The market, Salonica

The market, Salonica
The market, Salonica

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

This won’t do

I only remember two lectures at Adelaide University.  One was on the Yippee Bird.  It was delivered by a drunken student, and ended prematurely when the lecturer walked in.

The other was Vida’s lecture on profanity.  Everyone remembers that.  It was improper, like the Yippee Bird, but it was the only time the lecture hall was full.  The words, like the students, were all there.  Fuck, Shit and Cunt, spread out wisely.  She didn’t let the bad boys sit together.  She had us tittering to the end.  She could use words to effect. 

I was still gardening.  She recommended me to someone else, and told me what she’d said.  I was thorough, but slow.  She’d been judging my performance as a gardener, too.  I might have known.

At the new property, I had to cut a hedge.  I told her I’d never cut a hedge before. 

“Now you’re going to learn.” 

I chuckled.  It was, after all, someone else’s hedge.

The plainest of speakers, she had little time for irony.  Why say something which you don’t mean, or which is open to interpretation?  One morning, we were standing in her front garden.  Across the road, an old lady, or so she seemed to me, came out of a house.  Vida said a man lived there, and the woman often stayed the night.  We reflected for a moment, then I said: 

“No one in their right mind would think she stayed the night.”

Vida looked at me.  “Do you mean her appearance?”

I nodded.

“Graham, that’s very uncharitable of you!”

She was pleased, though.  I remember these things.  It was important for me to please her.
 
She said she sometimes wondered how tolerant she was, although I think she knew.  I replied, “You’ve always struck me as a model of toleration.”

But it wasn’t all talking and shovelling.  Vida wrote as well, academic things, and lots of letters.  She got one from a former student.  

“It’s from Tim,” she said.  “He finally married his girlfriend.  I don’t know why he still writes to me.  He always struck me as being rather dim.”

“He must be.”

“There’s no need to be offensive!”

When I wasn’t in Adelaide, I also wrote to her.  One letter she even wrote for me, my application to Oxford.  It was all her idea.  She told me to draft my own letter, then show it to her.  She knew it wouldn’t work, and as soon as she started reading it, she said, “This won’t do.”

She picked her pen up, already thinking, and wrote a letter of her own.  She did it there and then, without speaking, just wrote till it was done, in a single, flowing movement.  She only did things when she knew what she was doing.  It didn’t do my application any harm.    

All her letters had the same pure style.  When something's right, there's no need to change.  I wrote to her last year.  I hadn’t sent a letter for a very long time.  I didn’t want to be a dim Tim, or maybe I was lazy.  She replied by email. 

I assume that you thought I was too old and doddery to cope with such things.” 

Right again.  Years ago, when a friend of hers died, Vida sorted out her stuff.  It was heartbreaking, she said, going through the old letters.   Why do people write things down? 

At the end of the email, she thanked me for remembering her.  No irony, of course.  It made me a little sad, even then.  As if I could forget.

Vida died, she passed away, she went to meet her maker.  I can’t say it more plainly.  She’s gone, and it won’t do.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

A pig in a poke

“Graham’s lurking,” said Vida when she saw me at the university.  We got into a lift.  In a lift, there is no escape.  She asked me why I had bare feet on such a cold day.  I said the library was stuffy. 

“You have bare feet because the library is stuffy.  I always knew students were backward.” 

If you aren’t direct, people might not understand.  With me, the only time that Vida wasn’t direct, I didn’t understand.  It was very hot.  You know the Australian summer.  She said the boy who was staying with her had two showers a day.  I only worked it out a week ago, after thirty years.

I won a scholarship to study in Greece.  I told Vida straightaway.  

“It sounds like a pig in a poke to me.”  

I didn’t know what that meant, but it wasn’t anything very good.  I thought she was strange.  People I hardly knew were hugging me, saying it was the best thing that could happen.  I looked the phrase up last week too.  She was right.  It was a pig in a poke.    

I was a boy, and boys need to learn.  They talk too much, or too little.  She thought a library job would suit me.  She did, of course, love libraries, but I sensed a kind of disappointment.  She didn’t say it, but she wanted me to make more noise, to give opinions, or at least to have them, although she knew a boy’s opinions could be wrong, would be wrong, normally. 

Dinner with some friends of ours.  Vida was holding forth again.  I was being quiet again.  She stopped.

“What do you think, Graham?”

I moved my head a little, as if she’d woken me, and grunted, like a question.  She didn’t laugh, but I could tell that she was pleased.  Sometimes, it was the only way you could score a point off Vida, by saying nothing. 

