house of happy

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

Sunday, 20 November 2011


Ross was my brother's dog, a beautiful collie. Kind, strong, playful, protective, a big softie. Ross died last week of old age, they say.

In his life, Ross
found Mihai and Cristina
he was as small as a fox cub then, with a pointed nose and a coat
white and gold and warm and rich
with ripples of muscle underneath
and deeper, a heart like a billowing sail
eager to carry us all across our oceans.

In his life, Ross
looked after Kira from the moment he first saw her, the little baby
with the raspberry birthmark on her back.
He watched her when she slept. He never left her side.

He played, always, with Nikita; he'd follow Nikita around with an old, chewed up tennis ball because he knew the boy was a sweet, kind-hearted softie too, who would throw him the ball without ever tiring or getting bored or angry.

In his life, Ross
ate a lot of yogurt and beef stew and soup
made friends with small and silly pets including birds, fish and cats
but hated the neighbour's alsatian,

waited for Mihai to get home
waited for Cristina to get home
waited for us to visit.

In his life, Ross
went to the mountains many times
ran across meadows in bloom
drank from streams
slept right under the silver umbrella
of every full moon
and dreamt of rabbits,
swam in the lake
and, one day, discovered
that the Black Sea is salty and strong.

Children loved Ross
and Ross loved them back, unfailing and more.

In his life Ross
never knew floods or hurricanes
but understood lightning and hailstones
deep blizzards, icicles and snow;
he didn't feel the earth quake
but lived through the fear and confusion, once,
of a total eclipse of the sun.

Would that final sleep have been the same?
A sudden silence of birds,
Darkening dusk,
a momentary numbness,

and a return?

Could Ross be back then, already, somewhere?
A puppy again?
Look for him Mihai, you'll know him - and if you don't
then he'll know you,
that much I know.

Otherwise what will you do
with all those old chewed up tennis balls
left behind
all around your garden?

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Inside the Shower, Inside the Rain

The Shower

Key word: outside. The shower is outside. It leans against a rock wall, on the 'bathroom' terrace – next to an old bath tub, a sink, the composting loo. 27 steps from yurt, 55 steps from alambique. The structure is bamboo, walls clad in planks, shower curtain for a door. Ample room inside, drainage to blue barrel and cherry tree next to the loo. The route from shower to alambique takes you down a winding path, part rock-part earth and scree, including three stone steps. The middle stone step moves. When it moves, you either stop stock still and consider your options (airlifting high among them) or you're propelled down the scree slope at considerable speed, bathrobe flapping, toes hurting, face frozen in a grimace of terror.

Shower Habits and Quirks

Showers are best in the evening. No lights, just the stars.
Clothes are left outside, on a rock. If you bring them in the shower, they get wet. If you leave them outside, rain or dew will also get them wet. (Not any more. Nikita built a great roof around the shower and presto: dressing area.)
Given the cherry tree that receives the drained water, no chemical soaps or shampoos can be used, just natural stuff or ash-and-lye – ok this latter hasn't been tested. Yet.
All shower water is orange and smells strongly of iron. I have the vague and alarming impression that a layer of rust is peeled off the inside of the water tank every time we have a shower. That the tank is slowly disintegrating. In the meantime, whatever the soap, we come out of the shower smelling of iron. It's the new 'clean'.
If you wear flip flops in the shower, there's less chance of stepping on any sharp rocks, mud or soap inside the shower, in the dark.
If you wear flip flops in the shower, they shall be wet and slippery after the shower. Hence more chance of stepping on the moving stone slab the wrong way and being propelled down the scree slope, flip-flops squeaking, toes aching, bathrobe flapping, face frozen in rictus of terror.

Shower in August

Balmy night. You step in the shower while the water's still cold. Aaaaahhh. You've been longing for this shock all day. Then the water is tepid and you'd like to keep it like this. A perfect moment, you sigh, you lift your head to the stars, they sparkle and wink. Then the water is hot and you yelp and leap out. One hand fiddles with the taps, the other finds, and drops, the soap.
When you leave the shower, the skin tingles, you are fresh and phenomenally happy. The stars sparkle even brighter, they preen and wink just as you step onto the moving stone slab. You are enchanted and euphoric, so you judge the angle wrong, the slab wobbles and propels you down the scree slope. Bathrobe flapping, flip-flops squeaking, toes screaming, but eyes still glued to the firmament, you reach the alambique. Eeeeh, the life.

Shower in November

Stormy night. The wind whistles, the rain lashes, November does its job. Eventually, you really need a shower. You stay as far from the shower head as possible until the water reaches boiling temperature. When it does, you undress at lightning speed and step in. Aaaahhh, that's not too bad. It immediately becomes a contest between the narrow column of hot water and the cold wind outside. The wind employs a devious strategy: it grabs the shower curtain and plasters it – wet, cold, lizard-like – to your shivering body. You step on its tail to stop it from wrapping you in that icy embrace. Your foot, leg, hip, ribcage, in that order, promptly freeze. You yank the curtain open and the whole of you (minus a nozzle-size area directly underneath the shower head) is chilled and consumed by the storm. You grab your bathrobe and it falls onto the wet floor. Finally on, it feels a bit like the shower curtain. You make a dash for the alambique. You knees shake with cold so much that you know – even before you reach the wobbly stone – you're going to misjudge the step and be propelled down the scree slope. Bathrobe flapping, flip-flops squeaking, toes-burning, aw-aw-aaaw, all the way home.

