house of happy

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

Tuesday, 30 April 2013

The Hoar in the Bush

I'm walking to meet M. for lunch. I am THE image of the modest Pakistani wife - long kameez over black trousers, big scarf covering everything between chin and waist. I can hardly breathe but when in Rome... The air is hot and heavy, I'm thirsty and bedraggled, and I've just noticed the smell: something like caramelised sweat, sweet, cloying, all around. A quick glance reveals that yes, I am walking across a virtual marijuana field. The stuff grows everywhere.

Then the following thing happens in fast motion: a minibus drives by, a young man leans out of a window: 'BOA' he shouts (the Portuguese for 'good one'?? could it be?) and makes loud kissing noises before disappearing in a cloud of dust. Even so, I cannot fail to notice his billowing shalwar kameez, five sizes too big, flapping against the side of the van like an electoral flag. Yes, readers, my potential playboy appears to be wearing his granny's grey nightie.

Also, this whole scene is rather out of character: WHAT is going on in Islamabad? Fast-track secularization? Pre-election freedoms? Or is it a bizarre effect of the prevailing weed in the park?

The fantasy continues, when I get Kira from school. She points to a random bush and states:

'That's where the whore lives!'

I look at her face, quickly: I see fascination, curiosity, a smile.

'The WHAT?'

'Oh sorry, I meant...'

'Kira! The WHAT? Where?'

'In that bush. I've seen it!'

'You've seen WHAT?'

'I told you. The boar.'

Friday, 26 April 2013

Thai Trail 7: On the L'Edge

First or second night on the Island: we discover the roof terrace! Like three meek beasts of burden, we flock out of the house and up the stairs (ie. laden with trays of mango, dates and tea). Unlike meek beasts of burden we then lie in the hammock (yes, all together) and munch and read books.

At some point we hear the distant sound of a door banging shut.

Sometime later we notice that the sky is plum-purple and we can't see the pages of our books anymore.

We traipse down the stairs and remember that distant sound of a door banging shut. It's THE door we need to get back inside. It's locked.


We're on the first floor balcony of a house built on top of a cliff. All of a sudden it feels like we're back on the 37th floor of somewhere. Everything is vertical and full of stone teeth. We need a hero. Kira and I turn to Moona. He sighs. He groans. He's loving it.

He goes round the terrace (with us following around, squinting and nodding with pursed lips). He estimates the degree of damage if he fell here.... or here... oh, maybe here! Finds a thin ledge he would need to edge along to reach our bedroom. We might have left our balcony door open... there may be a way in. Worth a try. Below the ledge there's a small swimming pool. 'If you feel you're falling, push off the ledge and jump in', I counsel. Again sigh, groan.

Then he's off. Swings over the rail, holds on to some window frame. Pretty safe so far, but at some point he'll need to let go. He lets go, with a faint squeak, like the demoiselle who stepped in a puddle. Arms wide, hands glued to the glass, he freezes. Kira and I, already giggling, are now doubled up in hysterical hiccups. It can't be good for him, but we're beyond any control: our eyes are streaming, our stomachs hurt, we gasp and guffaw and we need a toilet.

Moona's still plastered to the window, his hands cupped over the glass as if he could summon some Spiderman-type suction. His face is crushed against the wall, mouth gaping in a silent roar. I think he's trying not to laugh, doesn't want his stomach muscles to spasm and push him off the ledge. (We're not helping.) Also - slight problem - he's not moving, not backwards, not forwards, nada. 'Come on, tata', Kira says when she manages to look up and draw a breath.

Moona shuffles a little in the right direction. He sucks in his stomach as he negotiates a seam of the building. His fingers make these squeaky noises against the glass. We are a disgrace throughout. (I'm not proud of it.)

A while later, he's on our balcony. The door is open. We're saved. Kira runs into the house, grabs the camera and waves it in Moona's face:

'Can you do that again?'

Thursday, 25 April 2013

The Trireme in the Teacup

When I was a child and had just discovered stories and poetry, I'd read for hours in my room. I sometimes came across words of such power and beauty, they shouted across my whole world and I just burst with the joy of them. They were tropical storms unleashed, and me – a firefly in their path. Overwhelmed, I'd take them next door, to read aloud to my parents. They'd stop to listen, with the day's troubles and toil still churning in their minds, exhausted and harassed.

