African Blood

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‘Can I ask you a question? I was wondering about your ancestors; do you have any ancestors from the Mediterranean or The Middle East?’
‘Well . . .’
‘Ah, perhaps you’d like to be there now, in the Mediterranean?’ He was conspiratorial, trying to put me at ease, we both knew about the British weather.
‘I used to live there, the Mediterranean’, I said, not wanting to sound too eager to please.
‘North or South?’
‘Oh, I see.’

The Haemotologist was tall, slim, slightly stooped, as if from deference, rather than age, although he seemed near to sixty, with receding, crinkly hair and a trimmed, greying beard. Handsome face and eyes that looked like he enjoyed being intelligent and dapper and charming. Complexion of coffee colour; you’d say North African, with the clipped accent of the well-educated. He ran through the analysis of my blood at speed, noting where it was less than optimum. Quickly moving on to the next graph or table, always finding ways to reassure. My blood, with it’s laggardly white blood cells, who nonetheless, according to him, managed to get the job done, was universal amongst Africans, he said, wherever they are.

I could hardly keep up with the statistics he generously showed me on the computer screen as they scrolled by. Was it me, or did other patients understand these kind of things, well-versed by the medical pages of the Daily Mirror or Google? I dismissed the thought that all this  — he shared his gorgeously hand-written notes, too — was for the benefit of the young female medical student who sat demurely behind my left shoulder. Kidney, liver, bone marrow and creatures known as the scavengers were his only concessions to my vernacular ignorance. How did he learn all this?

But mostly I was thinking about the journey. Exiled from the Dardanelles, when we got away from the Greeks, us no better than Helots. From Italy to Libya, when the Mediterranean was one, undivided. There we must have stopped off for a while, took on provisions, tarried, we might have called it; the Balearics, leaving behind our cairns; then Morocco, last pleasures and civilisation before the grim Atlantic, with its mist and black rocks and fierce gales, then to the edge of the world, Totnes, our New Troy, so called. Brutus would have left me there; he had bigger fish to fry. And my ancestors? After that we moved only when we had to.

‘So you’re saying that if I were African, my blood would be normal?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’ He was gently ushering me out of his office.
‘Thank you’, was all I could think to add.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, as I shook his hand. And I went off for another blood test.

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A Small Walk

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I’d done it many times before, the same walk; got the train, gone to The Mound to get my bearings and set my sights on the goal, Mount Caburn, 480 foot up. But the last time, mid-winter, I’d given up, weary, perhaps bored, falling ill; I’d pulled back at the dew pond (the lowest point) and the pair of bald thorn trees; relieved to be defeated.

This day, a season later, coming on to the rise of Southerham I was confident I’d make it. But why was it all so small? I looked to the sky (cerulean, no less). Larks rose, singing; a handful of meadow pipits poked the ground. Gangs of jackdaws chacked and swooped, white-gold in the sunlight. The Downs were high as ever and as open. But small.

Something had happened and I don’t know what it is. Time, the angle of the earth, death.

At the Caburn, on the wooden bench that overlooks the Ouse I was joined by another: taller, younger with two dogs. We talked for a while; the mind, he explained, wants us to think it’s something floating above us (he stretched out his arm, making a span above his head) apart from the body; it’s our task to understand that it’s not. He went on with his pie, we talked about the closing of The Trevor Arms. Then I said my goodbyes to him and his dogs, heading back the way I came.

A small walk, that’s all.

a favorite bench

Seventeen Syllable Poetry

Things I Like, Number 4

List twenty things you enjoy doing (Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: Task 3, Week 2)

Making my daughter’s bed.

The voice inside, the voice of my wife or it could be my mother stops. Time stops in this small room where there is no lack of space and no schedule to complete. There’s a smell, a scent: clean, flowery, warm; it’s the smell of the colour pink.

Then it begins: it’s like a dance when you don’t have to think about the steps. It’s like playing tai chi when you forget about your teacher. And if I drop Snowflake or Ginger or my hand doesn’t quite grip the duvet or the pillow doesn’t plump up there’s no swearing. This isn’t doing the laundry or vacuuming. The next move just comes.

I wouldn’t call it love, it’s not duty or an obligation. No-one — I mean my wife or my mother — will ever say well done, you’ve managed a chore. Not in my head or in my life. Even my tai chi teacher — since he seems to be here too — doesn’t remind me that housework is good for your energy. And my daughter doesn’t thank me either, there’s no need. I haven’t done anything. Besides, if I could find the words, I’d thank her.

But in the meantime, I’ll just make her bed.

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With appreciation to John Gray, who doesn’t like this kind of thing https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Gray_(philosopher)

Angels In Sussex

Notes from a walk.

