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The Midlands are going on holiday. Lock up your daughters, Europe. Lock the doors, bar the windows. Go underground, dig yourselves in. Let the cattle run free, open the barn doors. Take no risks. You will have to live under the floorboards like mice until it’s over. In a state of literature-enhanced benevolence I gaze upon the procession of bleached, tanned, sprayed, tattooed, painted, and bejewelled bodies, in jumpsuits, wife beaters and polyester dresses, in flip flops, with straw bags, and floppy hats, this season’s must-have sweat shop produce. Playing at being at the beach already.
But not any beach, the hotel beach, the most glorious of beaches where the music does not stop and the sand is peppered with cigarette butts and icelolly sticks. Ah to be there, to sip the Carlsbergs and the Stella Artois, to turn this way and that like a roasting chicken under the midday sun. A couple at the table, in their best holiday-making cottons, vacantly sucking out bits of food stuck in between their teeth, looking at people walking past the way fish look out of their tanks, just to move their eyes. It’s all too tragic.
You’d like that evening. It’s how I imagine outings unfold in your funky, seductive, random and melancholy Austin. We rushed through the obligatory post-conference drinks, and skived from the grim-looking conference dinner, laid out ominously in a room adjacent to the stuffy hall in which we had spent the whole day chattering pointlessly. With a delicious feeling of illicit freedom, we sneaked off the campus and took a train to town. It was a few steps down the high street before I could exclaim – there it is! The sea! Just at the end of the road!
I had to promise K I wouldn't go out on my own in this nest of debauchery. True to form, once at the beach we had to wade through sleeping, intoxicated, intertwined bodies to get to the edge of the water. The skeleton of a burnt-down pier added an apocalyptic quality. We finally found a space to sit down and have our picnic of takeaway Asian food, listening to the crunch, crunch of the waves, looking across the pale blue sea towards France. A mist rose from the surf and wafted up the beach, turning golden in the sunset.
I’d known him for so many years now, yet this was the first time we had sat side by side and just chatted. Stocky, hard, and tanned like a piece of leather, he tended to shrink away a bit, perhaps aware of and embarrassed by the tick which caused half of his face to twist and spasm, especially when he felt under pressure. Seeing him relaxed so was a pleasure. Finally we took our shoes off and waded in the sea, hardly able to walk on the sharp little stones, but determined to live this moment to the full.
I was ready to head straight back, but for M the evening was not over. Attracted by the music, we sat at the window of a small pub not far from the shore. The band, squeezed into a corner, played jazz standards with happy abandon to a public of just a few. Shortly, a big, black guy turned up and smiled the widest smile. Nodding and humming with the music, he put on a pair of shiny, new leather shoes with steel heels, and before I knew it I saw my first ever tap dance, right there at the pub.
‘Are you all right?’
I look back from the window and at the asking colleague, and say ‘Yeah. I’m fine. What can you do.’ He looks into my face for a moment. ‘I know you’re not fine. But yes. What can you do.’
My friend’s wife is in a coma. Suddenly collapsed with a brain aneurysm. When I called him, he was calm, practical. I felt like he was comforting me, not the other way around. I had been sitting still staring out of the window, thinking what to write to him. What is there to say?
What I wanted to shout was: I love you! I love you! My heart is breaking for you! But how can you say a thing like that? I do not know him that well. And yet everything about him makes me tender, makes me smile. He resonates with my soul. He is the kind of person I want to be, I aspire to be. I keep thinking back to their kitchen with its warm low light, the companionable silence, the shy kids. To his wife on the opposite side of the table, with her sharp humour, and her witty smile.
It’s thrashing up and down the pond with great loping leaps, sending spray flying. His owner is nervously pacing the concrete pathway, calling, to no avail. We stand and watch the scene with amusement which turns quickly into horror as we notice there’s a duck in the dog’s jaws. That’s been the object of its attention! Suddenly the bird breaks free, and we all cheer, but it's too exhausted or wounded to make it very far, and soon the dog drags it to a sandbank and kills it in the reeds. The other ducks are oblivious.
The twisted streets of the city straighten, and we are in the centrally planned section of town where the York University campus squats. I expect us to stop at any moment by any of the bland steel and concrete buildings, ageing badly, but we keep driving. At the junction we are surrounded by fields. A small gothic church peeks out from behind the trees, horses are out on pasture, and a line of ugly suburban houses spoils the sky line. We pull into a modern eco-village, all timber and earth colours. It feels windswept and empty and far away.
Reminds me a lot of Denmark, even the sky is the same pearly grey, flat and endless. The campus sits just a toe-height above a marshland. Swans paddle along the main building, and a couple of short jetties extending into the reeds are topped with round meeting rooms, all glass and timber. I peek into one and instantly die of jealousy. What a place to work. It gets even more like a Scandinavian crime drama when I walk into the atrium and grab my conference badge. Something feels odd. I look around, and realise. I am the only woman.
