall fell from the night-blue sky, holding the city in a sealed embrace, silvering all that was familiar.

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In Trafalgar Square, tourists and Londoners milled together.

To mark the holiday they had opened the roads to cars. But most of the revellers paid no heed and thronged across the highway; drivers were forced to give up. Even the few who inched and wove their way through did so without anger.

At a coffee shop in Monmouth Street, Woody, his woollen astrakan cocked back, held court. Not, it seemed to Hurst, with his usual pinched reserve but round-faced with pleasure. The women chatted over him and around him. Woody scanned Hurst’s eyes for hidden jealousy, then called out ‘If you’re going to The Centre you’ll need this!’ And Woody held up a thick brass key, tagged with a light blue cord.

‘No!’ Hurst laughed back above the hubbub, ‘I’m just an ordinary punter now!’

‘Well watch out for the ceiling!’

On the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields, as the spears of rain fell harder, gaggles of pedestrians stilled and huddled together in the darkening night.

From the unlit portico of the National Gallery Dr Smiley, up from Stratford-on-Avon, looked on over the mass. A lone young woman in a red cotton dress hoicked up over her dark thighs paddled in the north west fountain, cockling the water, incanting: ‘Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbelow . . .’ Her blue-black hair glistened in the rain and spray. Around the rim of another fountain three lads passed a tin of Stella from hand to hand, like Norns sharing an eye. They sipped in turn, fixed on their own conversation. Nearby a few starlings, still in their winter stars, jabbed for titbits. Dr Smiley’s wife, Grace, hooked her arm through his, dropping an inch or two to his height, her white hair spangled with raindrops,

Outside the BBC in Portland Place a knot of Tibetans gathered. Their faces were drawn with weariness and resolution; their clothes a motley of faded rainbow. They held banners, scrawled with FREE, but only  knee-high, like a used up superstition.
Arrayed opposite, outnumbering them, stood a cohort of riot police; uniform in height and build, faces enclosed in silver-black helmets burnished by the dark rain, safe behind perspex shields. They eyed their quarry. At their rear a policewoman shooed away any tourist or reveller, who unawares, wandered too close.

In the old stable in the mews behind Park Square, Hurst found The Centre overflowing with celebrants who swayed and jostled together. The ceiling was mildewed and crumbling, the plaster cornices returning to mineral origins and the wooden joists sodden with sap. A photograph in a frame, of an auburn-blonde woman, retrieved it seemed from an earlier occupancy, was all that was left on the wall. The floor, was folding under the many footsteps. In the midst of the throng, Angela Waddle from PR, tilted her head, as best she could, in a simulacrum of pleasure.

Gee, though sang out, unrestrained: ‘See what you can do in London on May Day!’

 

Don’t start in the carpark

Five years ago I set out to walk the South Downs Way. Don’t start at the carpark. Start at the railway station. Or the Church.

I got the train from Hove to Eastbourne. Then found my bearings in Georgios on the High Street, a cafe in olive browns and seaside creams. The customers, older mostly, had come dressed for the weather. All the staff were female. Perhaps I wanted to be persuaded to give up before I began.

I wanted to go to a church. Searching for a blessing or more putting off. So I walked away from the sea and up to the Old Town. At Saint Mary’s there’s a Celtic cross with a small plaque shamelessly admitting it was removed from Cornwall in MDCCCXVII. At the end of the walk, 100 miles off in Winchester is another piece of Celtica: said to be King Arthur’s Round Table.

The walk itself, in stiff winds that day, rolls along some of the most well-known cliffs in England. The world, really: you’re hardly ever alone. Beachy Head, the Seven Sisters to The Cuckmere at Exceat. They change because you’ve walked them. I found the first bus went back to Eastbourne not west towards home, so I ended the day where I’d begun.

Bitter Shrovetide

They don’t look you in the mouth, as such.

Eye-to-eye. Tall enough, broad enough, drunk enough, but no more. He calls you Joseph; today you can call him Thomas. You thee him; he says you, for form’s sake.