Dad sat in his chair, tall and broad as a mountain, turned to stone. Mum squirmed and twitched. The day's reading over, I'd lift my head, expecting tears and ovations. Invariably I'd get: an indulgent smile from dad; a sigh and a nod from mum, followed by prosaic commands such as 'go tidy your room now', or 'quick, get the laundry off the line before the rain starts'.

A question of wavelength of course, and I always failed to sense it, and it never failed to catch me right in the solar plexus. Bruised and concussed, I'd retreat back into my otherworlds.


Nothing's changed. And I should know by now.

When I send a story into the world – it's like launching a ship. First, it must be good enough to float. Then, even for the shortest journey, it needs a favourable wind. It needs to slip seamlessly into an equal wavelength.

And even so, I'm still just playing with paper boats in a teacup.


(Who said the House of Happy should be happy, always? I have days. I get despondent. Duh.)

Watch me, overwhelmed with my own cleverness. I'd written so much, I had so much to share. 'So share' - I urged myself, and once again popped into the living room so to speak, flushed face, tremulous voice, manuscript in hand; well, what I actually did was send a link to my writings, in an email, to the entire family. I beamed all night, and waited (how sad is that?).


Today, three days later, still no answer from anyone, complete silence.


I guess I'd better tidy up my room and bring in the laundry.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Pic Pak

You ask me what is most striking at this picnic in the Margalla Hills.

The buffalo lying in the stream, to start with. That black flank absorbs the whole sun and doesn't give a single blade of light back.

How we swim fully dressed. Cool running water - not on the skin, but on the cotton that covers the skin, like being swaddled in wet gauze. A metaphor, really, of our life here in Pakistan. Yes we see, hear, feel wondrous things, but always through an extra layer, a restriction of sorts. Is reality reduced? Or enhanced - because you need to imagine how much greater it COULD be if...

In fact this whole scene,today, is so unlike Pakistan... it reminds of an Eastern European film set in the seventies. A foreign man in tight cotton pants and vest struts along the riverbank. Someone says 'oooh, sexy' in a sarcastic drawl. He turns to face us unperturbed and, skinny white legs planted in the silt, proceeds to pontificate on the topic: ' but if my tear-rrrousers were made of plaaah-stiko that you buy in sport shop, it wouldn't matter, non e vero?' He's right of course. The all-female audience on the riverbank, hypnotised by the big gestures, the up-and-down, the bravado. Not one can tear her gaze from his crotch, which is of course 'egg-zackly' at eye level.

A couple - the same man, now in jeans and white vest, and a voluptuous woman - dance a bossa nova on the veranda, under an umbrella of barbecue smoke. Other people, having eaten, are now asleep on reed mats. Their fingers smell of roast lamb and cantaloupe.

A walk, later, up a stony hill, mild sunstroke and this conversation:

x: 'The real problem here is deforestation'.
me: 'But you know they tried...they planted hundreds of trees'...
x: 'Yes and the neighbours stole them all that very night...
me: ...'so now they're waiting to get dogs, before they plant trees again...'
x: '… and the neighbours will kill the dogs before they steal the next trees...'
me: ...oh my God, I'd just had the same that perverse, or insa..
x: 'of course you can kill a dog by feeding it a dove.
Me: ...ehm? (thinking: 'did he say 'dove')
x: (clarifies) … you know, uncooked dove...
me: (voice sounding like a tin bark) Really?
x: (clarifies further) …. you know, dowve... you make bread wizz it...
me: AH. DOUGH.
X: Yes, yes, dowe. I googled it when I wanted to kill my neighbour's dog.
Me: What? How? WHAT?
X: … 'because they eat it and it grows in their stomach and they...
me: 'Yeah, yeah, but what happened?
X: 'Huh?'
me: ' the dog? What happened to the dog?'
x: It was beautiful. Bello, big, like this (he pats the air around his chest). I couldn't kill it.
me: 'Pheew.'
X: It was the neighbour I wanted to kill reee-ly, not the dog.
me: 'Oh, that's OK!'

