house of happy

Life adventures in prose and verse. Explorations of places, people and words. Stories and fun.

Monday, 15 October 2018

A Blunt Bike to Brexit

Portugal, October 2018, a sunny Tuesday.

Gavin and Helen go on a bike ride. They cycle along country roads, past vineyards and tired summer gardens. This, everyone who knows them will agree, is far too tame a pursuit for a male member of my family. So Gavin tries riding hands-free. 

Helen is overwhelmed by such intense exhilaration that she simply must follow suit. Her hands lift right off the handlebars, high like wings, like Kate Winslet flying at the prow of the doomed Titanic.

Doomed being the key word yet again.

The front wheel goes into a violent wobble - veers left, then right, then locks entirely and the bike comes to a standstill. Helen keeps going. She takes a short flight, bending half of the handlebar to a right angle. The smooth, blunt brake lever achieves the impossible and breaks through her skin, sinking into her lower abdomen.

'I'm fine,' Helen cries from the green verge, where she's landed, 'I. Am. Fine.' Her dress is torn and bloody. She's turning pale from shock. Gavin's already speeding off, to get a car, to get Helen to a doctor.


It's 10 am, the sun already burning. I'm driving back from a plumbing supplier, having inspected the small sinks in stock, when I get Gavin's text: "Helen had a biking accident. It was pretty horrible. Taking her to the local clinic." I make a U-turn and head for the Centro de Saude.

In A&E. They ask for Helen's European Health Card and take down some details. She's already inside, getting her wound cleaned and inspected by a nurse, a doctor, a scan.

I'm ushered in, to translate. They can't help Helen here (the doctor is sympathetic; she shows me, between her thumb and index finger, the depth of Helen's abdominal puncture; a gesture I'm still trying to forget). Helen needs to go to the hospital in Viana do Castelo, about 40 miles away. An ambulance will take her there.

The ambulance is driven by a smiling EMT in red uniform. Her name is Beatriz. She looks around 14. In broken English, she urges Helen to let her know if there's any pain or nausea. A thumbs up, and off they go. We follow in the car.

In Viana, Helen is wheeled into A&E, and we wait. And we wait. If the hospital were a dolls' house, and a freckled kid was watching us from above, this is what she'd see:

Helen, being assessed, and having another scan. Gavin and I, trying to work out the coffee machine (it adds sugar to all coffee and tea, automatically).

Helen, anaesthetised before they close her wound - including some state-of-the-art internal stitching. Gavin perched on a concrete bollard outside, having a smoke. Me, waiting for the female toilet door to open (it never does. Eventually I use the men's loo).

Helen on a stretcher, kept on for post-op observation. Gavin and I going for a walk around the hospital compound. The sea twinkles in the distance. I play with a giant leaf shed by exotic-looking tree.

Helen having yet a final ultrasound scan. Gavin on the phone with the UK discussing a family matter, looking pale. Emergency coffee is called for - and while fumbling with the machine I discover the sugar button. Brief jubilation. We eat sandwiches and grapes, drink more coffee, watch other patients being wheeled into A&E.

Helen walks out, still in her torn and bloody dress, looking triumphant. 'I was so stupid,' she declares. We all laugh and reassure her. 'I was so happy,' she adds. 'Such a brilliant ride.' We eat more sandwiches and cakes, driving home, leaving the sea and sunset and hospital behind.

There are two more visits to the local clinic. An older nurse, immensely kind and full of smiles, changes Helen's dressing. Her name is Elisabete. She gives Helen a hug and kiss, and makes sympathetic noises when she sees Helen's bruise (red and purple and basketball-sized). Elisabete's English consists of the following words: "Hello Helen. How are you? Yes: shower. No: swimming. I wish you all the well. Bye bye."

After the second - and final - visit (Helen is flying home tomorrow), Elisabete directs us to the front desk, to pay for all the treatment. I blanch a little at the prospect, then try to reassure myself, can't be too bad, can it? She's got a Health Card. Gulp. We proceed to the counter.

The cashier adds up a list of procedures as long as my forearm then declares:

"9.30, se faz favor." Nine euros. Thirty cents.

I give a disbelieving bark of laughter. Helen looks worried until I tell her. Then we proceed to curse Brexit with renewed passion. How much would all this be without a European Health card?

We spend the evening toasting Europe, and Portugal in particular, which gave Helen both the euphoria that led her to take off and impale herself on a blunt bike; and first hand experience of an expert, inexpensive and pleasant health care system.

'To EUphoria,' Helen declaims.