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Start at the railway station, Pulborough. (Let the train go on to London, without you). This is off The Downs, off the chalk, in a dip, but the Downs stalk alongside. The way leads you over suburban metalled and gravelled paths, then red-green sand, wet meadow, sand again.

Copses where the beech trees have grown free of the serfdom of crop and cut, crop and cut. Pines trees tall and straight like retired officers (whose hearts are in the Highlands, but who look south, seaward). A dull regimented wood where the art of murder is declaimed by cages and barrels and the odds and sods of shooting. A pheasant clacks and belches erratically into the air, then slumps into cover, relieved.

Halt at a church. A high saddleback tower, three tiers of undecorated Norman windows. A yew is black with age. They say that one of the names on the war memorial (of those who didn’t come back from Flanders) is the same as one who fought with Charlemagne. This is a land of names, houses, manors.

The Big House, Petworth: Fuck — the ladies, officious, said I was too late, the exhibition’s closed.  They’re in charge. At The Angel, Angel Street, a local says, in parenthesis,  — oh dear, they are not very — a pause for words —  community-minded. I open Blake at: I have always found that Angels have the vanity to speak of themselves as the only wise.

I thought he meant them, the guardian angels of our culture. But the next day I got a phone call — you can come back another time, free. Perhaps he had me in mind, after all.

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What The Magpie Knows

The Magpie brings us tidings, Of news both fair and fowl: 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 just 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. Ha! A lot of good it did them, some of them. Costello’s face was close to mine, opposite: square, just greying around the temples, lively eyes and a narrow mouth that seemed unable to keep up with his intelligence. His sardonic voice brought them back.

We were in the place where we’d tried to steal one of the tables. 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 there were only men here.

I’d wanted to go alone, he knew that, but had followed me out of the spiti 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 — bloody oranges — but I sensed he 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. 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.

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 battered by gale-blown seas, lashing rain and great snowdrifts. Even the cars were disabled. I might have thought it was smugness from here in the south, but no, the men here, hardened by life in Laconia mocked any discomfort for far away, great, Anglia.

***

He stumbled briefly on the steps as we left. Damn! I’ve forgotten my torch. His nighttime blindness always startled me. We stood alone on the broad pavement of the empty dark street; a few spindly street lamps doing their best to form shadows. Shops were closed now beneath the  dull glare of the utilitarian flats above. No moon; a chilly December in Sparta.

As we were leaving a waiter had come 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; and he gossiped about the Dutch girl; he usually called her that, hardly ever by her name. He was proud that he spent much of our working day chatting to her while me and Hari, her boyfriend, were harvesting the bloody oranges. Her parents are Sannyasins, Ste. They meditate in a group in her house. Open marriage, she says. Asked her if they always wear orange, she said it’s more like pink or purple. Ha! So, how’d she get parents like that?

On the pavement I couldn’t tell if he could see me at all. You should see my piss in the morning, Ste; it’ll be solid. I took one of his arms, tentatively, as though under instruction and  manoeuvred us into the direction of home, then, closer, linking my arm through his, as, at last, I felt the cool, stern compassion of five-fingered Taygetus.

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Tea with On The Road

I’d always been afraid of meeting Moriarty, for real.

But I guess I always wanted to, too. Martinsen was Moriarty, or could have been, but lets leave that at that. Sometimes I even forget I was there in Warwickshire, Heart of England. But that was before On The Road. I don’t know why we even had the book, or how I found it, come to that. Perhaps my Dad thought it was a bit dirtier than it was. Maybe it was a mistake. He had a pal who sold second hand books, Meakin’s Yard, it was. I remember the smell, the feel. It was hardback, there was no dust jacket, a slight mustiness about it. But, inside, it was like the revelation of a prophet from another world. Kerouc the prophet. I read some every night, after Luigi’s.

We used to get a taxi home, one, two in the morning. Karen, I think it was, used to sit on my lap. Well, she couldn’t sit on Salvio’s. And Lizzy, she’d be laughing and laughing. She took up half the space, in the back, just by herself. No seat belts. Maybe that only happened two, three times. It only has to have happened once to have happened. So I’d get out the book, when I got home, and drink tea. Everyone else was in bed. Sometimes Mike the Chef, he was Welsh, said why don’t you get a bottle of wine, Luigi’ll sell you one, to take home, but I never did.

I was drinking when I met Costello, though. It was a long, narrow bar, just in from the harbour.  A working harbour, not the pretty kind you see in postcards. Crowded and noisy, mostly foreigners, with a few Greeks eyeing the girls. I guess by then I could recognise him, too, but anyway a shaft of light shone down on him, from above, and everyone, it seems was listening to him.

