All posts by itinerant

Step by Step through Shadowland

It is my first time travelling on the Intercape Sleepliner Coach. With only the memories of a familiar world to fall back on, lingering in the darkness outside the windows, it feels like we are moving through a desolate landscape.

I don’t like travelling at night. I like to see where I am and where I’m going. Tracing my route on a map is favourable to blindly following a GPS. I enjoy the ride and can deviate from the set route, but I’d like to know where I’ll end up, where I roughly am in the greater scheme of things. And I do not like unknowingly passing by any interesting sights and missing out.

But for all we (the coach passengers) know, our coach might be balancing on a thin stretch of who-knows-what, like an invisible wire, on which we are carried along the dark veins of the country as the gaping unknown silently falls away from us on either side.

It is in this way that a coachful of strangers, time and again, leave their safe arrival in the hands and at the mercy of the driver, who becomes just another figure at the front engulfed by the lack of light. And it is like him that we also become part of the night, immersed in its immense inkpot of blackness.

At times I can imagine myself capsuled in a submarine slicing through unchartered waters. Everyone in the hull blends into the shadows and every now and then a glowing object, belonging to a fellow passenger, float like a remnant, a lost treasure, upwards to the surface of one’s vision: a bright pair of fluorescent white trainers like neon fish in an aquarium, a mobile phone screen suddenly gleaming with news from the outside.

And any markers and signposts, bearing the names of familiar places and distances, showing that we are still on track in the vast uncertainty of night, pass too quickly. Becoming only streaks and flashes of indecipherable information like the fast-moving vehicles rushing past us, they too are reduced to shapes in the darkness.

I’m aware of us passing by the fringes of towns as tiny orange lights burn like lit torches in the blackness. But before I can even start to imagine or try to remember (as I think I might have passed through here before) what these places and their inhabitants look like, we have shot past.

Quick toilet stops at petrol stations become random beacons of light. Identical signals along a shore, only ever signifying that one is in the middle of somewhere about to be dispatched. And once the ten minutes of stretching legs and squinting at the sudden brightness of incandescent gas station lights, are over, the unidentified shapes of passengers on seats huddled inside blankets, are sent off again.

Sleep, as we all know, is a private affair and a state in which one would not like to be known in or seen by strangers. Therefore, if one happens to be a lone ranger on a journey, there is one reason to be thankful for the darkness: it provides protection from peering eyes and one can always capsize into the swaying motion of transit and escape the world altogether. An apt thing to do while one is on a Sleepliner on one’s way through shadowland.

At some stage during the journey, I press my face against the window. It’s cold and somewhat steamy and clouded from the breath and the ghosts of dreams of fellow passengers but outside I can see small fragments of lights piercing the sky. Having poked tiny holes for stars and carved a crescent shape for the moon to shine through inside the colourlessness which enfolds our journey, a god has provided us with just enough pinpricks of light to guide us to civilisation. And the longer I gaze, the less I know which way is up or down. As I slowly start to dip down in rhythm with the engine down below, I hope that the driver will follow the clues along the way. Slowly I become submerged by that other land of shadows where time and space become relative: the world of dreams.

I am small again, young and curious about the world and its still hazy edges. Precariously balancing on the fringe of comprehension and reeling inside the adrenalin of not knowing, caught inside an unshaped idea of reality that can so easily spark the delicious notion of contained fear. Like watching a horror movie, frightened but safe within the proximity of one’s living room and the presence of loved ones.

With neighbourhood friends and cousins we are once again playing our favourite nighttime game, ‘donkerkamertjie’: a game of hide and seek in the darkness of a closed room.

It is all about funambulism. We are walking the tightrope of limited senses. Robbed of clear vision, depending on hearing and touching, suddenly familiar objects and people are concealed, unidentified and strange in the eye of the half-blind beholder.

Borne forward, at the mercy of instinct and knowing from experience that the streetlights will cast a shadowy light onto the edges of furniture, I start my journey.

Invaluable sounds make me turn: the scraping of a leg against a chair; the rustling of an arm brushing against a curtain; a suppressed giggle from somewhere behind me. But I am slow in my actions for I am waiting for the slight sheen of streetlights that will cast an outline on the landscape of the bedroom through the curtains. I wait but it doesn’t come.

Inexplicably the streetlights seem to have gone out. I expect my playmates to emerge from their hiding places and comment on the world that has suddenly gone completely blind but silence, thick as the darkness, descends and closes in. And as all goes very dark and very quiet, I move but lose my balance. Panic rises as I can’t locate the light switch. Warped holes seem to appear in the fabric of reality. I am pulled inside a place, like a black hole, bending light and pulling space and time, and me, with it. And in the midst of this twilight state, I continue to spin frantically.

Waking up with a jolt we burst into bright city lights, just as the lights of the coach are switched on. Confusedly I fumble for my phone, my inner compass temporarily deactivated. It is three o’clock in the morning and I’ve arrived at my destination. My fellow passengers reveal themselves and the familiar places are clearly outlined. We are identifiable once again. Slowly I gather my things and leave the cabin, one foot in front of the other. Always one foot in front of the other, I repeat to myself in my head. One step at a time.

Outside I fall into the familiar embrace of a friend, delight in her well-known voice and when she looks into my eyes, she laughingly exclaims, “Your pupils are so dilated! Are you on drugs?”

“I tried to let in more light,” I reply and she giggles as I make no sense and hugs me one more time.

And I realise that the land of shadows are behind me. For now. There is still the return journey. And the continuous challenge of maintaining one’s balance while moving along the path of everyday life.

