My mother has this Christmas tradition that, when we have all taken our seats and just before we have taken our first bite of a long-awaited roast dinner, we raise a toast to the dearly departed, to those members of the family who are no longer with us and to those friends that no longer accompany us throughout our life journey. It reminds us, the living, to be thankful that we are seeing the close of yet another year together, to remain thankful to have known the dearly departed and that we remember them still.
The fact that this takes place before we have tasted our food is of the utmost importance. To say thank you on an empty stomach is to accept that we have lost those that will never be by our sides again, that we will never break bread with them and share our laughter and sadness across the table. Our eyes will never again catch theirs.
I sometimes like to imagine where the deceased are now, as if their memories have somehow broken free of their corporeal remains and drift uninhibited across the globe. It can be difficult to think that all that we have ever known and all that we have ever loved and experienced can be so self-contained in our floating globe, silently rotating in the great big soup of the universe. But it is and it must be, that is why we remember and why we say goodbye once again at the close of the year.
In the past year or two my fiction and non-fiction reading has generally tended to become focused on the Nordic and Russian/Slavic countries, by pure chance, and I’ve unearthed a great wealth of rewarding material. For example, my interests in Russian and Soviet history has dovetailed greatly with the rich and rewarding trove of literature that the citizens of the east have produced, and continue to produce. The latest novel that I find myself reading is the Soviet-era classic Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman, a thoroughly documented and powerful kaleidoscopic panoply of a Soviet society which finds itself engaged in total war with the fascist threat from Nazi Germany and her allies. It is a novel which very nearly did not see the light of day due to the harsh censors of the Soviet Union, but thankfully the volume was smuggled out and printed elsewhere.
However, it is a little collection of books that I’ve read recently that remind me that fiction and reality aren’t always so clear-cut, and that they often inform one another with varying viewpoints. I had the pleasure to read one of my favourite travel writer’s recent publications, Horatio Clare’s Icebreaker: A Voyage Far North (Penguin), over the festive holiday and was ably transported once again to somewhere quite new (and rather cold) as he undertook a mission to accompany a Finnish icebreaker crew.
Another recent publication is The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat & Other Stories (Puskin Press), edited by Sjón & Ted Hodgkinson, which brings together a wide range of Nordic writers producing short sagas set in the fantastical north. This reminded me of a volume I read a few years ago which was entitled Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin), edited by Robert Chandler, which took a historical approach to understanding the cultural importance of magic tales that underpin Russia’s literature over two centuries. This is an exquisite volume, one that allowed me to appreciate the form and beauty of often simple moral tales which bled into the surreal via the use of anthropomorphism. This can be seen in some of the works produced before and during the Soviet period (Platonov’s ‘The Foundation Pit’ say, or Bulgakov’s ‘The Master and Margarita’).
This was just a quick view into some of my recent reading habits and where they have led me. Let me know below if you’ve been having fun exploring literature and fiction from around the world!
A repost of one of my favourite photographs that I’ve taken, probably from a few years ago now.
He stumbled into the room, roughly grasping the top of the chair by his well-worn desk and cursing each former lover in his moist and ailing breath, fell into a sorry heap upon the bed, too tired to pull off his boots and too saddened by the decline in his quality of life to remove his glasses. Nothing, save the frothing fury of the tropical sea rising up and laying salty claim to all the beaches in the land, could save the loss of face that he had endured that day. For in front of his red-headed daughter, who was buxom, proud and ready to marry the young military captain that had so captured her heart and stained it so openly on his own uniformed arm, he had been stripped of all power, humiliated and whipped like a cowering dog chained to a post in the yard.
The cause of his mistreatment was the maid, who had so blithely started that fateful day as gormless as she had entered this life, the daughter of a whore who had given her up at the first opportunity. That is not to say that she, the maid, was unaware of the power that her accusation would bring to her master, as she knew from her dilapidated upbringing that the raw power of sexual lust could do strange things to a man’s heart. It was a memory passed down in blood from her estranged mother, the one who would die empty-handed clutching helplessly at the passing shoes of the sons and daughters of her customers. It was an ignoble end to a life lived in the shadows, but one that her daughter would not share with her mother, or so she had thought.
Instead she would carry around with her a glowing heart filled at the memories of a holiday romance, a fling that had lit a thousand nights of self-fueled passion spread across the decades following the now hazy memories of a lifetime ago. These were the glimpses into her past that brought her body and mind onto the edge of so fantastic an experience that she temporarily blinded herself each and every time she accessed them. Although her current life lacked little in the way of attention from the opposite sex, keeping as she had the plump and youthful looks of her mother, the willingness to partake in the tasting of the flesh was strictly divorced from the cannibalization of her own memories. In short, it was these that she feasted on instead of the current attention that she attracted and returned to again and again in the silence of the night.