'To a hasty rEUnion,' I agree.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The Park Poet

Sometimes you just set off on an errand; a simple A to B, and yet; you find yourself veering off. It took years (I used to be a very dutiful creature) but I have learnt to follow these loops, in search of the unexpected.

I walked by the park poet with a flicker of a glance; already marching up the Meadow Walk; a moment later marching back, just as resolutely. Don't ask me why.
'How does it work?' I heard myself ask.
'You tell me about the poem you want. We chat for a bit, then I write it.' Just as described on the notice at his feet - but he was too polite to point that out. A bright smile, hair everywhere, fingers typing on air as he talked.
'Don't you get cold?'
'I can barely feel my hands.'
'What do people ask you to write?'
'It's coming up to Valentine's day...' he shrugged, but not dismissively because he also blushed.
'Are you tempted to type the same poem?'
'Never,' he said, then added in a hush, '...sometimes I sprinkle a little advice. Depends what I see, what they tell me.'
His confession seemed to ask for one in return, so I blurted out that I, too, wrote poems on occasion.
'Hey, we could write a poem for each other,' said the park poet. So we made a pact, just as a neat, small man hurtled along on a bike and informed us that the word of God is the best poetry.
May be why the park poet gave me a one-word topic: BLESSED.
May also be why I wrote a poem that steered away from all religion, or any whiff of earnest wellbeing:

Before he left, he slipped a sprig of rosemary under my pillow. The scent, the shadow of his lips on mine.
Later, lines of dawn etched a poem on the inside of my eyelids, urgent, bright.
Eventually I rose and wandered to the borders of my day,
Summoning strength from a child’s unicorn in a gutter, 
Every creature is hungry, the raven wrapped in disdainful black wings, even him, 
Drawn to my door, tall, taut, dancing around my light like moths or angels, a sprig of rosemary at his lapel. 

I forgot what topic I suggested for his poem; I may remember when he sends it. I'm still waiting. 

Friday, 7 July 2017

Meeting Hope

Stephanie, my mother-in-law, died on the 24th of June - we have had two weeks now, of learning what we already knew and hadn't entirely understood: how extraordinary she was, and how loved. Two weeks and I suspect it's only the beginning... 

A few months back she told me she couldn't possibly write a book. 
'Not even an autobiography?' I asked. 
'Oooh!' she cried. 'I wouldn't have the faintest clue what to say, where to start...' 

I made a start for her. 


To Stephanie, with so much love…

1993. Summer, somewhere between islands, in the Adriatic sea:
you lounge inside the boat, one hand trailing through the water.
The air thrums on white sun strings.
The sea around us is an eye; long furrows of salt, born and blinked away…
And I - too young, too shy, too new to you -
Sit up straight, at the prow.

Steph and Kira
Photo by Magnus Wolfe Murray (but not in Croatia, and not in 1993...) 

Next, you jump onto the rocks, and your skirt flares like poppies in the breeze,
Such slender ankles, I think; and the trust, the flair…
Your scarf floats into the sea, you laugh and wrap it round your head.
‘Gypsy-style’ you declare.

Next, we cross paths with a stern-looking woman. You smile.
A lost cause, I can see, an effigy of ancient Balkan grief…
‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’ Your cigarette, as you talk, leaves fleeting lines of light in the air.
The stranger’s face: a sour map of wrinkles.
You show her a feather you found on the beach, a photograph of new grandchildren,
She is determined not to quail… I watch her fail.

Next, you're lifting the cambric cover from her basket
peeking in, sniffing handfuls of basil, fawning over fresh fennel.
‘Divno’ says the Croat and I translate, ‘divine’.
I blink and see you now as she must do:
exotic in your silk skirt, your gypsy scarf, your Spanish espadrilles
Curious as a bird, and kind, exuding your own summer…

The wrinkled face folds into a tentative smile
as the woman points to herself, ‘Nada! Nada!’
You look confused: ‘Nothing? What nothing?’
‘It's her name,’ I say. ‘It means “hope”, around here…’
‘How perfect’, you cry and offer your own name: ‘Stephanie... 
...may also mean “hope” somewhere, you know?…’
Nada nods, uncertain but charmed.  

Next, we're at Nada's house. 
You’re walking round the garden, holding each other by the waist, like sisters,
picking cherry tomatoes off the vine, rubbing lemon balm into your fingers,
you're telling Nada about your Scottish crops: ‘carrots,’ you count, 
‘...wild rocket, and every kind of berry…’
‘Peppers’, Nada points, ‘doing great, and green beans, grapes in August but peaches now, 
look, peaches… try one!’
She gives you five. ‘Divno,’ you say, and next to you, Nada cries: ‘divine!’