Through the Keyhole

When I went to register at the doctor a few weeks ago I had to, yet again, fill in various forms and record all of the past addresses I’ve lived in within the previous five years. Dutifully I filled in the form, retracing my steps, not forgetting to add the exact months and years of departures and arrivals. And as with all bureaucratic processes, this also was a tedious one.

The final result was not at all a representation of the many ghosts and shadows of previous lives that might still lurk, who knows, in all those corners where I’ve shed so many chapters in my life, I thought, as I looked at the list of addresses and dates lying lifeless and stagnant inked in black on white.

We live in an age where we are under constant surveillance, an era in which secrets seem hard to keep, a time in which our wanderings become trackable from leaving one doorway to crossing the next threshold, moving from one border to the next frontier. How many forgotten clues to our lives do we leave behind, how many lived-through secrets, are left behind those doors and windows and walls? I thought to myself. And just like that, caught inside the dull waiting room of the surgery, my mind started wandering.

Some red-tape filled episodes are more painful than others. One of the most harrowing bureaucratic experiences I’ve had to live through was applying for a British passport. Only people who have had to apply for citizenship to another country will understand the misery involved in achieving this.

After years of applying for visas and work permits, the last hurdle was about to be overcome. Every time one set foot outside the UK border had to be written down and attached to the application form. One A4 page was not enough. I had to keep documenting my travellings on another and produced more than one A4 page of all the times having trodden across the border. Tracking exits and entrances, recording all the time spent for the previous five years before the date of the application. No more than 450 days could have been spent outside the UK during those five years and no more than 90 days in the previous twelve months.

As a child, numbers scared me. They were unforgiving. So unlike words that were multi-dimensional and forgiving in their fluidity and hidden depths. And, yet again, the old fear took hold of me.

Nevertheless, I meticulously noted it all down. The inflexibility and mercilessness of the red-tape rigidity started tying me in knots: I started feeling guilty for traversing so much. Nonsensical thoughts kept on popping up in my head. Was all this movement and instability and fun illegal? Did I have too much of a good time too often? Was this too much freedom for the system to allow? And most importantly: will this offend the queen? And if I do get to swear my allegiance, will she accept? In my temporary insanity I could feel her sceptre coming down hard on my head, ousting me from her kingdom.

And finally, with a clenched jaw and sweaty palms, I calculated the amount of days I had not spent on the Isle. I just made it. By the skin of my teeth. I could see myself hanging onto the UK (such a little island in the vastness of the world map) like that sabre-tooth squirrel from Ice Age. I swear I stopped breathing during the whole ordeal. My yoga teacher would have been appalled. I felt breathless for days after.

If it wasn’t for my obsessive travel writing and scribblings in various diaries and all those boarding tickets lined up in a scrapbook (an endless factory belt of departures and destinations) I would’ve had a hard, if not impossible, time figuring out the dates and times of my processions during those carefree days of travelling whenever the opportunity arises. How people make out head or tail from all those entry stamps and visas haphazardly scattered on the pages of their passports, I don’t know. But stamped inside those passports lie your passage through life as if a microscopic time machine zoomed into the life lines mapped out on one’s palm. The border stamps swirled like tealeaves on the surface of the green pages of my South African passport. Dates and the names of countries brewing inside the waters of the past in all its haphazard splendour, rooting the future.

Years later, when I found a copy of my passport application form with all those journeys documented, every trip separated like a convoy of soldiers, arranged in straight lines and columns, labelled and dated, I didn’t recognise any of it at all. Could that have been the meandering pathways that I’ve taken? All of my crooked, roundabout routes hammered into some kind of order to gain bureaucratic approval.

How odd they looked. Not at all resembling the spontaneity of life, the frantic, messy scrawling of true experience in diaries and letters. Suddenly a part of my life was all straightened out and neatly contained for officials to pore over. Turned into an apt wasteland for an official, it lacked heart and soul. There was no truth in it.

But I imagined lining up all of those previous doorways and looking through their keyholes simultaneously. If we could do that each would hang inside each other like a multi-layered stage set. Every chapter of our lives set within a certain abode, opening up to reveal layer after layer of multi-dimensional scenes like interconnecting panels. Each threshold revealing the next, taking the eye on a journey into the theatre of our lives.

If one could indeed turn those glaring lists into multi-planed visions of the layered narrative of one’s existence, it would be a beautiful, concrete representation of our lives: a picture of an individual’s rites of passage; an ongoing opening and shutting of doors; an inward and outward journey.

The officials can, after all, only guess at what had taken place inside all those addresses, but you carry all your personal stories and the characters, pivotal to those scenes, within yourself. And how fortunate to be able to travel out through and sometimes back into all those doorways.

When my passport was delivered to my door I could feel normal breathing starting to tunnel through me again. I could kiss that courier’s feet and, as I watched him turn around and leave, (the prefrontal cortex of my brain temporarily deactivated) I wanted to call him back, to ask why this seemingly unimportant little book wasn’t delivered to me on a silver platter. Just in time I reminded myself that there are no frills attached to the way of the bureaucrat: only hard facts and figures. And so, as I watched the courier zoom down the road, I curtsied to the queen, closed the door behind me and locked my new passport in the safe. The bureaucratic system knew where I lived, they knew my new passport number and my national security number but they had no key to unlock the door to my heart and all the stories within stories I carried inside of me. My secrets were safe in me.