Time passed silently, the moon forever chasing the sun as the weeks leaped into months and the seasons dictated the passing of the years. By chance work had found her employed as a maid for an owner of a large tract of land, which included numerous rented apartments and holiday villas for tourists that visited this small Caribbean nation alongside the owner’s main housing complex, hidden in a corner behind a curving perimeter wall. The owner coveted his private life and communicated with both his retinue and his staff by way of paper notes, dotted across the working surfaces of a life he had little known intimately but instead managed from afar. The practice worked as if by magic though, the newer members of staff at first baffled by the notes left in green ink each morning, documenting the previous day’s stock figures, both incoming and outgoing, and dictating the actions of the next. The older staff however were well used to this method and blithely accepted whatever the writer of the note wanted, trusting as they did the path ahead as an apparition of the successful path behind.
The persistent rumours of the sightings of the owner were frequent among the staff, with wild recollections of a golden-haired Lothario prowling the grounds at night or that he was actually a hunchback man who had been seen howling at the moon in rage and despair. Lucinda, the young slip of a girl who worked in the granary, had once caught a slender grey-haired gentlemen helping himself to the kitchen stores but he had pranced off into the night before she had a chance to shout his name. No sightings were confirmed although that did not stop the rumours being mulled over and created late into the night by the staff at the end of their long shifts; instead the owner preferred always to communicate by his spidery flowing script rather than by sight and sound.
The maid had seen his notes and was taken by the veracity of the green ink on the faded, golden papers. The twirls of the P’s and the L’s satisfied some small section of her stomach, pleasingly looped as they were. In time she started to collect a number of the notes once the older ones had been discarded, their actions carried out by the ever observant and trusting staff. It was late one springs night, in her provided for one bed-roomed cleaners cottage, that the maid noticed the odd word or phrase that silently rung a long-dormant bell within her memory.
Surely the owner could not be the very flame that had burnt for eternity within her chest, ever since that fleeting coastal romance? She gathered up the dozen or so notes spread across the duvet and held them close to her tight chest, breathing in the vapors of the ink as her pupils dilated and the clothes fell from her body of their own volition. When she woke she noted the cold sweat of her body, the notes plastered on the inside of her thighs, on top of her belly and on her breasts, a love intent on the recreation of the physical and the spiritual. She knew then that the owner was indeed her former lover.
Some days later a note went up on the main noticeboard: ‘To wit: My Daughter to Marry the Captain, Two Days Hence – Staff Welcome’.
The owner’s daughter was most unlike her father in that she was well-known in the community, haughty but well-known. Little did she communicate directly with the staff, she was instead seen and not heard. Two days until the wedding! Some of the staff, the kitchen women and the mucker outers especially, expressed surprise that they were invited to view the proceedings, but all were excited by the prospect of finally seeing with their own eyes the owner of the land. Much was made of the brevity of the note in comparison to the usual notes but none could argue that the next 48 hours were to pass in a state of increasing frenzy and intrigue.
Today was the day that she was going to proclaim that this stored fountain of love was directly transferable to the object of her affections, the owner. In her fevered night-long dreams she could foresee a double marriage taking place, father and daughter pleased and pressed into unions of love, her simple maid’s status raised to the title of owner’s wife! Oh, what pleasure awaited them both! Dressing in her finest clothes and smartening up her shoes, she went to join the rest of the workers gathered outside in the courtyard, ready to proceed to the wedding venue – an outdoor folly that took into its expansive view the bay and the mountains in the background and the luscious greens in the foreground.
The crowd waited with bated breath as the procession of the captain and his bride, and assembled groomsmen and bride’s maids of honor, sorted themselves within the folly. A minute or two later the owner strode into view, each booted foot planted with firm resolution, his tight thin-lipped mouth curled up into the slightest imitation of a sneer, framed by golden-greying hair. A complete hush fell over the crowd of workers and some swore they could see green ink stains on his fingertips, a visual clue that this was who they suspected that he was.
It was at this moment that the maid, her breasts almost bursting out of her tight white top, lunged forward, one foot unsteadily following the other as a faint scream of ecstasy escaped her lips and the faint light of terror entered the owner’s eyes.
‘Matías! Matías! My love, it is me, Natalia!’