Sunstroke, surely.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Thai Trail 6 - Leap

The best part of this island? The fact that there’s a motorbike parked downstairs, and we can run outside whenever we fancy and zoom off to wherever we fancy.

A bit like these stories: the best part of them? The fact, I’ve just noticed, that I can take them anywhere. I can make them leap into outrageous fantasy, I can create crocodiles to chase us around for a while, I can be soothed to sleep by a one-eyed angel.

And no one will say ‘wait a minute, I was there and that’s a load of larks’. Or ‘I wasn’t there but that sounds plain silly’. Or just ‘hmmm’.

You see, all that freedom…

But where were we? Ah, the freedom of zooming around on our bike.

So this one day I dash out, late and laden with towels, goggles, creams and books. M. and K. already perched on the bike, waiting. I fling myself on, perhaps with more enthusiasm than usual. The bike lurches to one side.

I catch a look of dawning horror on M.’s face.

What’s happening?


The bike starts to fall, with a faint rumble.


M. gives K. a wordless nudge and she jumps off, unsure why but curious.


M. then jumps off, just as his hand tightens on the handlebar. A roar of acceleration, the front wheel spins in the air as the bike is falling.


It’s happened. The bike lies on its side in a cloud of dust. I haven't even jumped off: I'm left straddling a puff of smoke, a big dolt of dust and metal at my ankles. As it falls it leaves a blue bite on the inside of my leg. A chorus of cicadas. We stand around looking at each other, mouths hanging open, eyebrows vanishing into our sun hats, in a vast and silent HUH???

Finally you say:

‘At least no one’s seen it.’

Thursday, 18 April 2013

The Seventieth Rabbit

When Eduardo Galeano writes about 'the story of the seventy rabbits who climbed on top of each other to kiss the giraffe' I picture this: one rabbit dizzy in the golden gaze of his giraffe. He gets the kiss but sixty nine rabbits, what do they get? Weight, weary limbs and an unchanging vista of giraffe leg, giraffe chest, giraffe neck.

Seventy more rabbits wait next to their giraffes, to climb, to dream and - only one - to kiss. And behind them, another seventy.

So then I wonder: am I the seventieth rabbit? Could I be? I have the kiss. When the eye opens - blue, this eye happens to be - it sees me. It folds around me like a wing and all is well. But could it also be that I am standing, all the while, on the dry shoulders of sixty nine women like me?

Sixty nine without love. And then, by graceful twirls of chance I, number seventy.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Thai Trail 5 - Maldimeter

We finally find a yardstick for this strange new world: the Maldives. Once that's done, it all makes sense.

The sea? As warm as the Maldives, but not as blue.

The air? Hotter, more humid.

Fruit? Amazing in both places, but the same cannot be said about fish...

Cityscape? Geez, Bangkok is a century ahead of anything in the Maldives.

And in the swimming pool downstairs (as blue as the sea there, but cooler) we find Noa and Zoe, our hosts' twin daughters: exactly the size Kira was in the Maldives, just as blond, just as cute and brave and clever. Moona, entranced, dives in to play. Like he always did in the Maldives.

He's a clown stumbling and falling in the water. He's a sea horse. He's a monster. He roars and splashes. He becomes a diving board for them and then a human rubber dinghie. He sinks and then bursts out spluttering and staggering about, a drama queen in yellow surf shorts. The girls squeal and swim like baby otters around him. They want to play all night. When Moona finally manages to tear himself away, they hop around him shouting: 'Bye-bye Silly Man', and his smile lights up the hemisphere, long after dusk.

Later, when Kira falls asleep on the sofa, Moona picks her up and folds her in his arms. She looks tiny, aglow with sunshine, and her tata carries her to bed. Just like in the Maldives.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Thai Trail 4 - The Skin of the City

Kira sleeps off her sticky rice nausea. We run out of excuses and finally venture out to see Bangkok. We don’t take the Guide and lose the map almost immediately. Hopeless.

Yet somehow we touch the skin of this city and it's gold and scales, leaf and leather, metal and mother of pearl.

There is a jungle growing around the steel blocks, over the river, under roads and rail tracks. The boat steers around chirping leaves and floating logs, we breathe spring and death in one gulp, and cicadas scream louder than building sites. Hand-in-hand and hat-in-hat, we float on...