There you steam and thaw bit by bit as you sip hot tea and tell everyone about your latest adventure inside the shower, inside the rain.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Warehouse Golf

I'm standing just inside a large warehouse full of building materials. There should be a man in green overalls here, to help navigate through the endless shelves of Stuff. No sign of him. Instead, more customers arrive and stand politely behind me. A green employee comes to the rescue when he notices the growing queue. He strides in and hollers CHICO, CHEEE-COOOW until the warehouse man appears, disheveled, perched on a thin metal platform where all those house improvement treasures are held. He looks very very small and rather dusty.

The colleague points us in that direction and we all march – still in queue formation – up the narrow stairs and around, gaping in wonder at the shelves, until we reach the man. Close by, he's still small, stooped, serious.

'Say.' - he intones to the first in the queue. That would be me.
'Two rolls of cane sheeting please.' Do not ask me to say that in Spanish please. Once was enough - although they took it without a wince.
He finds the stuff, then takes the order of the second man in the queue (a plumber looking for a small but complex pipe) and the next (wheelbarrow wheel) and the next (sack of something vile) and the next (a sink and a small dustpan). Then we march back down the stairs. The plumber is carrying one of my rolls, the warehouse man another. Old Iberic gallantry in action.

And now to the paperwork.

'Name please'.
'Magnus Wolfe'.
'MAN-GUS', he writes and then, upside down, I see the surname appear:

He hands me the note. It says: 'Two rolls of bamboo sheeting, it says. Put on the account of Mangus Golf.'

I shall admit it: I was a complete disgrace. I blushed and bubbled and fizzed at the edges and finally burst into giggles as I walked off to the checkout.

Behind me, the warehouse man was confused, the waiting queue amused and Mangus Golf himself bemused, as he turned up to load the bamboo rolls into the van.

P.S. I could call him MAN-GO now, and the thought made the day just that little bit brighter.

P.P.S. Or picture him - dark suit, razor-sharp blue gaze above a dry martini, saying: 'It's Golf. Mangus Golf', then downing it in one. Aaah.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Sonnet In-Sanity

I started to write a story about showers (I say 'story' because I've become allergic to the word 'blog'). I remembered something: while in the shower, I had thought about a man who wrote all his letters in verse. So instead I wrote a sonnet. I'll write about showers later. And about the man who wrote in verse. Later.

So now the sonnet, about a waitress watching people in a café.


I stare: one couple (table two), young, mute

A crag of silence scarring the café

Above the music (now, Jacqueline du Pré)

Their courtship plays an underwater flute.

Hands trace enchanted words, eyelashes sing,

Loud fingers weave a sonnet made of air

The light between them - bright embroidered flare...

I long to soar like that, all eye and wing...

But wait! Deep in my chest a claw of fear:

that silence would undo us, leaving just

your piano, angry army with no spear;

your lips, clever calligraphy of lust...

then your good bye. I sigh. I turn my head,

I stare at table seventeen instead.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

There, but for the Grace

In search of chocolate and bananas at Coca Hipermercado, we see Bruno the Builder. He walks with a limp, looks frail, two-days' growth of beard on a drawn face.

'Bruno, hey! How's it going?'
'Mmh. Haven't been too well.' In place of his usual booming voice, a whisper.
In true Portuguese style, a plethora of medical information follows, dramatic in content, meek in delivery.
'I'm so sorry.'
I'm more than sorry, I'm shocked. This man was a force of nature, boundless energy and confidence. He worked, planned, talked, ordered people about, was everywhere, never stopped. So I ask:
'And the work?'
'What work?' he asks back.
He spits out an update on the state of the economy, and how it's affecting his business these days. It's even more shocking, and he's not even incensed.
'At this time of year, I used to have 8-9 months' worth of work booked up. This year, I'm lucky if there's work for the next month.'
Raises his eyebrows high, high, lets them drop back down again.

More than a vertebra is crushed inside this man.

Sometimes I wonder how we cross each day, with this kind of weight on our shoulders. How much of it is pain, how much fear, how much uncertainty how much defeat. How quick the journey is from the top of the world to any kind of hell.

How there, but for the grace of God, go I.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Lolita, 70

First we started to wave at each other whenever I passed her in the car. Big smiles. Then I had a vague impression that she appeared at the side of the road when she knew I would be passing. Naturally, I began to stop for a moment to talk to her. I'd roll down the window, she'd lean in with a big smile.

Everything about her denies the smile.
She is dressed in mourning (for her husband, whom she calls the 'dearest departed my husband' or 'my saintly departed lord husband').
Her leg is swollen and goes numb for days. This is a tragedy because it stops her from walking out and meeting people, even foreign women like me, with insufficient knowledge of the language and life of the village.
The house where she'd lived all her life is shuttered and covered in brambles (too old to live there, she now spends a month in the house of each of her children except for the one who died and the one who wouldn't speak to her.

But the smile stays and what a smile: it lights up her face and travels to your face and tugs at the corners of your mouth and then bursts upwards like fireworks and the day seems brighter and your eyes need to adjust.

Lolita's got many stories and, although they're gifts, she keeps apologising for 'stealing my time'. Then she taps the ground with her right foot, 'to wake it up', and starts her walk back to the house of the month, leaving me with high haunting images from her youth.

Today I'm under the spell of a short vision of Lolita, young (long hair? I must ask her), at seven in the morning, running to the river. She's been up all night, serving customers in her bar, or shop, or both (must clarify). Her husband (the dearest saintly one) has been up all night smuggling stuff across the Minho. Every day at dawn, he leaves her a sign by an old corner stone (what's the sign? I must ask) to say he's all right, things went well, he's alive. Gasping, she gets the message, sends a quick thank you to the Virgin Mary and runs back to the village, to wake the children and get them ready for school.