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.
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 …
Blue is the colour of my dreams, the inside and the outside worlds tilting but never quite fully falling over. The flutter of the leaves in the wind and the beauty of the sky’s colours urged me to look up, to embrace the vast emptiness of existence. No comfort was found, history meaning nothing to the future, but no comfort was needed. It wasn’t that life is on a constant knife-edge of imbalance, when is it not?, but the fact that I could embrace the now, the cold comfort of the wind and the cawing of the birds as my own. Distinctly my own, this moment and nothing more. That nothing, or rather no moment, truly mattered or matters in the great cosmic life course of universal matter. We were born and we will die, from whence we began we will return.
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.
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.
Ask yourself but one question: does it matter?
Everyone around me was having this great big conversation with god, or a version of their god, but I was sat there, half reclining, half lying, looking up at the birds, the clouds and beyond those the stars, thinking does it matter? How many other people are staring at these..
…magnificent cloud formations, the shapes reminiscent of
Norway’s kinking coastal outline.
The gulls were soaring mid-flight, high, coasting on the invisible
waves of the wind. It was magnificent. They could hear the call of
their feathered friends, could survey their kingdom beneath me.
I didn’t admit it out there by myself but I was trapped, not by faith but by chance, by accepting a job at a place I knew I hated.
So each and every break-time I head outside, go to see the wildlife, the clouds, the sun whose light streaks across the sky and I think, It could be worse. It could be better.
It is hard to articulate the freedom that I feel behind the wheel. As I join the flow of traffic I am you and you are I, only our cars distinguish us amongst the crowd and even then we are both the same. Yet driving is also death incarnate – the flurry of life in flux and of life taken at a moment’s notice. I fear gross trauma, the savaged limb and the non-beating heart.
Yet, even with this fear encapsulated within my bosom, I still love the freedom that the four wheels bring, even as we are constrained by the tarmac and by the signs. It is a chance to listen again to a favourite CD in its entirety, to revisit a band’s discography. It is the time to make me fall in love once more. It is the time to get to know my co-workers that much more, to have unfettered conversations not sanctioned by the workplace. It is the time to cruise the dark streets alone on my midnight journey home, heading back to the family dwelling. It is the time to think of the luxury of a life half-lived.
All photographs by the author, please credit if used elsewhere.