Seduced by Words

I have always been a bit of a word maniac, an admirer of humans’ ability to string together words, generating sentences, the most ingenious tales and lines of verse so beautiful that you have to read it over and over again to etch it on your memory. There are quite a few of us out there, that I know, who are seduced by words and called closer by them, lured into their delightful trap, intrigued by their endless horizon of possibilities.

And even if people are not all that fascinated by words, we are all well aware of how languages connect people. It’s the common ground on which we all tread: the roots from which our worlds grew.

It started early: my love affair with words. As a child I dreamed of being locked up all night inside the local library that I still go to visit when I return to the town I grew up in. Back then it was a treasure trove of tales and adventures, now it looks small and sparse (how one’s journeys around the world change one’s perspective) but still filled with enough good books (many of these Afrikaans novels having been banned in the 1960’s and 70’s) to while away the time in a sleepy South African Eastern Cape town. Like the legendary Arabic queen, Scheherazade, I would have loved to spend my nights in the company of stories. But then it was different: in an innocent mind a night stretches into an eternity of witching hours and seemingly endless, unfilled silences before sunrise.

As life moves on though one quickly learns that a night is not quite long enough, that sleep is much needed and that the world does not allow for idle, non-commercial musings. Words are primarily used to get on with the dealings of day-to-day life, the practicality of it never under-estimated. But indulging in it: now that is something you need to make time for in your spare time, if any are left to spare, or secretly squeeze your real interests in between working hours. So this preoccupation with words throughout the journey of day-to-day life, had to be adapted to wanderings through book shops and learning to appreciate the small moments of delighting in words: laughing at the rare clever chat-up line; savouring the remnants of clever dialogue in the few dark moments between the end of a great movie and the frantic scurry of exiting movie-goers; indulging in witty text messages from other wordy friends; scribbling down a few lines between tube stops; reading a short story before drifting off to sleep; frantically trying to make time for a weekly language class; mourning the hours spent making a living while the amount of books arriving on bookshelves multiply (drifting further and further out of reach) as the hours in one’s day become shorter.

And then there are bookshops, old-fashioned ones, occupied by dark shelves holding up volumes of stories and words that seem to secretly guard the books that tantalise onlookers with their titles proudly printed on their upright spines. It is on one of these stolen journeys through a second-hand bookshop that I found ‘The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words’, first published as ‘The Insomniac’s Dictionary’ in 1986: a compendium of weird and wonderful words and other phobias. One of my most precious finds yet. Up there with wonderful people who have their own close attachments and amorous entanglements with words and captivating experiences, like a friend who used to sleep with the dictionary under her pillow like a good-luck charm; a university lecturer who claimed (and rightly so) that sometimes there is nothing sexier than jumping in bed with a good book and the memory of the library in the San Francisco Monastery in Lima, Peru – its spiral staircases suspended between the 25,000 volumes contained therein, secretly breathing life into the 25 000 bodies laid to rest, their bones scattered in the catacombs underneath.

And so the book has started travelling with me: my wordy companion never at a loss for something to say, a word at the ready for almost any occasion, symptom or area of life.

It just so happened that not too long ago I found myself another companion. This time it happened to be a man, a bit of an insomniac funnily enough, who uses the most wonderful words and expressions, some of them colloquial, some a bit outdated, many of them quite bookish, but always interesting and surprising. He manages to casually throw words and phrases like ‘mucker’, ‘discombobulated’, ‘cessation’, ‘incongruent’, ‘erudite’ and ‘cock a snook’ into a conversation. He tempted me with his words, enticed me with the other-worldliness that pervaded his text messages and reeled me in. And so having a way with words, he has a way with me.

If the ‘The Insomniac’s Dictionary’ got hold of him, he would most probably be described as, amongst other things, someone who loves ‘knissomancy’ (incense burning) and ‘rusticating’ (going to the country), has an aversion to ‘tomecide’ (to destroy books) but unfortunately suffers from ‘hyposomnia’ (lack of sleep) and ‘pernoctation’ (insomnia).

Lucky for me, even this insomniac streak work in my favour at times. Some mornings I wake up to find a few romantic lines he’d penned down for me during the long waking hours of a sleepless night. He’ll think of unusual places to visit while awake during quiet early morning darkness, like poetry libraries and secluded beaches in Cornwall.

I even have a strong suspicion that he has an understanding of how I am being held hostage between two languages, both which I hold almost equally dear. When we travelled through South Africa a year ago, my companion commented on how easy it was for bilingual people to switch between languages, how effortless I seemed to get along with other strangers as we traversed the country. It is after all my home country but I was wondering if it could have something to do with the mother tongue that connects us so easily with others who speak it too. An unsaid understanding that goes without saying, without needing to be mentioned, between people raised within the framework of the same sound patterns. Language can sometimes be that common heritage which makes strangers feel as if they’ve known each other for a long time.

A friend sent me a link the other day, listing interesting bookshops around the world:

http://www.buzzfeed.com/erinlarosa/bookstores-that-will-literally-change-your-life#.umaL6MxPq

This made me contemplate that maybe one day I’ll properly preoccupy myself with my first love and go on a long journey, dipping into every one of these wordy places, allowing myself to be seduced over and over again.

But in the meantime I thank my lucky stars that, surrounded by modern day chaos where speed is of the essence, I can still withdraw to that magical place where words save us from losing our heads, just like Scheherazade.

 

WORDS and DEFINITIONS taken from:

Hellweg, P. 1993. The Wordsworth Book of Intriguing Words. Wordsworth Editions Ltd.