Next, Nada’s son, the fisherman, walks up with a basket of silver and salt
A frothing of fish within, bewildered still and trying to recognise, around them, the sea
Where there is none. Just sun and beds of rosemary.

I sit on a stool, ferrying words between you.
You and Nada, Stephanie and Hope.
We eat fish soup, later
you discover you have sons born on the same day.

The sea is full of fish, Nada notes.
The world is full of sons, you laugh, mother to mother.
You both agree a daughter would also have been nice.
And here you, Stephanie, turn to me, beaming, bright as two summers. 
‘This one will do,’ you whisper.
I blink. My heart beats fast inside your echo.

Possible daughter,
Owner of words, transient voice between you and Hope,
Curator of your silk skirts and smoke rings
Warden of your Spanish espadrilles…
Possible daughter…
So many things I take with me, from that day,
One of them will stay,
In my basket of salt and silver,
‘This one will do,’ you whisper

And you beam, bright as all summers.

Another journey. Steph, again, on her way. 
(Beautiful) photo by Gavin Wolfe Murray (I'd say...)

Monday, 13 March 2017

Geo Terror

I've tried all sorts of tricks and trivialities - even house work, unsuccessfully - in order to avoid a topic so closely linked to Nepal that there's no writing about one without mentioning the other. The country sits atop the geological equivalent of a pressure cooker; it straddles the line where the Indian tectonic plate is pushing Northwards, against and under the Eurasian plate, something quite common and necessary in geological terms, but rather ominous for the ants on top: us.

In the (unimaginable) past, this jostling of the earth crust created the Himalayas. Now, the Indian plate slides under the other 2 inches every year - but gets stuck for decades. Pressure builds up. I don't know how to say these words so that they may reflect the kind of pressure, or the forces at work. And I have no words for the terror I feel, writing this.

On 25 April 2015, there was a sudden release of this built up underground power; a sudden move, a thrust, an earthquake. It had more energy than 20 nuclear bombs - the equivalent of 200 years' of Northward movement of the Indian tectonic plate. It pushed the Himalayas southward, and lifted the Kathmandu valley, shifting it 3 meters to the South, like shaking a heavy carpet. It lowered Everest by an inch (to be measured more accurately this year...); I have all this data from a National Geographic documentary I forced myself to watch.

The earthquake - and its most severe aftershock, on 12 May - killed 10,000 people and injured 22,000. It triggered avalanches and landslides that obliterated whole communities, in the Langtang valley and around Everest. It displaced more than one million people, and destroyed invaluable cultural landmarks - temples, both Buddhist and Hindu; not just empty museums of a foregone age, but very much part of Nepalese daily life and spirituality.

Footage from the earthquake shows some of these buildings falling. It shows flocks of birds darting across the sky, and - like in a mirror - flocks of people underneath, rushing already to help the victims. Rescue teams, human chains, incredible survival stories.

Lives saved, lives lost, lives changed: we watch this from afar and wonder who makes the choice, who's doomed and who's spared. Two years later, it's still hard to see all the impacts and links, the full tapestry - but some shocking details stand out. How human traffickers moved fast, in the chaos after the earthquake and ensnared countless young girls for the Asian "markets" (filth that they are, both clients and suppliers, and may they please rot between tectonic plates for all eternity). How violence against women increased, and how single women found it harder to get help - food and shelter - after the earthquake. How their children - deprived of food at a crucial stage - are now stunted for life. How a whole generation of young Nepali men are still migrating to the building sites of the Persian Gulf - which makes the rebuilding of their own country more lengthy, tricky and costly. And as for this rebuilding of Nepal - how homeless people couldn't wait for their government to help and cobbled their houses back together, more unsafe than ever.

There is another narrative, the "could-have-been-worse" viewpoint, supported by some striking statistics: the earthquake happened at lunchtime, on a Saturday. Children were not at school, people were not indoors, but out and about. A year earlier, an earthquake forecast for Nepal had imagined as many as 40,000 dead; in April 2015, four times fewer people lost their lives. A report, after the event, declared at least 10,000 children saved by the fortuitous timing.