It was later recalled it was at this moment that the owner’s heart sunk fully into the very bowels of his body.
What for her had been an unforgettable romance by the sea, had been instead for him a desultory sink in status, one that he had revelled in at the time for its feeling of desperation but had since been forced into the very back of his mind. Instead, and ever since that long weekend spent entwined in both the arms and breasts of Natalia, he had made love to women only on par with his social standing, determined to remove the grit that he had felt instilled itself in him from sinking so low that one time.
In short, there could be no worse time for his past to haunt the owner then at the very moment he chose to show himself for the first time to his staff at his daughter’s wedding.
His eyes sunk into their sockets, and continued to join his heart, whilst his cheeks became maroon curtains of the richest silk.
He ran and he did not look back as Natalia stumbled onto her knees and tried clasping onto his fleeing heels, just as her mother had once done in the street where she lay dying …
The final flight to a familiar destination, my body sighs with relief. You are my final stranger, the person who sits one empty chair away from me of who I do not know one bit. I see your passport briefly, possibly from the Emirates judging from the silver cross of swords potent on the cover and the colourful shawl draped across your delicate face.
Your body is tiny in comparison to my towering torso and broad hulking shoulders. You curl up in your seat as soon as the plane starts to taxi, covering your head fully and aiming for a fitful fifty minute sleep. I am envious of this talent, I can only stare straight ahead, dipping into a satirical magazine to ease my boredom. This is the shortest flight that I have been on for some time now, but even here my eyes cannot rest. I reacquaint myself with the politics and humour of this land, smiling to myself as the plane carries on heading to the north.
I look across from time to time, partly to see the green grass of home but also to check that you are still resting. Your left hand is placed across your stomach, holding steady as your wrapped head lolls from time to time. The silent movements in sleep stand in great contrast to the roar of the engines situated just a few metres from where we are.
We smile at one another as I let you pass me by to get into the aisle, we have arrived at our destination and I am glad. I am finally home whilst you, I feel, may be very far from it but I hope you find a home here too and a loving family of friends.
When I think of home I think of the sea, of the waves breaking against the rocks and the frothing remainder meeting the land in a head-on rush to embrace it. I remember the time as a child when I was caught on a sandbar between the incoming tide and a deepening pool of seawater between the beach and I, making the pool a barricade that I had nearly lost the will, resolve and confidence to overcome. I was scared of the things that could be lurking in the water, of the large flat jellyfish waiting with their tentacles outstretched and the crabs poised with their claws open, ready to snap at a moment’s hesitation on my part.
My feet were lost to the cold depths at this point and I could feel only the rush of water around my torso even though the bright intense sun hovered overhead, warming each body laid out on the beach in front of me, as if to mock my situation and to suggest that life went on no matter what happened to me. With my cries of worry and my arms waving feebly I was eventually noticed and saved by an older brother who guided me by hand across the treacherous water that had so frightened and paralysed me.
I’d wanted the safety of the land, of something solid under my feet where I could look to the sea unmolested by creatures of the deep. I’d become trapped because I was not paying attention to what was happening around me as I was too busy splashing in the water, resting on the sandbar and admiring the view of family and friends relaxing by the sea.
The journey to get to that beach had felt like a holiday in itself, not a fifteen minute drive from my family home. Packed in the car, almost as tightly as sardines, we would be wearing our swimming trunks clasping plastic spades and buckets. Sometimes a store box, packed with frozen ice packs, accompanied us and was filled full of cool and refreshing snacks that we’d eat after an hour or two of heating up in the fresh salt tinged air. The North Sea would sometimes bring winds that had rallied and rolled across the water coming from as far away as Holland or Denmark, maybe even Norway at a push, or so I had hoped. It was naive to think such things perhaps but I liked the thought of being connected with the countries that we had visited on holidays in the past.
After our little swim and exploration of the sand the two families would trudge back to the parked car, heading through a sandy beach that morphed into a half-hearted shingle before giving way once more to sand dunes, where shark sticks of dried grass would prick your feet and legs as you hobbled over them. It was customary to then shake our clothes free of sand, shaking our bodies in union as we did so, and then push on to purchase an ice cream in a cone and try to all fit into the car once again. We’d had a day at the beach and the sun had tired us out, we needed food and drink to replenish the physical and mental energy that we had lost exploring for shells, oddly shaped stones, the dried out remains of crabs and the dodging of the rubbish that protruded through the sand itself.
