house of happy

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

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Ionaseni, North-East Romania, Summer 1990

I arrive at the place you discovered driving through the countryside, that heart rending horror, Ionaseni. Beautiful faded home of an ancient line of Moldavian aristocrats, now in exile. In their place, 107 children with severe mental and physical disabilities. No doctor, two nurses, no educator, three cooks, a few harrassed carers. A lot of pain, a lot of unnecessary torment and death.

I walk towards it in the glare of summer, it shines like a cursed castle, a sunny circle of hell. I am chased by a cow and arrive without breath, belt or expectation. I find you.

You introduce me? Perhaps you say 'This is Mona'. People look puzzled – to a Romanian, the 'oo' of your name is only a larger 'O'. To them, you are also Mona. You, the double of me even in the 'o' department. But to them, today, only Mona. Mona and Mona, both in green surgical robes donated by some British hospital.

We bend over twisted children, covered in tears and excrement. We sit on rough blankets outside, under the whispering canopy of trees, next to a gaggle of innocents with shaved heads and bed sores.

You organise, I soothe. When you don't have a word ready, in my language, you say it in yours and throw me a sideways glance. I find the word, you smile.

Florin locks himself inside a toilet and I, 21, no experience in working with disabled people or psychiatric flare ups, find myself in front of the peeling door, talking to him, saying all sorts of crazy stuff until he comes out to have a look at me. His eyes are green, sunk into his forehead like mountain lakes. Breathtaking, the eyes of this clouded child. I take his hand and out we walk – you beam, I feel that – for the first time in my life – I'm doing something worthwhile, something outside a book.

It's evening now, everyone in bed. 'Where's my bed?' I ask. 'Here', you say genially, waving at the dusty cornices and creaking stairs. Like sleeping in a haunted castle.

'Here' – it turns out – is a tiny room they use for medical treatments and minor surgery. A medicine cupboard (ancient), a cupboard for sheets and blankets (musty), sink (cracked), chair and desk (shabby), curtains (gray), a crooked lamp over a metal table (cold and narrow).

The metal table IS the bed. Bed for two, I realise. You throw some blankets on it, a rolled up T-shirt for a pillow. This should be interesting. The night is full of crickets.

We brush each other's teeth in the cracked sink, over Euthymol smiles. Then we climb onto the metal nest, and lie there on our sides, chest to chest, Mona and Mona, Siamese twins returned to their original embrace. The rusting moon above our beginnings mingles our breath into a silver thread and seals the wound.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Lohifushi, the Maldives, Summer 2005

Birds wake us. Alarm clocks sleep on. Oh no! We jump out of bed and dash here and there and towels fly and odd socks, and flippers and masks hide behind a door and the toast is burned and we stuff too many clothes and books into bags too small. The boat goes in five.

We run through sand, dry shells and fallen coconuts – lumpy heavy bags hit our thighs, the kids run barefoot behind us. Close to the jetty, we see the dhoni-man untying the rope, whistling as the boat begins to roll away and you shout NO! And WAIT!, you say.

And he waits. Oh, phew. We collapse bedraggled, ecstatic, on deck. Not that our little comic chase, all that drama and climax, now our joy, make any ripple on this 'bus':

Who cares? We're going to Lohi's.

The island appears and WHAM we pass through a veil, we unknow the world and we are children again.

We catch the late breakfast and eat a mountain of oranges.

You catch all the waves the ocean throws at you in play.

Cheeta, no taller than your ribcage but already strong and brave and burning as high as your biggest dream, dives in with you.

I catch your eye and your eye throws blue anchors into my heart. You're happy, and I'm new. The day's long, not a cloud, and we play.

I slip into the water too. Green, gold, gray. 'Look beneath the surface' – I say. Kira looks. We swim to the edge, where the coral shelf ends and another world begins. Manta rays float dreamily by, I wonder vaguely where, and why, and how the day unfolds inside the journey of a manta ray, and sometimes also ask myself what we might be to them and how a manta ray, a reef shark or any fish, this very sea, sees you and me.