Woe betide the person who said something stupid.  I was going to England.  She told me she had some pounds.  She was generous.  I thought she was being generous again.

“I couldn’t take that.” 

“I’m not going to give them to you, ducky!”

I mightn’t understand, but I try to look clever.  She was cross once, and said I hammed it up.  I don’t remember what it was.  I thought she didn’t understand.  I was a teenage boy for longer than most.  

Another hot day.  I was doing some gardening for her.  She picked a persimmon and gave it to me.  It was fragile and warm.  I said it felt like a little animal.

“You’re a very strange person,” she replied. 

When other people hammed it up, she didn’t always mind.  We were driving in Adelaide.  The car in front stopped.  A woman got out, lifted her dress above her head, and wiggled her hips at us like a striptease dancer, a stocky one.  I burst out laughing.  Vida looked at me as if she wondered why.  She knew the road.  Perhaps it happened all the time. 

She could ham it up herself.  In Adelaide, there used to be a Greek takeaway, the Orange Crockpot.  One day, talking to Margaret, she called it the Purple Crockpot.  I hadn’t heard her do that sort of thing.  I corrected her.  She turned to me quite savagely, “You know, Graham, that’s just par for the course!”  

I remember Margaret’s eyes, sad and sympathetic.

Sometimes, I understood.  To make a point, I forget which, Vida told me an anecdote.  She was seventeen, I think.  A woman suggested she go to the local dance.  Vida said she had no one to go with.

“That’s why you go to the bleedin’ dance!” the woman replied, quite savagely.

Vida laughed when she repeated it.  She was a teenager too.

Go to your dance, then, ducky.  I’ll lurk here a while.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Going to bed

You know how the Brits are when they go abroad.  The ladies take their tops off in public bars, and the gents piss on war memorials.  There’s always something to do.

You know where they are, too.  You can hear them.

I arrived in Rhodes, the old town, and was looking for a room.  It was nearly midnight.  The alleys which spread out from the castle are like stone tunnels, and that’s where British tourists misbehave, one of the places, anyway.

There was some rain, but it had stopped and was trying to soak in.  A poet might have said that, in a place like this, on such a night, the stones were damp with history.  But there were no poets around.

I heard the noise before I saw the people who were making it.

Show me the way to go home.
I’m tired and I want to go to bed.
I had a little drink about an hour ago,
And it’s gone right to my head.

A group of drunken tourists had spilled into an alley.  I know spilled is a cliché, but it does the job, and, after all, they were balancing pints of beer in the dark.  Some young men had circled one of the girls, the prettiest, or the sluttiest, I don’t know.  This verse, which they sang again and again, was probably never meant to be a male drinking song, but only the men were singing it.  You’ll see why in a moment.  I remember the ring of heads, looking down into the girl's face as she was shorter, and I remember the face itself, lit by alcohol and male attention. 

Every time the men reached I want to go to bedthey sang louder, with more meaning, and  pushed their faces down until they were almost touching hers.

However, at went right to my headthey weren't so sure, as if the lyrics had let them down. They needed a different line to round off the verse, something suited to their understanding of I want to go to bed, but nothing like that came.

I walked down another alley and could no longer see them, but I knew what they were doing.  I knew what was happening at I want to go to bed, the men pushing their faces into hers.  I knew when I couldn’t hear them anymore.  I know now after thirty years.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Our Cat Rafaello

He came over one day from the neighbour’s place.  He just turned up.  Cats don’t tell you when they’re coming.  We didn’t know his name, but we knew it wasn’t Rafaello.  No one calls their cat Rafaello, not around here.  We called him that so, when he just turned up, he belonged to us. 

He danced on the back lawn, swiping flies and bumblebees, biting at the long grass, doing somersaults.  He jumped on our window, trying to get in.  His four paws stayed a moment on the glass.  Another moment.  It was the only time he didn’t move.  He did everything that was possible, and some things that weren’t.

He came every day for weeks until I took his photograph.  When you take a photograph, you don’t think much about it.  I must have wanted some memories.  I didn’t need them, though.  I had Rafaello

Posters sprang up in the street, with ‘lost’ in big letters, a telephone number and a picture of Rafaello.  They were fixed, ironically, to trees and lamp posts, things which couldn’t move.  But the picture kept his spark.  He stared at something which had moved and caught his eye, but which was now no longer there. 

An old lady owned him.  She never got Rafaello back, or whatever name she used.  We never got him back either.  We have the photograph.

A pupil once told me about her guru.  A famous man.  His picture was on the wall.  She lowered her voice and sounded reverent.  She said he could make objects disappear.  I looked impressed, but I'd done that to a living mammal.