Along the Way

 

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I have yet to meet someone who enjoys the early morning rush hour, be it in London or any other city.

In the midst of the early morning race to get to work, commuters (especially of the public transport variety) are temporarily robbed of personal space and momentarily stripped of identity as we all become part of one big multi-limbed, industrial machine hurtling forth, swarming through and into the city and, in this way, setting the wheels of the day in motion. Such is the mechanics of survival and the routine of everyday life, I guess. Nevertheless, when I find myself marching with the rest of the commuters like disciplined soldiers down the road in the mornings, I know for certain that some of us will never get used to such a rude awakening.

For some Morning Larks out there this might be bearable but for Night Owls, like myself, a kind starting point to our journeys is indispensable to help us into the day. A bearer of good news is needed somewhere along the way to temporarily dispense the early morning gloom and lighten the load of overwhelming expectations, typical of a 9-to-5 world, so suddenly bearing down on one and disrupting Night Owls’ circadian rhythms.

And this is where Sid has stationed himself for the past eleven years: just outside the East Finchley Northern Line tube station, where most needed. Enveloped in a coffee aroma his coffee cart is ever-present and has found its permanent spot. Sid, who had become part and parcel of East Finchley’s High Road, has mastered the art of preparing a coffee in no time and his customers are always happy to see him.

“The best part of my job is the people. I feel part of a community,” he tells me as he makes me a medium cappuccino with one sugar without a pause in the conversation (I don’t have to remind him what I drink because Sid remembers all his regulars’ likes and dislikes.)

He tells me that his customers are as varied as their choice of drinks. “Some people want a straightforward espresso, others want a soya vanilla latte with an extra shot,” he laughs.

But I see how he treats his customers: with a joke, a friendly word, a smile, filling up someone’s flask with hot water, supplying not only hot drinks but also extending warmth and human kindness. The depth of its human touch and its memory enough to last throughout the whole day.

No matter how early, come rain or shine, Sid is always there. A familiar face next to his coffee machine; the steam wand hissing away comfortingly inside his coffee cart as he works his early morning magic throughout the whole day.

He gets up at the crack of down. And even me, who is a self-declared non-morning person can see its appeal. Really early in the morning the streets are clean like a slate. It’s most probably the best time to start work. When you feel like you can actually breathe. In a big city this is quite something. And people, no matter how old or tough, young or weak, are usually most vulnerable and honest in the soft, undisturbed hush of dawn.

But Sid didn’t grow up in England. He’s from Algeria and arrived in London twenty two years ago.

“For a better life,” he answers as I ask him why he came. I should know. I’m an immigrant myself. But what he says next, leaves me with much food for thought: “You know how it is. You come here: you forget to go back.”

If I think carefully, I do indeed. No matter how wonderful a city, it still has the potential to swallow people whole and lull them into an over-productive, thoughtless sleepwalking state. And therefore one has to tread lightly through the big city, at times so devoid of human touch and connection.

When I ask him what he misses most about Algeria, his hands become still for a few moments, the cloth folded between his palms with which he keeps his work surfaces and espresso machine shiny all day.

“I guess I missed what used to be home. What it used to be all those years ago when I left but now home has changed. Everything changes.” A fleeting, far-off look in his eyes, as if he sees something beyond his loyal customers, something which lies far beyond even the borders of the UK. “There are so many people like us here.”

This is true: people who live between two worlds. And like most of us, Sid makes it a priority to return to Algeria whenever he can. “I fish when I go there. That’s what I do.”

Spearfishing. An ancient method of fishing that requires stealth, stamina and absolute focus.

“I love the excitement of spearfishing. You never know what’s around the corner, the next rock. Most importantly, one should never lose concentration because when you least expect it, you are guaranteed to find what you are looking for. It’s a bit like my job,” Sid laughs. “Just when I think I know most of my customers, I meet new people.”

When he talks about his underwater experiences, he is yet again momentarily transported to another place. “When I am below the surface of the water I feel completely apart from history and all my troubles so far away.”

I tell him that he is like an island of calm, rescuing us for a while from the inevitable storm and tumultuous chaos of the morning stampede, a moment of peace in which to gather strength to enter the battlefield of the day. He chuckles and asks, “And who is going to rescue me?”

Maybe we are all looking for a constant, something in life that will stay unchanged forever and maybe, just maybe, if we hold our breath for long enough every now and then and look carefully beyond the surface of things, we might just catch a glimpse of what we’re looking for. Sid might be right: it’s all about timing and staying focused on the important things in life.

And perhaps we rescue each other day by day, kind word for kind word, coffee by coffee.

A famous Turkish saying springs to mind, “One desires to talk with others, coffee is merely but an excuse,” as I take my first sip of coffee for the day, the rich taste confirming that Sid’s skill and timing in preparing his drinks are impeccable. My troubles seem somehow far away as I enter the tube station and, clear as the daylight which is starting to fill the sky behind me, I know for sure that Sid’s skills lie not only in being an adept barista, but, above all, in being a friend to many.

 

A Fictional Journey – Returning

He likes imagining that the stairs to his third floor apartment, on the corner of a tall block of flats, gleam with the silvery shine of moon and stars at night. It is in the unforgiving light of day that the dirt from years of scuffling feet is laid bare and his imaginings are temporarily put to rest. The black metal railing and stairs remind him of the fire exits in American movies, transferred from New York right to the heart of London. Every morning countless chimneys prop up the day on their sturdy shoulders as he takes a few minutes to watch the city, falling away to the right of the landing in front of his door, wake up. Across from the alleyway another apartment block replicates that of his own, their concrete facades having faced each other in a permanent fixed stare for decades.