‘How’s thy missus?’ A smirk from your pals.

A figgy smile back: ‘You’re looking older, Joseph.’

You’d say that’s France, but you can’t; it’s too bitter and you’d rather forget: ‘And thee still in the bloom of youth, Thomas.’

Eye-to-eye over the brim of the mug. Another smirk.

‘I’ll need some men come harvest time.’

‘Thou’ll need someone afore that.’

So you stand, foot-to-foot, a chill breeze at your back. Then it’s settled: ‘Alright. Come and see me at Easter.’

But the bitter day is coming when he’ll pass you over, like the others. Then, for charity, give you a broom to sweep. But for now, sweetened, the year turns again.

St Nicholas’ Day

‘Son, Son’, he calls.

So I went.

‘I’m on the toilet.’

‘I see’, I say.

He never really got that this was our Christmas. The first weekend in December — it’s a public holiday in Spain. The Feast of St Nicholas, too.  So they come over, my brother and his wife. It’s good for us, as well; cheaper and if we all come we can stay in the Premier Inn. But he always asks, ‘Will you be coming back for Christmas?’

The door is open.

‘I’m going to be a while’, he says.

I say nothing and wait, eyes down.

‘It must have been that soup.’

We try to make a thing of it: we give him presents, he hands out cash — euros for the Spanish — and cards especially chosen: ‘To My Son And His Partner’ for me. He’s precise. One year, after his fall, I had to get them for him, from Card Factory in the High Street; when he came to sign mine he flew into a rage: how was I to know that under the flowery ‘To My Son And His Partner’ was a silhouetted drawing of two men holding hands?

‘I see’,  I say.

‘There’s more to come, I can feel it.’

‘I see’, I said, and moved away.

‘Son, Son!’

*   *   *

St Nicholas IMG_0169

From the ruin of the old church, up on the bare hill, the church dedicated to St Nicholas, you’re hidden from the hospital where he died.  At twilight you could be floating, the land and the sea hardly drawn apart; to the west, the sea falling towards the horizon; the sodden land to the south barely out of the water. Northward, beyond the town’s humming lights you can see  the wooded hill over which we used to walk to the village where he was born.

Home: What The Magpie Knows

Sparti 1982 IMG_1820The Magpie brings us tidings
Of news both fair and foul . . .
And she knows when we’ll go to our graves,
And how we shall be born.

‘How did you choose your parents, Ste?’ He often called me that, Ste. He often just drawled out the vowel and left the ve unsounded. ‘Ha!’ He added a little harrumph for outfoxing me. But he rushed on. ‘I know how I chose mine; I made a mistake, I thought they were bohemians but they were Catholics.’ This time we both laughed, raised beakers of the same pink resiny stuff, made lurid in the poor fluorescent light of the basement.

‘You know Finn’ — he resisted the pun, for once — Finn the yoga teacher, he’s thin — ‘One of his Tibetan teachers told him that they know how to choose their parents. A lot of good it did them, some of them.’ Costello’s face was close to mine, opposite: square, handsome, just greying around the temples, lively eyes and a narrow mouth that seemed barely able to keep up with his intelligence.
We were in the place where we’d tried to steal one of the tables from outside. ‘They’ve got enough of them,’ he’d said as we made our way down the marble steps into the cigarette smoke and the thick, dense smell of warm olive oil. And the Greeks, in knots of twos and threes, dun-coloured like old woodcock, raising the familiar cacophony that had once sounded like quarrelling. Neither of us remarked that here there were only men. One of them looked on unblinkingly as Costello tugged up a bit of his shirt, pinched an inch of flesh away from his lean belly and injected.

‘Twice a day, Ste, twice a day.’ It was a kind of invocation.