It wakes me in the morning, it calls again, this sea. It whispers and stretches salty fingertips across the sand. Aaah-hwaaa-hwee and again aah-hwaa-hwee.

I look for slippers and find instead that Kira, now four years old and feisty as a flame, is not in her bed. Not in this room, not in the bathroom, not in a cupboard, not behind the TV, not on the veranda, oh Lord, NOT HERE.

Forget the slippers. I run across the cold sand, towards the sea. And this is where, in her cherry nightdress, smiling and smelling of fresh dreams and seaweed, is she.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Mostar, Bosnia-Hercegovina, December 1994

It's cold, God it's cold.
The road
pretends it's ready for a merry Christmas
and we pretend
that we are Santa's Elves carrying gifts...

I carry a gift.

He brushes my sides with translucent fingertips
and they feel like wings and petals
like I'm bearing a dragon stuffed with roses.
He kicks my belly with a heel
the size of a lost bronze coin.
And now I can feel his head
inside the clasp of my ribs
nudging upwards
to listen to my heart-song for a while.

You and I make jokes
about the chicken that crossed the road
('why did it cross?'
'To jump into my flask!'
'What's in the flask?'
'Chicken soup!'
Laugh: 'Oh I see.
Anywhere but Mostar!')

Mostar, the cursed.
Mostar, where it rains fire.
We're driving to Mostar.
God, it's cold.

And then we're almost there
the graceful Neretva
(the calm, the luminous-green)
alongside, guides us when,
somewhere ahead
it sure rains fire.
The earth shakes
spews dust and snow
a giant, awoken.

We stop inside the tunnel.
'Where's that flask?' you ask.
The baby kicks.
(I should have listened)
But no. I too sip soup
(chicken soup!)
and chatter, and sip again.

Then I too spew.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Scottish Borders, 26 December 2004

We drive to a Boxing Day party at a farm in the Scottish Borders. A bit spent and shabby but hey, how often do you get to sleep under a Christmas Tree, on a bed of old blankets and festive wrapping paper? We're good, and there's another party ahead.

The host guides us in and - before we've stopped completely - leans on the open car window: 'There's been a tsunami', he gushes. Smiles stay on our faces, we still don't comprehend. 'In Indonesia. In Thailand. People died. The Maldives don't exist anymore.'

I have no clear idea where the Maldives are, or how many of them there are. But the idea of islands under water stills the soul. In our blood flows Ada-Kaleh, our own Atlantis. Sad somehow, to never have seen the Maldives.

Unaccountably, despite the desperate news, the party is in full swing. There's music and food and laughter and - in the deepest bowels of December - warmth. We dance.

We don't yet know what a tsunami looks like, how it snaps trees, how picks up ships and drops them high on mountain slopes, how it swallows all life and spits out gruesome crumbs. We dance.

We don't yet see the faces of the dead, the bloated bodies. We don't see children looking for their parents, we don't hear parents screaming, burying white bundles. You talk about what it might be like, surfing the tsunami. We dance.

We have no idea that - in a few months - we'll all be in the Maldives. We will learn the shapes of dozens of salty islands, we will step on coral and shells, we will live in the equal blue heat between monsoons. Now, here, we dance.

We will work in gray offices, sometimes walk out into the yellow haze and journey for hours on unseen ocean lanes, to see flooded villages, broken houses, dead mango trees, semi naked kids playing football in the sand. Already we dance.

We will eat pancakes and papaya on Sunday mornings, then run to the ocean; we will swim with sharks, we will go deep-deep-deeper inside the green-blue-black water, ah-ah the joy of finding breath and colour there, the graceful touch of manta wings, the blush of an octopus, the dance of silver shoals of fish, the glitter of their millionth eye. How we dance!

We don't know any of this, but do we feel a wind of change, the imperceptible planetary shift that opens a fabulous new path? Maybe. Maybe. We dance with joy and abandon. I feel wrapped tightly in a wing and flying, eager to swallow the entire, glorious sky.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Ourense, May 2012

Hot springs. We're late for the 'civilised' - bathrobe, cap and slippers - springs. We walk to the forest.