 

It’s been a week ago since she’s moved in opposite him on the third floor in her cement block. Immediately noticeable. That is how he can sum her up. Before she moved in the flat had been empty, dark, an exit to a seemingly depthless black hole. Now it glows. She spends her evenings between seven and eight o’clock languidly smoking cigarettes and exhaling the smoke, leaving her mouth in perfect oval haloes and disappearing slowly into the silence of night high above the busy city. Something about her slim, almost child-like body in the pale sheen of the light from the street lamps (which nightly just manage to steal its way, like an afterthought, into the alleyway) keeps him captivated. She inhabits it as if time doesn’t exist: the way in which she holds the cigarette in between her slim fingers, the slight bend of her wrist as she holds a glass of water in the other. Everything about her reminds him of wishbones and quiet dreams – fragile but unbreakable. And confident.

 

On the seventh night he walks out onto the metal landing, leaving his door half open. It can be slippery in winter. The landlord makes sure that the stairs and landings are covered in gritty salt every icy winter morning. Living like this, caught between earth and sky, stacked on top of each other creating cityscapes – beautiful only from afar – can be a precarious business. But the worst of the winter had passed and slowly the city is opening up to Spring. He can see her watching him as she sits in the windowsill. As usual her legs are folded underneath her and the cigarette smoke drifts straight up into the darkened sky. When he follows the path of the smoke it takes his gaze directly to the moon and he imagines it caught in there: its last dregs softly dispersing into the secret world of a crater. She lifts her other hand and waves at him. White hair like snow and feathers. He waves back.

 

‘Have you read The Little Prince?’ he calls out to her, his voice coming as a surprise to himself, as if uttered by someone else, as it reaches across the alleyway.

 

Then there is a sudden silence: birds noiselessly turning over in the sky above fields, a moment of stillness signifying the changing of seasons. And then the screeching sound of his phone. He goes inside and picks it up. Tell his mother that he’ll phone her back later. And, just before he ends the call, he experiences it again: a split second of silence like a pause in between the break of day and the end of night; an in-between stage of time when nothing exists yet.

 

But when he steps outside, there she is: sitting cross-legged on his landing, looking up at him quizzically with eyes round like the moon and just as pale, almost transparent.

 

“Yes, I have read it: The Little Prince. From Asteroid B-612. I’m Angel, by the way.”

 

“Jacob,” he replies as he shakes her outstretched hand. Fine bones press against his palm but intricately and tightly joined together, solid and incorruptible. “How did you get up here so quickly?” he asks, not making any effort to hide his surprise.

 

“Oh, I have my ways of getting to places,” she smiles and then turns towards the right where the city opens up towards the sky and the walls and windows fall away. “But now we must wait.”

 

“Wait for what?” he asks, studying her profile as he sits down next to her. Her hair and eyelashes white like cotton fields, and her skin almost translucent.

 

“Wait for the sun to set.”

 

Never before had he sat through a full twenty-eight minutes of silence with another person since his arrival in the city but it feels like an instant of quietude and as the last rays of the sun leave the outlines of the buildings, etched in sharp, silhouetted lines, he knows that the seasons have changed. Long ago, he realises, he knew the rhythms of nature but here, in the midst of human noise, he has learnt to forget to remember.

 

Before he can ask her if she feels sad when she watches the sunset, inexplicably drawn to quote from The Little Prince once again, she says, “No, do you?”

 

He doesn’t answer and he knows she’s not expecting him to.

 

And he quickly learns that hard facts are not all that essential when they are together. It’s not that either of them are avoiding answering. It’s just that the answer doesn’t always seem quite that important.

 

“Where are you from?”

 

“From all over,” she would answer with a half-smile just pulling up the corners of her mouth, wide like the Milky Way on clear nights above pastures and open plains.

 

“Do you work here in London?”

 

“I have come to rest awhile.” Next to him her body is lean: an altar candle between his sheets.

 

“What do you like?”

 

“I like paperweights that catch the light and let it go again. And dandelions. Sometimes they stay and sometimes they decide to leave. Like dreamcatchers.”

 

And so their nightly ritual begins: they watch the sunset together, time falls away, sometime she stays over, as he falls asleep – her hair falling soft around his face like an easily accessible veil between dream and reality – she would whisper, “Make a wish” and he would dream, for the first time in years, with his hands lightly clasped around her wishbone wrist.

 

A wide ladder descends from the moon to the earth and angels are hovering up and down it. Their spines, shining through their transparent bodies, are exact copies of the spines of their huge wings that bear them up and down the ladder. They would be almost completely silent, if it wasn’t for the soft swishing sounds of their swaying wings. They fill the sky like inaudible but upright exclamation marks, becoming one with the milky, cataract eye of the moon and then appearing again as they descend, like wisps of breath.

 

When he tells his sister about his dreams on the phone a few days later, she reminds him of a similar story in the Bible.

 

“It must be echoes from childhood,” she says. “Remember, Mum never used to read us fairy tales before bedtime. It was always a story from the Bible. No matter how violent, having come from the Bible made it all ok. Some nights I still have nightmares, most of them rooted in the Old Testament. What our parents do to us!” and with a dramatic sigh, she changed the topic of conversation.

 

After the first night, she’d arrive with a feather pillow under her arm. And in the morning she would be gone, a thin trail of feathers leading down the fire escape and across the alleyway. The only evidence of her stay. Even the ashtray would be cleaned out, the glasses she used washed and put away in the cupboard as if she was never there. Her flat shining in the first rays of sunlight when he gets up to go to work in the mornings.