I didn’t even need to say hi, we just started talking. He could talk about anything, Costello: going blind, hospital treatments, diabetes; someone wrote a play about him, he said, but most of all about some deal he was getting together in Sparti. I said something about the island, Helen and Paris’ island, I’d heard that was starting up again, but he wasn’t interested. He wanted to talk about Sparti.  We called it Sparti, like ex-pats, but we weren’t really ex-pats, we were kind of illegals, though we didn’t know it. “If the police stops us, no laughing”, that was Stefanos, the gangleader Costello was getting a team for, but all that came later. It always made us laugh.

I didn’t say anything about the bus. That’s when I first saw him, when he got on the bus at Lyon, with another English guy and two girls. The girls had deep tans. I don’t know if they were in the bar that night, but anyway they didn’t stick around. I’d got on in Paris. That’s another story. The answers yeah, if that’s what you’re thinking, I thought it would be somewhere to sleep. I sat next to a guy from Macedonia, I mean the old Macedonia in Greece, that was the only one then, the two of us talked a lot, but I didn’t talk to them, the four English. He thought there might be a military coup. He was going to vote Pasok, which was funny because I ended up sleeping in their office, but I didn’t know that then.  He got off at Thessaloniki. Maybe Costello and me said something in Yugoslavia, in one of those bleak roadside stops, but I think we just looked at each other, like the English do.

In Athens I just went  off, it was a Sunday, blank, dry heat .  .  .  I sometimes think I see him. Not now, not now I’m not in London, but in London, I’d think I’d seen him. Then I’d tell myself, no, he’s dead, but then I’d look again and it’d be him.

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* * *

It was in  London, about six months after Greece I saw him again. In Portland Street, outside the RIBA, opposite the Chinese Embassy. I remembered it, years later, when I was on a scraggy demo for Tibet. It was right there, where the police penned us in, that I’d  met Costello again. He’d just been working at the RIBA. He’d been using his other name, Paul Laurent, Laurent like the fashion designer, except he always said it dead English, LORunt, a bit like Laurent of Arabia, which always made us laugh, especially Sophie the French girl. But I hadn’t met her then.

He did the same thing when he worked for the government. Used his other name. Signed the Official Secrets Act, Paul Laurent, working in the Ministry of Information for three months till they pressed him for his NI number. So he left. He told me all this in a cafe, in Marylebone, one with high-backed padded benches and formica tables. He had to use his other name, I knew about that in Greece, because he’d told us he was supposed to be too sick to work. On account of his diabetes. But the money they gave him was outrageous, he used to say, so he worked as well.

He got me a job, too. I was doing something, it must have been market research, but he fixed me up with some ushering work, as well, evenings at a theatre. I could tell straight away when I got there and saw the woman that she was going to give me the job, just so she could have a piece of Costello around. She only asked me about him, really.  He never went back there, but everyone knew him. That’s how I met Sophie, Ron and the others.

We went off to Greece again. Costello wanted a break. He was trying to get a flat. He already had a flat, a housing association place in Hammersmith, but it was outrageous. He wanted them to give him another one, two bedrooms, at least, nice area. He got it, in the end, somewhere in Maida Vale, but that was a lot later.  But by then we’d lost touch again. No, we fell out. Had a big fight. He’d got married, too, I heard. He wasn’t someone you’d ever think would get married. But he married a beautiful, well, I’m guessing, but she must have been, beautiful Brazilian.

We didn’t fall out in Greece. I was pretty pissed off there, but not with Costello. We were on an island. Ron had a place there, he used to walk around naked. Like a grown up baby.  Altogether too many hippies, too many sybarites. I preferred Sparti. But we went north first. Up near Albania. Me, Sophie, Costello. Costello knew someone there. On the lake, Megali Prespa, it must have been.  We used to stare across it, at Albania, wondering what it was like. Which sounds weird now, with everybody going everywhere, tourists and refugees and hippies. But back then, no-one came out or went in. Maybe we felt sorry for them, seeing as we thought ourselves so free.

But we nearly didn’t get there. That was Costello again, wanting to go way up there. But then we got stuck in the middle of nowhere. No busses and the taxis wouldn’t take us. It didn’t matter about  the money. But then Costello got out his medical case. It had an aluminium body, he clicked it open on the counter of the taxi office. It was packed with insulin and hypodermic needles and other stuff all in neat compartments of black foam. He kept saying he was a doctor and he had to get through because someone was ill and needed the supplies. In the end they gave in, we got a taxi; it must have been a couple of hours along a dusty road.

The furthest we got was Rhodes. I hated that, too. Hippies, tourists, shops. I ran out of money, so had to get some work, shifting things on and off a truck for a Greek guy. By then, Costello’d had enough, took the plane back home. Which meant Sophie and me had to hitch, once I’d got enough money for the ferry to Athens. Costello’d given us the address of someone in France, in Gigondas, a Monsieur Alexandre, so we headed there.

 © Stephen Moore 2016