Like walking to a witches' sabbath. Steam comes out of the forest floor. trees seem to whisper. The smell of sulphur slithers inside nostrils and stays there, florid, unwelcome.

We pass by some other lost souls, coming out. 'The first pool is too hot', they whisper. 'Try the third.'

I aim straight for the first but Niki's faster. I walk to the second, you and Kiwi take the third. I lower myself in gingerly and wait. Picture it: a bed of moss and mud, then hot honey scalding my aching limbs; above, poisonous gas and steam settle on my closed eyelids; above, a frisson of dark leaves, a creaking of dry branches, the hoot of an owl; above still, the moon looks like a golden loaf inside a swarm of twinkling crumbs.

I can hear you chatter in the next glade. Later you come to me and lay down on my bed of moss, inside this reeking pool of honey and stars. We chat, my head on your chest, your fingers tangled in my hair, we watch the glowing moon.

Remember the last time we came here: I dropped my hairpin in the pool. You searched the dark water, stones, moss, everywhere. Your fingertips burned.

On the way home, talking about some friends, we decided to give them different names, in case the kids are listening. 'Mike' I said. 'I wanted to say that' you shouted and slammed the wheel. 'And...' - then we both said at the same time: 'Rose'. A chill. Silent wonder. Of all the names imaginable, in the same instant we'd chosen the same two. Old magic.

Edinburgh to Perth, autumn 1995

In a borrowed car, going to see the in-laws. You drive, I'm in the back holding and feeding Nikita, our orange baby, now 6-months old. He's not in his seat (hungry bear, no patience) and I can't breastfeed with the seat belt on. If this were a spaceship, the two of us would be floating.

No stars. A black motorway glistens with the boredom of a million wheels, stretches all the way to everywhere, finds a way to wriggle and yet stand completely still.

I grow sleepy. Niki now asleep, milk bubbles around his lips, chortles once in glee. I open my eyes and see something strange. The car is veering a bit close to the edge of the road. I wait for you to straighten the wheel – no, it rolls on, now faster, closer, I see the verge and beyond, unnamed horror. A scalding wave of fear. 'Moona' – I gasp (no time for more).

We hit the verge. Your eyes fly open and at the same time your arms yank the wheel the other way. We dash to the right through three empty lanes, lights flicker and flow around us, a small silent moment then THUMP. We've hit a centre pillar. Nothing's hit us. Smoke everywhere, the car is still.

You turn and lunge towards us in bewildered concern. Niki has made no sound, there's roaring in my ears and my teeth chatter. I'm elated: it's over, and we're OK. So sweet, your worry. 'We need to move the car' I croak, 'does it start?'

It turns out it does, and moves but only to the verge. There it fizzes for a bit and dies.

Shoulders and forehead hurt a bit and I find I can't speak very well because my jaw won't unclench. Arms are jelly. You're everywhere, shocked and busy. Niki hasn't even woken up from his nap. Someone is summoned and comes to the rescue.

Later we find out what happened when the car hit the pillar. My arms turned into a soft cage around my baby. Propelled forwards I curled around him and instead hit the front seat with my forehead - its back rest, bent double, now lay on the seat.

I had felt nothing. We were lucky. I wonder sometimes: what made Nikita chortle in his sleep, right that minute?

Some crossroad of fates.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Tuzla, Bosnia-Hercegovina, late 1993

Lines of light tie up the forest
in a timid embrace.
Day again.
A hungry cat comes home from his battles
to sleep on the warm bricks
behind the chimney.
The street not quite awake.
Today's fire and death not yet loaded
inside the hungry eye of today's storm.

Woodshed, make a fire, water from the well.
Morning again.
Porridge in the pot.
You two go running in the forest and
when I hear steps outside, I open the door.
You smile your equal joy
and each of you holds out a bunch of flowers.

One is a sunny orb,
a ballroom dance
of equal green
and gallant petal.
Exact and neat.
A perfect verse,
a pearl of heat.