I had thought about these summer family trips to the beach years later as I relaxed in the back garden of my university house during my undergraduate years of study. I had gotten lucky with this house so close to the university campus and the local parade of shops – French doors, from my room, led directly into our fairly big back garden where, during the summer, autumn and spring seasons, my house mates and I could relax unencumbered by walls. We read in the sun, drank beer and burnt meat during numerous BBQ’s, we solidified our relationships here too. It was the ideal relaxation area late on a Friday after a week full of lectures, research and writing, where we could gather with a few of our friends and get a mild buzz from drinking beers in the evening sun. Music accompanied those gatherings, music that hung in the cooling air and permeated our bodies to slowly drift off out into the night once we had taken our fill.
The grass under my feet and the fact that I often took off my T-shirt as I lay on the grass meant that I felt truly rooted to the ground and I could stare at the sky freely, my eyes wandering from cloud to cloud or bird to bird as they popped into view. It felt good being partially clothed, to feel the heat of the sun on my own skin or the coldness of the northern breeze against my chest. It was different from sitting in a cool lecture theatre absorbing the information like a sponge, making notes on what I wanted to research and to write about for the next essay or presentation that popped up regularly, like ships on the horizon that appear in a pleasingly timely manner. I wouldn’t admit it to myself, but I enjoyed the peace and the quiet away from the others that came with being down in the back garden by myself. It had a timeless quality, that it felt like I could be a student forever and never truly grow up.
But still, I missed the sea. The waves that broke, that swelled, that seemed to bore ceaselessly on against the land that I called home.
My limbs are heavy and my head is hanging low. I’m smoking the last cigarette I have and on the last piece of paper I own I have wrote down my last will and testament. The money in the bank can be given to charity, I ain’t got no family no more. Give out my belongings to the homeless and give the food to the hungry.
Do what I couldn’t in life, spare me the embarrassment of riches in death. Do what you have to do.
‘…the car’s on fire and there’s no driver at the wheel and the sewers are all muddied with a thousand lonely suicides and a dark wind blows. The government is corrupt and we’re on so many drugs with the radio on and the curtains drawn. We’re trapped in the belly of this horrible machine and the machine is bleeding to death. The sun has fallen down and the billboards are all leering and the flags are all dead at the top of their poles…’
I saw a triangle between fantasy, religion and law. I saw a watchful man with his hand on his hip and the law on his side, separated from the crowd by the machines speeding past. I saw politics, stories and figureheads of world religions mixed into one neon mixture, spat back out onto the maddening crowd below. I saw the Holy and the damned. The failures of a thousand people wrapped around the hopes of a few who never knew how much they had invested in this dream, this flashing light paranoia of a thousand suggestions and a hundred hooks wriggling with the baited breath of hope. The engine of a city, hot air shouted up into the sky to meet the cold winds blowing in from the Atlantic.
Digital photograph by the author, if reproduced please credit as appropriate.
The city was huge, dauntingly huge. Densely packed, the people but ants compared to the towering skyscrapers above and the labyrinthine subway below. It was exhilarating, confusing, suffocating. It was beautiful. It was freedom in anonymity, in wave after wave of people crossing block after block: all with a story to tell, all with their own individual lives. I heard every language in the world, I saw every skin tone a human can have. I lived a thousand lives. I lived my own life, with tensions brought bubbling to the surface and safety sought in solitude. Love resided, not passionate romantic love but familial bonds broken by petty remarks and re-made by breaking bread and sharing food. A mother’s tears in the taxi rank. Discussions never had were evaporated at the thought stage, vibrated free by the hum of the stop-start vehicles choking the roads. Directions not sought were instead shouted at by uniformed staff, hushed into lines, finger printed and bags searched. Made to feel guilt by association. You are an individual, you are the American dream. You are the foundations turned into a crystalline memorial. You are the kind individual who helped me to the front of the queue. You are the tramp dying of heart failure, the homeless that hang around the port authority building looking for a break. You are the actor on Broadway who signs autographs on the sidewalk after the show and then anonymously melts into the night. You are in the queue at Shake Shack, awaiting your turn, your accent rebounding into the heat of the September sun. You are the man who stands and pounds the tarmac, shouting ‘Jesus saves!’ whilst waving your homemade sign aloft in a salute to the holy. You are the cab driver who never talked, the policeman who joked on the corner. You are the band leader who was nervous to speak on the Radio City stage but held the audience in the palm of your hand. You are the deli counter assistant who cannot understand my British accent. You are the ant that makes this city run. You are the love that lingers in my heart.
Photograph by the author using a cheap digital camera, if re-used please credit as appropriate.