 

After the third week of having known her, an odd sensation takes hold of him. He finds it hard to be close to his female colleagues at work. The smell of soil and tilled earth emanate from them and he has to excuse himself from two board meetings on the same day as the scent of freshly opened lands, just after the rain, make him feel sick. Sweating profusely in the bathroom, his father’s words and his voice, as always stern and unbending like the merciless severity of a slave-driver, quoting from the Bible, mills through his head, “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

 

It is only when he gets physically sick that he feels rid of the scent of fecund fertility, death-like although abundant in its cyclical recurrence and his own breath that had turned stale as if it’s been locked for centuries inside a damp cavern.

 

Leaving work early, he decides to walk home rather than take the stifling underground. A hot wind has taken hold of the city, blowing paper and litter about in countless, small tornadoes. People try to find refuge in shop entrances, inside tube stations and over-crowded fast food places. But he pushes through the storm of inner-city exhaust fumes and black soot and feels how the dust is whirling around inside of him where once there were organs and a beating, pulsating heart.

 

That night at seven o’clock, when he goes to sit next to her, the wind has stopped blowing but still the city looks somewhat dishevelled and stirred up underneath a few patchy clouds.

 

“I expect it to rain tonight,” she mentions as she puts out the menthol cigarette in the ashtray between them.

 

Are you taming me?” he asks her, well aware that he is quoting from The Little Prince.

 

She smiles slightly but still she doesn’t look at him, her eyes fixed on the horizon and her palms folded around her knees as if she is waiting and ready to jump at whatever is to appear in the sky.

 

You have hair the colour of gold. So it will be marvellous when you have tamed me. Wheat, which is also golden, will remind me of you. And I shall love the sound of the wind in the wheat…” he continues to quote.

 

But then the first drops start to fall heavily and, as the sun drops down the sky, a golden glow envelops the city and the earthy scent fills his insides once again.

 

“A wonderful smell, isn’t it? The smell of rain falling on dry soil. The Greek word for it is petrichor. Petra, meaning stone and ichor, the fluid that flows in the veins of the gods,” she murmurs.

 

That night the wheat fields are like an ocean around him, waving hands soft like feathers caressing his face as everything around him sways on the current of a warm summers wind. This time he doesn’t look up to the angels who, he knows, are traversing the space between earth and sky. Because tonight the fertile smell of soil rests inside of him, content like a child and the voice that reaches him on the breeze is gentle, the voice of a woman: “The land on which you lie I will give to you, I will bring you back to this land“.

 

As he wakes in the middle of the night, her hand covers his heart. He wouldn’t have known if he didn’t reach for his chest and found her hand there, following the vibration of his heartbeat which he can suddenly feel returning to his body, radiating throughout him like the voice in his dream. Her hand rests lightly on his chest, weightless like a note, in the dark. This is how she sleeps. He’s gotten used to it: an airy hummingbird in torpor.

 

Tracing the length of her slim, piano-playing fingers, he floats away on the rhythm of his heartbeat: a steady tide moving towards the shore.

 

Once again he is an eight-year old choir boy. The chapel air is filled with the rustling of hymn books like hushed whispers and slowly beating wings in mid-flight. A warm fog of melted candle wax hangs in the air, so thick that he exhales slowly, afraid that his breath would become waxy speech bubbles obscuring his vision and the words on the paper. As the deep sound of the organ and the sonorous voices of the boys lift up towards the wooden beams above them, he notices the stars. Through the stained glass windows they are distorted, looking like neon, commercial flashes of city lights but he knows that, once outside, they are milk-white oleanders, scattered over a sunless landscape.

 

The next day he doesn’t go to work even though he feels well. Better than he has in a long time, in fact. He stays indoors, makes up his mind, packs his bag and waits for seven o’clock.

 

When she doesn’t arrive and her window stays closed, the light cotton curtains drawn, he decides to knock on her door. Cautiously he climbs the stairs, looking for a trail of feathers, maybe a bit of cigarette ash along the way but there is no sign of her.

 

Finding the door slightly open, he carefully goes inside. The flat is exactly like his own except for wide skylights letting in wide shafts of setting sunlight, almost piercing in its intensity. Somewhat dazed by the silence and the apparent complete emptiness of the place, he wanders from room to room. And just when he resigns himself to the melancholic feeling of her departure, a brightness catches his eye from the corner of the windowsill facing his apartment.

 

From the windowsill he picks up the dandelion caught within the heavy, globed glass. The paperweight fits comfortably in his palm. Under the glass spindly spines and fluffy, globular seed heads reach outwards. Across the alleyway his landing disappears as the sun dips down and is swallowed by the city.

 

That night he is ten years old and flying past an E.T. moon – huge and bright, a fluorescent dandelion caught inside a huge sphere. She is sitting in the front basket of the bicycle, her head thrown back and her white hair floating in the sky as if under water. Pedalling like crazy to stay afloat, it is only later when his legs give in and stop of their own accord that he realises that it is her who keeps them in the air. Her legs casually and slowly kicking to and fro as if she is calmly treading water.

 

As he leaves the city early the next morning, a shower of white spring blossoms are caught in the corner of his car’s windscreen wipers.

 

He makes a call. “It’s been too long. I’ll be home by lunchtime.”

 

Holding his breath, he waits for the sun to appear. There is a moment of complete silence just before the new day breaks.