At the snake centre, a python named Emma curls around my neck and for a moment it feels like she’s always been there. A dry, heavy presence forever there and about to strike. Is that what stops me from taking flight this minute? Could it be as simple as that? A toothless Thai man untangles Emma from my neck, lifts her away. Light and alight, I float on...

But there's a monkey with a good trick among the sleeping snakes. So although the boat is waiting, and although the word 'monkey' sounds so silly, we stay. Moona puts out a hand, and a hand comes idly through the bars to meet it. Ignoring the broad bean he offers, fingers like leather start to scratch and pinch a scab on his palm, then lose momentum and just lay there, in the cradle of Moona's hand, while we mist up and monkey takes a nap. Then we float on...

... to a hall where a prince is dying, with a river of tourists bubbling around him. Siddhartha, serene and golden, face like a sun shining equal from a thousand statues. The soles of his feet are larger, are darker, are harder than buffaloes and carry intricate treasures of mother-of-pearl. Anchored by all the gold leaf and the chatter of people and his own studded soles, and still trying to show how it feels to float away...

Instead it's us floating onwards. I still don't know the name of the island, but I know we're flying tomorrow and flying south. It's a start.

Thai Trail 3 - Sticky Rice and Mango

Bangkok, I knew about it of course, yet couldn't have imagined. Full of aging white men strutting along golden beauties. On the sky train, the gaze stops on the back of their legs: his fat, hairy calf, angry red and sweaty. Her delicate, brown foot chained by sandal strap and thin anklets. Naked young leg, trembling slightly into the scant cover of a miniskirt.

I force myself to look away. I don't want to see his wide face, the bulging eyes, the satisfied grin on those oily lips. I have no desire to gag over greying facial hair, turkey neck, flaccid jowls. Beer belly, beer breath.

Hmmm, I looked back. Yes, took in the whole horror, gagged. Oh, those porky fingers with yellow nails snaking around the tawny marble of the girl's upper arm.

A bit like fresh mango and sticky rice.

(... of which we had a taste at a food stall, in the evening. Overnight, Kira got violently ill. She prawled the house wrapped in a sheet, I followed her around thinking 'yep, part of life, part of Bangkok': finally fell into shallow sleep, with dreams of naked dolls writhing in vats of sticky rice, gagging as they sank.)

Thai Trail 2 - Vertical Futures

We land in Bangkok, early morning, air like blankets dipped in scalding water. Our bags are immediately way too heavy. Why did we take so much stuff? We huff and sigh, we sweat and stomp. Then we lift our heads and turn to stone. We have glanced into the eye of the Medusa.

We are on another planet. Or is it the future? Or is it a nightmare? Too much sun, striking too much metal. In the back of the taxi we hold onto each other and find comfort in small things: the cab is yellow, with plastic seats that burn the backs of our thighs; the croissants too doughy, too sweet; and a woman driver in the next lane has got sunglasses just like mine.

On the 37th floor of a 'luxury tower' we find our Croatian friend. It's been almost two decades since we've last seen each other, in her country that smelled of rosemary and sea salt. I dive into that world of gentler memory, a refuge now from the glare of this metropolis. I long for a place where you see more green than gray. Where the ground is not sparkling and suspended. Where you walk to the sea, not fall into it.

Thai Trail 1 - The Unexpected Journey

I haven’t written in a while: we were in Thailand, with two computers, an IPad and big plans to write lots and lots.

We had to go somewhere, had to skip across the border and then back. Visa requirements. Kira was off school, spring holiday. Was it possible that we were having a holiday?

We normally go home, visit our families, join other people in their hours, rhythms, chaos. It is the very opposite of 'getting away'.

But now? What were we doing now? We boarded our flight, unsure and unprepared. I misspelled 'Bangkok' (will spare you the resulting attempts). Couldn't remember the name of the other place, the island. Hadn't looked at a map. Didn't know a thing about planes, boats and tuk-tuks.

Well, what a blast, what joy, what an adventure! No idea what we 'should have done', what 'was going on', what we 'might have missed': therefore we missed nothing and what we did was the only thing to do, the most vital and exciting. A bit like life should be, really. If only.

And now, finally, I'm beginning to write.