***
I’d wanted to go alone, he knew that, but he’d had followed me out of the spiti, the flat we shared with the others on the edge of town. Lena was cooking that night; ‘She’ll only make a meal of it,’ he’d said. Mostly he talked about the day — the bloody oranges, Andreos our overseer, ‘How much d’you think he makes out of us?’ — but I sensed he really wanted to know where I headed when I wandered off by myself.  We went my usual way via the poste restante. There was a letter for me, from my mother. First time, it was always my father who wrote on behalf of the family. Nothing from Isabel.
Costello didn’t bother to check: ‘I wouldn’t want them to write to me,’ he said, ‘Unless there was money, a lot of it.’ He couldn’t raise the will to make it sound shocking. In the restaurant, the letter sat there, unopened; I knew what it must say, that my grandmother, my mother’s mother, had died.
He gossiped on about the Dutch girl; he hardly ever talked about her by name. He was proud that he spent much of our working day chatting to her while me and Hari, her boyfriend, were picking the oranges. ‘You and Hari, up the trees like monkeys!’ There was relish and irony in his sardonic voice, which could never quite cancel out his feeling of wonder at the absurdity of it all. He told me again what we all knew, that her parents were Sannyasins. They meditate in a group in her house. Open marriage.

‘I asked her if they always wear orange, she said it’s more like pink or purple. So, Ste, how did she get parents like that?’

***
‘Lena and Frank say they’re going home for Christmas, they want to be back in time to sign on. There’s a life! They’re like an old married couple anyway, off in their own little room.’ Then he added, ‘What about you?’ I was staying. I was glad, though I didn’t say so, that I didn’t have the money for the Magic Bus back. I ordered more retsina.
There was a surge of half-hearted jeering. We looked up at the tv screen suspended in a low corner, near a grimy pavement light; it showed England, seaside towns I seemed to know, battered by gale-blown seas, lashing rain and great snowdrifts. Even the cars were disabled. The Greek men looked agreeably at one another: hardened by life in Laconia they mocked any discomfort for far away, so-called great, Anglia.

‘Ha! I bet they’ll blame Maggie!’

As we were leaving a waiter came after me, imploring ‘Phile! Phile!’ Stupidly I’d left the letter behind. We’d taken another half carafe and Costello had talked on: about trying to outwit his diabetes and all the authorities back in England who connived in its attempt to quell him.

***
I have the letter in my hand now. I found it while going through my mother’s things after she died; she must have taken it from the small horde of stuff I kept in the box room I used when I stayed. There was no sign of the letter that had eventually come from Isabel (‘I love Huw but I want you too’). I doubt it would have passed my mother’s censor and she would have felt free to destroy it.

My mother’s letter, in a hand like that of a 16 year-old girl, lays out, unaffectedly, the death of her mother in a run down dock town on the Clyde. She recycles the words of the pastor who said ‘She was a good woman.’ I feel struck: there’s no doubt I chose these people, but how and why?

There is a rap at the door, ‘Are you alright in there?’ There’s pleading in my father’s voice, ‘Are you looking for something?’

***
Costello stumbled briefly on the steps as we left. ‘Damn! I’ve forgotten my torch.’ His nighttime blindness always startled me. On the pavement that night I couldn’t tell if he could see me at all. ‘You should see my piss in the morning, Ste; it’ll be solid.’
We stood alone on the broad pavement of the empty dark street; a few spindly street lamps doing their best to form shadows. Shut up shops stooped beneath the dull glare of the utilitarian flats above. No moon; a chilly December in Sparta.

I took one of his arms, tentatively, as though under instruction and  manoeuvred us into the direction of the spiti, home, then, closer, linking my arm through his. And, for a while at last, I felt the cool, stern compassion of five-fingered Mount Taygetus.

 

© Submitted to the Creative Future Writers’ Award 2019 run by New Writing South on the theme ‘Home’: it got nowhere. Ah well.

Fear

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So. You spend weeks, day by day
peering into the pan
scrying those wine red veins in the brown dung
you’ve excreted. Hoping
it doesn’t mean what you fear and wishing, day by day
it’ll stop. Until the day comes
(tooled with a thin spatula and a small diameter tube)
you hope this is not the day they vanish. So,
does this mean you fear madness more than malignancy?