 

The End

 

 

 

 

 

QUOTES taken from:

 

The Bible

 

De Saint-Exupéry, A. 1995. The Little Prince. Wordsworth Editions Limited.

How Many Worlds in a Name?

 

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It was a few years ago that I found myself suddenly journeying back to my childhood. Having travelled to Zurich in Switzerland I ended up in the Heidi Village in the Swiss Alps, a surprise trip arranged for me by an ex-boyfriend. This unexpected visit set off a chain of thought that took me back even further than early childhood: right down to my earliest idea of identity, inextricably linked to my name.

What power can lie in a name! It’s that specific-sounding vocalisation that make us look up, turn around to face or run away from the caller who, for a split second, wields such power over one’s attention that your whole being awaits for or escapes from what is to follow; as if you become a human colon paying heed, no matter how brief, to the unfolding of a list, a story, maybe even an act.

And so I realised at an early age that short little word which was and still is mine, despite being so light and short-lived on the tongue, supposedly encapsulated all that I was and am. It is that particular sound that made me prick up my ears and react right from the very start, only just held down by a plosive d at the start of the brief second and last syllable, making it dip down ever so slightly like a small, round fishing sinker, anchoring the other sounds and gathering them round in perfect proximity to each other. Like all children, it was with my name that I signified and claimed ownership on pictures, on the inside of the front cover of books and on scraps of paper. I learned that it was inside those five letters, a few straight and curved lines, that the magic of identification and the existence of me lay.

As a child living in a small South African town there weren’t many Heidis around, so realising that there was another little girl who lay claim to my name came as quite a shock. But there she was: my alter-ego on the other side of the world, yodelling away in a place which looked so pure you could cut your finger on the clean edge of the mountain air. Not only did she have my name, she also had the most wonderful life I could ever have imagined at the age of four! And so started my inevitable gravitation towards or an obsession, some might say, with this persona.

Swiss Heidi’s life seemed so completely the opposite of my African childhood where we spent our days trapping slow-roaming tortoises in backyards (large enough to play Tag in for all the neighbourhood’s children and their pets), building these laid-back reptiles spacious pens with stones, only always to find that they had escaped the very next day; spending the sunny hours of endless summer days in swimming pools – feeding off of each others’ boundless energy; playing rounders on dusty municipal greens in between small-town houses; warm summer winds enclosed us like an invisible blanket as we’d race after the ice cream van on our bikes just before dusk, after which the night-time sound of chirping crickets would rock us into a monotonous sleep, making us dream impatiently of the next day when we’ll spend our time chasing lizards by their detachable tails and of just maybe being lucky enough to find bulge-eyed chameleons and take them home to watch them catch houseflies with one quicker-than-lightning flick of their extrudable, sticky tongues. This was a time when the only call that sounded insistent and important enough to get us into the house was the call to ‘Come home right this instant! It’s dinner time!’

But in my young mind, Swiss Heidi’s world seemed ever more alluring, ever more wholesome than my own: in my mind, yet unformed but peopled with ideas and sensory perceptions, her exotic life included an unlimited amount of grilled cheese, goats milk and soft, warm bread rolls; the tinkling sound of bells around goats’ necks traversing the mountainside ever present – the Alps green in spring time like the inside of Peppermint Crisp chocolates and snowy white in winter (snow a completely foreign concept to me and one so exciting that for many years I would beg God on Christmas Eve to send snowy, European Christmas days – a prayer left unanswered every time); grandfathers who were forever wise, although moody, and kind, albeit blind, grandmothers; loyal goatherd friends who never got tired of exploring the meadows in between snow-capped mountain peaks; fir trees filled with secrets rustling in the breath of the mountains behind a wooden hut with cosy fires always burning inside and fluffy Saint Bernards who would forever welcome you at the door when you came back, rosy-cheeked, after a sleigh journey shooting down the mountainside to the village far below.

Within the framework of all this apparent perfection, the antagonist looked even more hostile: Miss Rottenmeier became the epitomy of all things evil and soul-destroying, the implementor of a system, a strict regime of dullness and sitting-down lessons, the destroyer of all things natural, the creator of lifeless cul de sacs.

Although it is true that one’s identity is made up of many aspects, not only residing in one’s name, I did read in an article once that many people regard an individual’s name as a crucial factor in developing one’s sense of self. Apparently it’s seen as a major force that helps propel people forward on various paths of life and career. Well, let’s face it: no great career had come of my childhood longing to start my day by gazing at the Alps through a perfectly round window, like a porthole, from the top of a mountain cabin. The article does go on though to mention that living up to one’s name can dictate future behaviour. Does this explain my unrealistic urge sometimes to set up camp in a field of wildflowers, an overactive imagination and an always nagging longing to be free from the demands of institutions, questioning the wisdom of working for days at and end, cooped up for most of your waking hours, when the world is such a beautiful place?

Or is it inherent to all of us to dream, every now and then, of a world more honest than the one we live in? Might it be that maybe, just maybe, I am longing for a world of innocence which WAS actually mine? It took me many years to realise that my childhood wasn’t quite so different from Swiss Heidi’s. Our worlds had one essential mutual ingredient: the freedom to roam which opened ever-widening horizons of imagination, enough time to experience what being a child is all about.

Little did I know that sleeping on hay wasn’t all that comfortable and that all that straw, coupled with a thick sack for a coverlet, would have brought on unbearable bouts of hay-fever and allergies. No amount of yodelling or grilled goats cheese would have been able to keep the Swiss cold at bay and I would most probably have frozen my little pinafore off in the Swiss winters and, let’s be honest, I really could never betray my heart that belong forever to the ocean and its sand dunes and not really to mountains. Majestic and awe-inspiring, yes, but not really my cup of tea.