I cannot tell you how much I love this fact; it's more than the normal degree of joy, that things turned out well for these children. The truth is, I feel part of that tribe of children, saved. On 4 March 1977, a Friday night, I slept in my bed, sick with a fever. A nuisance: my parents had to cancel going to a dinner party. The earthquake woke me up: the room shook, lamps swayed and broke, the floor - or was it the earth itself? - groaned as if a giant was waking. The door batted open and shut like a wing, catching my mother's face as she ran in to grab me. The fridge - in the hallway outside - fell with a colossal thud. Above my head, the walls were splitting open, plaster rained on my bed and I rolled away from it, until I fell on the floor. A moment later I was in mama's arms, and then it was over.

At the other end of town, the building with the dinner party, and half of my family, were gone. Two tribes - the lost, the saved; and earthquakes blindly herding us into one or the other; and still we go back and trust the same buildings, the same earth crusts to hold us safe, and we accept forces and odds we can't begin to understand.

Some say that the 2015 earthquakes in Nepal did not relieve the full stress amassed between tectonic plates, miles beneath Kathmandu. Ominous voices whisper, "there will be other earthquakes..." Sure, any infant could tell you that. But I must say, having watched people in Kathmandu go about their business, along those narrow roads, with those crumbling buildings overhead, and a sky full of dust from all the building sites; but witout a sign of anxiety or fear; and trusting the land with their children, their frail and ancient parents, their pregnant bellies; and always with those easy, wide smiles narrowing their eyes like too much sun: whatever it is - short-sightedness or wisdom - it's also a kind of resilience; these people know earthquakes and choose to have fun in between.

If you got this far, maybe you'd consider leaving me a short message - it's lonely to keep writing without anyone stopping to say hi. 

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Geo Cache

Two days ago I took my flu up the hill. Face chapped, throat dry and stinging, and my left eye never stopped streaming. A clown, in schoolgirl-navy coat and someone else's gloves. The only thing that made me recognisable at all was the notebook in my pocket, and the pen (walking is where I get ideas and words, both - I can say that now - a professional necessity. So I never walk as much as go scouting and reaping...)

Photo by Magnus Wolfe Murray, proving that January can look like June

I sat down on a rock, with my pen and my notes (and my crying left eye and my snot). Despite these clear signs of plague, would I be left alone, eyes closed, chapped face turned to an equally pale sun (the kind we used to call "sharp-toothed"...)? Would there be a blog if I had? 

"Ehm, hello?" (strident voice). I jumped.
"Sowy. Can you take pictuwe?" A man, Asian-looking, holding out his phone. 
"And one mowe?" after I took a baker's dozen.

Another couple, I should mention now, loitered on a grassy ledge. Did they want pictures taken too? No - they just stood hunched over their phone, then took three steps one way, consulted the phone again, changed direction, counted steps, asked the phone, and so on. They were just being weird. I resumed my meditation-on-the-rock (sometimes ideas wanted to be chased at a trot, other times, lured and trapped. Besides, closing my eyes stopped the one-sided tears, I had noticed, and the nose). 

"Can we borrow your pen?" 
I jumped again. It was the young man of the loitering couple, an American. (Did one of them have dreadlocks? Was one of them bald? Did any wear jeans? Was there a backpack slung over a shoulder? I remember nothing. They credit writers with great observation skills. I repeat: I remember nothing. So depressing. Draw your conclusions. All I write, I make up.)

The Americans took my pen, unscrewed a muddy tube and extracted a rolled-up paper. While they scribbled, to pass the time, I asked:
"Time capsule?"
"Geo-caching" one of them (I don't remember who) replied. ("Geo-catching" they said to be precise, and I googled it and found that they had meant cache, definition: hiding place) Apparently it's what you do, these days, when you don't play Pokemon Go. Geo-caching involves a smart phone, an app, some coordinates, some clues, in other words a treasure hunt; when these two found their cache, they wrote their names, marked it on their phones as found, and hid it back. It was their first in Scotland, they said, but they had found 178 in the States (I don't remember the number; I made it up. I'm sure it was almost 200.)


There was no peace for me that day, or pause from sniffing and sneezing, and no cache of ideas, or poetry, or Vora moments on the hill. But what if?.... 

And so I did: I took a page from my notebook and wrote down a little poem (a small silly one I had written in that very spot, 22 years ago); then I "poem-bombed" the American's cache; hiding, in other words, the poem in the tube.


I went back today, to check on it. I saw my poem as a kind of blogging-minus-the-internet; I imagined geo-cachers' surprise and pleasure; they would add words, make notes, draw. I would have an audience of weird big children with phones and dreadlocks and hiking boots. We would start a world-wide trend. 

The muddy tube was there, minus my poem. Oh well. Some things go viral. Others just go missing.