house of happy

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

Thursday, 31 December 2015

Absentees, Avatars, Angels

She has nine guests on New Year’s Eve: three absent, four imagined, two from behind the Veil. Hers is the only beating heart in this room, and - it does follow - in that heart she carries them all. She sets the table for ten. 

But first she cleans the house, she wouldn't like mum to find the usual mess. The hoover seems sluggish; for the first time this year, she checks the bag: it’s full, so full that she swallows a small cloud of dust, trying to empty it. Also, it breaks. 

So she walks out in search of bags for the hoover and strawberries for margaritas. She finds such clear air, such a perfect amber-shard of this, the last day of the year, that she forgets the shops and walks into the park. Two magpies sit on a bald branch, then four, then six, then seven. She murmurs the rhyme: two for joy, four - a boy, six, ummm, gold, seven: a secret never told. What can she make of that? A rich lover, a great new seam of secrets and surprise, stories under the skin? Breathe in, breathe out. Each breath: pure sunshine. 

She stumbles to the shops eventually. Finds a set of hoover bags that might fit, buys strawberries and raspberries - for margaritas, the best-ever drink for weirdos. There is also champagne in the fridge. Dad loves to see people going silly with the joy of it, that rush of hope, and the pop and the fizz, the fireworks that announce the new year.

What will it be then? Champagne or margaritas? Both? Isn't it too much? How much do absentees, avatars and angels drink? 

She spots a cafe and sits down to write this story, about her party. (She can write it down already, write it and then simply follow the script: open the door and walk into dad's all-enveloping hug. Make them smile and chat with ease - despite how different they all are. Make Moona outrageously romantic, fingertips tracing shivers down her back. Make Zefira shy and quiet (although perhaps that is too much to ask: would never work). Ensure that Amar leaves his dark blue gloves in the hallway, that Zinzi sings along with dad. She can make the food delicious, on page, even if she's too lazy to cook, when it comes to it, tonight.)

She gets home eventually and the hoover bags fit. She tidies and cleans and carries the recycling out. A robin is now sitting on the magpies' red branch, beyond the fence. A red tablecloth would be nice. She gets back in, gets the tablecloth, sets the table for ten.

Her absentees, her avatars and her angels arrive. 

‘Hmm,’ mum says after a long, searching glance about, ‘the place looks acceptable. What did you cook?’
‘Mmmm, smells good,', says dad, then chants, 'I-can-not-wait!’. 
‘What about Moona, and what about them?’ mum spots the one hitch in the plan: possible vegetarians.
‘Moona will eat organic, free-range lamb, and as for them’, she points to her imaginary people, ‘I can make them carnivore, if I want.’
‘And did you?’ mum won't drop it.
‘Yep, just did: they all hunt, and they eat what they kill.’
'So... they hunted a lamb?' she hears Cheeta. She had no clue that he'd been listening.
'Well, I thought it was clear', she says pointing to the oven, 'that I am the hunter tonight.' 

‘But more to the point,' Moona intervenes, 'why are you alone tonight?’ 
'Look who's talking' she snaps. They turn to watch, with mild interest - so she enlightens them. She waves her arms at Moona, 'you, YOU! All the way from South Sudan!'
‘But he's right: why?’ mum persists.
‘I’m not alone’, she protests, ‘I’m with you.’
‘With us? Look at us,’ mum becomes belligerent, daring her to see them for what they are, angels, avatars, absentees, and to see herself too, with her lights and lonely, laden table: she is plainly mad.
‘What’s wrong with us?’ asks dad. She cracks up. He always sees the best in everyone and all. He always knows how to bring that smile back.
‘Quite,’ she agrees. She’s been using the word ‘quite’ far too often, lately. Such an old-fashioned, English thing to say.
‘What’s wrong? mum roars. ‘We’re not…’
‘Shhh’, says Andhu. He isn't always sure how to behave or what to say, but he knows very well what mustn't, mustn't ever, be said. 
‘Hey, we’re fun anyway,’ says Zefira.
‘We’re the only ones she's invited’, says Zinzi, because that is, like her, logical and kind.
‘That's because we're around,’ says Kiwi.
'And because she likes us,' adds Moona.
‘Likes? Or loves?' Cheeta wants to know.
‘Either way, I love her. That's all that matters,’ booms dad across the room.
And Amar says, out of the blue:
‘This is the best party ever.’ 
And she says, a little choked up:
 'Well, happy new year, you lot.'
And they shimmer and leap, like flames, and stay with her till dawn. 

Friday, 11 December 2015


I consider myself ‘lucky-in-letters’. A few months ago M. sent a loving note scribbled on an (unused) airplane vomit bag. A more recent one, hand-delivered, was written on the back of a xeroxed map. How remarkable, I thought, that someone should be thinking of me while passing through places like Futh Dengain, Waat Malwal, Limkwanchek, Lung, Riyr and Thol. 

But apart from these romantic field-dispatches, all I get these days is bills, forms, publicity and the bin collection schedule.

When did we stop writing letters to each other? Please don’t say the words ‘email’ or ‘internet’; and if I hear ‘social media’ I might have to find you and chase you with a wooden spoon. It’s not what I’m talking about and it is. Not. The same.

Also, we may have stopped writing letters, but I suspect that we have never stopped longing to receive them.

A letter -paper and ink, buy a stamp, walk to the post box, wait weeks for a reply- in fact says: ‘I am giving you a portion of my day. While I am writing this, you have all my attention, my best stories and my love.’

I remember a friend drawing -instead of buying- stamps on the backs of envelopes, in black ink. ‘National Pelican Day’, these fakes proclaimed, and ‘Long Live Comrade Saul’. The letters arrived without fail. 

I remember a few letters written in such small script, they looked like a convention of leggy, microscopic bugs. I see fantastic drawings weaving between words. And I still have a handful of old telegrams daring to describe the world in a dozen words.

I have all my letters from home, in dad's beautiful hand-writing. I see him sit down at his desk, to write to me, I see him smile. His smile still there, on every line he wrote. Never stingy, my dad, with his time or words, stamps or smiles. Best friends with the entire post-office personnel. The postman would have taken his letters to the moon. 

After that there were typed letters stuffed in envelopes, personalised perhaps by a picture or a dried daffodil. 

Then we started typing and - clever us! - faxing our missives. We hoped that the right person was standing there, by the machine, and patted ourselves on the back because look, there was no wait.  

You know what came next. Instead of whinging about it, I think I'll pick up the pen and write some real letters. 

7th of December - National Letter-Writing Day - found me writing (purple ink on a Pakistani postcard) to the woman who changed her mind at the last minute and didn’t buy our house after all. This late and severe case of cold feet translates all sorts of stress and loss: time, money, tears, efforts and possibilities - and yet, surprisingly, the letter was all I was not that evening: understanding, warm, wise. Only one way to explain the paradox: like Sunday clothes, the written letter forced me to put on paper only the best of myself...

Today I am writing another letter, although no postal service can reach that destination. Still, as in the case of the painted stamps, I believe my message will be received and read. With that smile I know so well.