The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Friday, 28 March 2014


When I walked past Keith’s window last Thursday, just after sunset, he wasn’t doing what he usually did. 

At that time of day, the light on the road was darker than the light inside his room, so anyone passing, and bothering to look in, could see what Keith was up to.  He never closed the heavy curtain till well after sunset.  His thinner, net curtain you could see through quite easily.  Yellow with tobacco smoke and age, it was there, where it always was, behind the glass.  It looked untouched.  I’ve never seen it move.  It’s like the painted scenery on a stage.   

Keith seemed different, though.  He wasn’t sitting with his face towards the window, eyes on the laptop, his features lit strangely by the light from the screen.  He wasn’t standing with his profile to the road, going over something in his mind.  He wasn’t in his kitchen space, touching the toaster.   He was slumped in his chair.  I thought he might be sleeping.  But it didn’t look like sleep. 

The door to our building was wide open.  It happens now and then.  I walked in.  Keith’s door, the first on the left, was open too.  A policeman was just inside, writing notes on a pad.  He was standing by the toaster, with his profile to the door, and I knew that Keith was dead. 

I turned away.  Another man appeared and said sorry – just that word – mouthed it more than spoke.  He was embarrassed.  For the next two days, he came and went, emptying Keith’s room out, bit by bit, onto the back seat of a car.  A woman helped.  I’ve lived nine years at this address.  When Keith was alive, I didn’t see them once.

He used to trim the bushes, and tidy the garden at the front.  On one tree, which he pruned a few weeks ago, spring growth is tugging at the edges, swelling neatly, like bacteria on a slide.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Throw some sharks in

“You’ve got white hair.  That means you’ll die in a minute.”

The little girl spoke confidently.  It was nearly time for drama.  I thought that one day she would make an able drama student.  She was already an excellent human being. 

A specialist teacher came in to take the lesson, and he soon had the six-year-olds believing that he was stuck in a bucket.  You drama professionals out there will nod, but it was new to me.  A version of the genie in the bottle, I suppose.  There was a real bucket, with a lid.  The teacher kept his head down at the side of the room.  The poor man was crying for help, but the two little girls who held the bucket wouldn’t let him out.  They wouldn’t take the lid off.  The rest of the class was laughing wildly.  The more he pleaded, the more hard-hearted the two girls became.  One of them banged the bucket with a ruler as if raising an alarm.  The class laughed even harder. 

The other girl said that she was going to put some sharks in the bucket.  Not just one shark.  Her face was near the lid.  She spoke the words sweetly to the man inside and waited for his cries, which everybody knew she would ignore.  She waited a few more seconds, then put the sharks in.

Like adults, however, children reserve the most imaginative cruelties for each other.  I had to fill in ten minutes at the end of a day with Year 5, so we did ‘pay a compliment.’  In this exercise, everyone says something nice about a different child in the room, and gives a reason.  For this particular group it was not an easy task.  They started to fall back on teacher.  One girl liked my eye colour.  One the shape of my head.  Another girl picked a child who was not in class that day.

“I’d like to compliment Malia for being invisible.”

Friday, 14 March 2014

Doing violence to the fruit

August in Belgrade.  The streetlamps are glowing.  Dust which at midday was light and thin is thick-looking now and soft, like grey foam.

I got off the train with an American girl.  Like me, she was travelling alone to Greece.  It was midnight and we had to wait till morning for another train, so we looked around.  In a bar opposite the station, old men were perched on wooden chairs, like a spaghetti Western.  When we got inside, it didn’t feel right.  She walked back to the door.  I was just behind.  A hand reached out and smoothed the fair curls on her right cheek.  It was very expert, and very loving.  She kept on walking.  Outside the bar, she looked at me.  She was only eighteen.  I didn’t tell her, but another man had pinched me in the anus.  Expertly, too, but not so lovingly.

On the train from Paris, there was no room.  We had to stand in the corridor.  We started talking.  A friend of hers ran a ballet school on the island of Paros.  She was going to see him.  Some soldiers were standing in the same corridor.  They were about our age.  We tried walking to the buffet car, but one of them picked her up by the waist.  Not like the ballet.  She wriggled hard and waved her bare limbs like a child.  The soldiers didn’t notice me.  They were a lot younger than the men in the bar.  Again, I was just behind her.  Again, I just watched.

I think she said her name was Vinnie.  She started talking to another passenger.  I don’t remember a thing about him, except his gender.  Afterwards, she told me he was the nicest person she had met on the train.  A little silence, then the correction.  “No, you’re the nicest person.”

There was a fruit stall near the Clint Eastwood bar. I bought some red grapes.  They were plump with juice.  Vinnie asked if I normally chewed the seeds or swallowed them whole.  I said I chewed them.  It turned out she had a friend who swallowed them whole.  She only ever mentioned male friends.  He had told her that chewing did violence to the seeds.  I might have seen it coming.  I nodded, but wondered what could be more violent than eating something in the first place.  I didn’t say that to her.

Vinnie, or whoever she was, laid a sleeping bag down in the station square and pushed her thin body into it, her face towards the night sky.  Did I want to get in too?  Her question took me by surprise.  I said no.   

When the train from Belgrade pulled into Athens, it was several hours late.

“Can I come with you to Paros?”

I hadn’t washed the grapes.  There was nothing to wash them with.  I paid for it now, haunted by dysentery, on the dock at Piraeus, after she was gone.

Friday, 7 March 2014

Wood v Dunsinane

Thunder. Enter the three Witches.
Sir Alex Ferguson, Sean Connery, Andy Murray.  They’re in the news together.  Weird Sisters – the football coach, the cinema spy and the street-wise version of little Tim Henman – but all successful Scots, for whom being Scottish is the ingredient of success.

With an eye toward the vote on Scottish independence, the two old grandees have been following Murray around the tennis circuit in order to promote brand Scotland.  Young, energetic, victorious, he’s a model for the nation’s youth.  The face of the new Scotland.

So, what’s in the pot?

The language – not Lowland Scots or Gaelic.  Just Murray's foul mouth when he’s losing. Turning the air blue.  Since 2008, the tabloids have punned on his colourful language and the colour of his national flag.  The face of the new Scotland, or at least the mouth.  “I wasn’t praying,” he said after a match.  Christians, cover your ears.  Tartar's lips are in the pot.

The pound – the Scots can’t keep it.  The leaders of the main Westminster parties say so.  You can’t have your pound cake and eat it, too.   It’s independence, warts and all.

The EU – the Scots can’t join it.  The President of the European Commission, Senhor José Manuel Durão Barroso, says so.  He thinks that Spain would block the admission of an independent Scotland as a warning to its own Basque separatists.  If he’s right, if the Scots vote Oui, and the Spaniards vote Naw, there’ll be more tongue of dog in the pot.

Prier pour l’Écosse.  What about some toe of frog?  Damn it, throw the whole leg in, sautéed with garlic.  Then snails in wine, more garlic: Escargots à la Bruxelles.  Be careful not to break the shells.  You can have them for currency when the odour’s gone.