So that day, as I was listening to the silvery sound of goat bells while inside Heidi’s warm wooden cottage, I thanked Johanna Spyri for making me dream so passionately of another life so that, years later, I could so fiercely appreciate my own.

As life has a way of creating its own irony, it was raining cats and dogs in the Heidi village that day and down the mountain I brought with me a memoir: a Heidi umbrella, an item I had no need for as a child. And now, whenever I open the umbrella like a shield, creating a canopy between me and the colourless London sky, I steal away to an overarching world, a parallel universe if you like, of fresh mountain air, green fields and never-ending summer days where we are all allowed to meander unfettered in a simpler time, stripped of all pretensions and filled with child-like exploration and unlimited possibilities.

Caught Between Journeys

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Twice a year I make my way towards the Southern hemisphere for a few weeks or months at a time, jetting off through the sky to my ‘other home’, my ‘original home’, my country of origin. The one that was so fully mine before life carried me far across the equator to a new home in England which had, over the years, also become my ‘other, adopted home.’

In the modern world many live like this. Some halved, like in my case: a dual citizen, leading a double life, or is it, perhaps, a halved life? Is it a case of being neither here, nor there, or do the endless departures and arrivals fracture one so that what was once whole now equals more than the sum of its parts? A life added to a life which was already there? Do people sometimes end up somehow more than their original self? Split by time lines and language differences and differing cultures but all nicely held together by passports stamped like a tattoo-ed skin that goes with you everywhere.

After perpetual arrivals and departures, the excitement of moving-between had managed to wear off during the years and a tiredness had crept in amongst the blank stares of passport officials, the smooth running of airport terminals and the bright fluorescents of duty-free.

Don’t get me wrong: I love going on holidays and experiencing new places, taking a break and jet-setting to some exotic location. So, when people refer to my usual disappearance as ‘Jet-setting! Again?’ I find myself protesting, ‘No, no. You see, I’m just going home.’ This frequent reaction from others and my increasingly confused reply led me to look up ‘jet-setting’ in the dictionary.

Apparently this word had first been used in 1951 and referred to ‘an international social group of wealthy individuals frequenting fashionable resorts’.

I continued looking up ‘jet-setting’ and ‘jet-setters’, this time in the thesaurus, where I found some intriguing synonyms which, even though not set in any particular context, added to the scope of journeying and the way in which people had done it over centuries:

‘Globe-trotting’ make this kind of lifestyle sound exciting. I’m sure this is probably how many of us feel when we start out the ritual of crossing continents.

Other terms make this kind of journeying sound quite infamous and wild, like ‘vagabond’ and ‘vagrant’.

Then you get the restless, pleasure-seeking ‘gadabouts’.

Why not be a ‘nomad’? Tirelessly I see travellers traversing desolate landscapes in my mind’s eye, armed with camel and walking stick and lounging in Bedouin tents during star-studded desert nights.

You can be official, even religious, about the whole affair: an ‘itinerate’. Even philosophical, educational and ‘peripatetic’.

Or downright lazy and deliciously hippy-ish : ‘rambling’, ‘roving’, ‘wandering’, ‘drifting’.

This last synonym reminded me of a childhood dream I had when I was young: going on a sea journey to the other side of the world before the age of travelling by air. These voyages must have taken careful consideration. Drifting over the ocean for weeks and months at an end, tasting and breathing the salty air and following the sound of seagulls, swaying with the rhythmic to-and-fro-ing of the ocean that brings equilibrium, healing that gap caused by switching between continents and the simultaneous space created between head and heart.

In those days, I guess, you had no choice but to ponder what you were leaving behind and where you were going. The time in between departure and arrival was a journey in itself: an inner traversing of the heart. Nowadays the take-off and the touch-down are mere inconveniences. Reflection a thing of the past. Delays a reason for consternation and complaints.

At times, it is only years later that we realise what we’ve left behind.

And so my life has merged into a repetitive pattern of scattered moments in which the bare branches of London trees would scrape against its leaden winter sky, while only a few hours later I would raise my face to meet the sun cracking the dry, bright African sky. And vice-versa.

And so, time after time, I start gathering my African self: shifting mental gears, slotting back into Southern-hemisphere-life like a perfectly tuned, modern-day transformer. Only to, weeks later, yet again pick up the pieces of my splintered self on the other side of the world. Like a quilt made to show different experiences which added to one’s life but patched nonetheless, endless seams criss-cross the landscape of so many people’s worlds. Countless journeys buried within us: one enclosed by another; one scratching the surface of the other; eternal movement shaping the person it is folded within.

The last time, as I was crossing the continents at 500 miles per hour, I had a sudden, unrealistic schizophrenic fear that I might fall through an air pocket, a gap between the world I was leaving and the life I was heading towards. Scared that I might get lost in a no man’s land of un-belonging; a twilight zone caught in the two hours I was losing in transit.

And it has lingered ever since: this disconcerting sense of a loss of belonging. It made me wonder if the pieces inside of me were clashing and getting possessive. Maybe even territorial. Are they asking me to choose? Or am I just getting old and feeling a need to ‘settle down’ and become (as the thesaurus clearly states) the opposite of ‘jet-setting’: physically ‘unmoving’? Or do I indeed need to take slower trips, the ones where you travel inwards and heal the cracks within?

To make sure where I really belong.