The other roars with a hundred vegetal voices hungry
tall and fanatic and carelessly
dragging along small insects and some weeds and
resplendent in spider silk and thorn and
I swear, both
sinful and saintly under the spray of stars and strays
and ranting aloud the story of three seasons.

So, flare and sonnet stay,
one to the left, one right,
inside the curious cocoon of my eye,
all day.

A cloud bleeds purple stories that the sky
will allow for a while
then stain with the darker ink of hours and scatter
across the fields below.
Evening again.
Bread on the table, rough and warm like mother's hands
and the light of my candle seems to ask: Sonnet? Flare?

I smile. “Don't you know?”

The Game

Get some paper
Chop it up into small squares (a hundred freckles-wide by exactly four snails)
Retrieve bits of your life and write down trigger-words on the shell-and-freckle paper: trigger words are those words that drag behind them large, live memories, the type you can still see, feel, count, smell (but not always spell...); the kind that roll off the shelf, jump out of the bottle and burn your eyes.
Put them all in a hat, shake well.
Watch them settle inside, now still but still whispering their burnished secrets, a lake of life inside a hat.
Go fishing.
Clutch the trigger word you caught tightly inside your fist.
(eat it up if you must - chew well, swallow carefully; this may be helpful but remains entirely optional)
In any case, hold that word, smell it, consume it or, better still, let it consume you.
Then write about it. Write as if your next breath depended on it.
Prose, verse, a picture, anything that would help you understand
why your heart still roars
although your life, bruised burden
and time itself
stand still.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

The Blood-Red Bath

11 May 2012. Birthday time. I want no birthday. Life stretches ahead like a thorny plain of work and irritation. The house will never be finished and we – Nikita and I – scratch and scrub and toil at it without end or reason. You do too, but in a vague and detached state, semi-present, almost transparent. You don't have our hunger and despair, you don't need to. Your job is elsewhere, the provider, without whom we wouldn't be able to finish any of this. You are away so much, so much and so far. When you go, it's like you drop through a black hole: we can't follow, can't reach, can't even imagine you.

But today you're here and – although it's still early in the morning and I'm still half asleep – you wake me with a hug (mmmh!), you remember the birthday (groan!) and you ask me to dinner ('just the two of us!' Huh??) Just a walk then... The day grinds on. I measure and cut what feels like a square mile of plasterboard, I duly inhale all that ghastly white dust, then you remind me of our night out (HUH?). I'm too exhausted to resist: we go. We hold hands (rough hands!) and walk along the Minho like two peasants on a first date. We don't quite know what to say. We go out so little this feels more like going to school in pyjamas than having a romantic evening together.

This, the 22nd birthday of mine you measure. I've now had more birthdays next to you than I've had birthdays without you. Like you say as you kiss the grey hair at my temples, we are growing old together. I feel safe now, warm and in love. I wish you didn't have to go away again.

Back home, the kids are wide awake and tingling with excitement. I can't find my slippers. 'Come with me' – says Nikita and we all file after him, picking our way through the rubble and dust of our endless building site. He leads me to our bathroom. It 's lit up by dozens of little candles, a warm shimmering glow that seems to come from stolen embers of sun. My slippers are there, towels, my bathrobe.

'Remember what you told me?' asks Nikita.

The bath is full, steam hangs above it, and the water is rust-red. It looks like lava or spent blood. It reminds of ritual scenes from old films, where the heroine is about to be flung on a stone altar and stabbed. It's eerie and beautiful.

Months before, when the plumbers hadn't showed up for work and I was tired and cranky I had cried: 'All I want is to have a bath on my birthday! Is that too much to ask?' Now Nikita had sent us away and carried water from our outdoors shower in buckets to fill the bath. Rusty outdoors shower – hence the alarming appearance of this, our first bath in our new home.

First bath together. We jump in – it's the first time we have a bathtub big enough and no taps at either end. It's scalding hot and has a curious stilling effect on us. We stare into space and time, in profound silence, two ivory statues woven together, sitting in a blood-red lagoon. Archeologists will find us, centuries later, and wonder at the soft embrace and underneath, the beating hearts.