‘I think I may have a seizure’. She had been growing increasingly quiet in the last fifteen minutes, and her walk had become heavy and automatic. I assume I don’t have much time, so I ask her some basic questions – do I call an ambulance? Do I put anything in between your teeth? No, no, she says, it’s fine. Do I just hold you? Yes. Even saying these few words is showing as an effort. I try not to look at her directly, not wanting to distract her, and out of respect. No one likes being stared at.
We walk on quickly, and I hear hr make small sounds, and see out of the corner of my eye her hand had started twitching. I cross to the traffic-side of the pavement to be between her and the cars, feeling like a hero. For a while I think we may actually make it to the hotel, but then she stops suddenly and seizes up. I put my arms around her gently, and I’m nearly thrown off my feet when her legs suddenly give way. I manage our fall and sit on the pavement, embracing her from behind.
Nearly immediately people start stopping, getting out of their cars, asking if they can help. I smile and tell them we’re ok. I feel certain that’s the right thing to do. A police car stops, and a friendly looking cop asks if he should call an ambulance. I tell him no. He hangs around, asking who I am, but seems reassured and when I look around later he'd gone. I am secretly proud of my confidence. She is still twitching in my lap as I keep repeating ‘you’re ok, you’re fine’, stroking her back and arms.
I don’t look at her face, with the empty stare and slack jaw, at least in this way to respect her privacy. I tell her afterwards the seizure only lasted five minutes but honestly I lose track of time. Eventually she looks up at me in absolute bewilderment. She has no idea who I am, I’m sure. Recovery takes longer than I expected. We sit up, then walk, and sharper questions and observations start to emerge. She is vulnerable and strives for control. I hope I don’t come across as arrogant, but I feel confident and happy.
There was a swimming place we used to go to in the evenings, when the guy who rented plastic beach chairs was already packing up. It was just under the walls of a medieval monastery, and if you swam out a little bit you could see the Italianesque church tower, and the walls stretching into the darkening sky. The concrete platform was slippery with algae. I once dived under the line of buoys and ventured to the headland, where the rocks on which the monastery was built created a spectacular underwater architecture, with turquoise parrot fish tending to their territories.
What is disarming is their complete trust in you. There you are, handling a sharp instrument near their eye. Face painting. Some of them cry – they can’t help it, it is a natural response. All of them love it. The expression on their faces when they see themselves in the mirror for the first time – amazement, and then joy – that is worth everything to see. Today I did some adults as well, and one of them turned out to work for the red cross. She asked me if I would face paint at their missing persons event. I'm overwhelmed.
They are like my sister, after all. I thought they were different, because they are so extrovert, and because of their life choices, because of the fact they stayed in the little town, because they talked about how working hard nearly killed their relationship. But when they were talking at me, in raised passionate voices, faces contorted and eyes wide, bodies tensed and jutted forward, as if physically trying to press me into submission, they were just like my sister and her husband. We ended up talking about Greece and the bailout, and I ended up feeling like an idiot.
I thought I knew what I thought about the Greek crisis, and some snippets of fact remain – the bailout being mainly about bailing out French and German banks, the poorest being hit the hardest by the planned austerity, the privatisation of the public sector. To my feeble defence their overall argument seemed to be – Greece borrowed the money, they cannot pay them back, they have to pay them back. No amount of debt relief is going to help them, because they are a lazy and corrupt nation. (Which sounded uncomfortably like the first sentence in a paragraph about racial superiority).
They have unreasonably high expectations, they have to expect less, spend less and work harder and everything will be ok. The austerity is a way of telling them to shut up and get on with it. Although I do not have the counter arguments at my fingertips, instinctively I feel there is something wrong with these sweeping generalisations. I want to ask about who was really borrowing, who was really spending; what does it mean to be ‘lazy’, and who should be responsible. I feel like things are much more complex and like the responsibility should be allocated more equitably.
The passion with which they defend the German position, the vehemence with which they describe the whole Greek nation as lazy bums, tells me this isn’t really about economics, but about morality, It is the same story they tell me of the ‘young people today’, who don’t want to shut up and put up with it; even though they themselves had given up higher paid jobs to slow down and live better. They talk of ‘quality of life’ as if it were a luxury, not a human right. They are defending their life choices and their own identity.
It’s interesting how the neoliberal point of view and religious belief go hand in hand for them. Perhaps you need to believe in an afterlife to put up with so much shit in this life. I don’t know. Whenever I come back here my identity suffers such a wobble. It's very hard being an atheistic socialist in a neoliberal theocracy. Perhaps I'd have never become one if I had stayed here, so overwhelming is the status quo. Or perhaps I would have just been better informed, knowing I will have to fight tooth and nail for every statement.
My only touch-point is deep back in the basics. What is economy for? The basic question. Is it to further the accumulation of the few, who through the accident of genetics, upbringing and fate had an opportunity to achieve more? Who have worked hard and played by the rules and deserved to be rewarded with more material things? Or is it to ensure the happiest and most ecologically sustainable life for as many as possible, even if it means rewarding free-loading? Those who worked hard for their benefits justly resent those to whom they are given for free.
I look at his face sometimes and can’t believe he’s real. They say the longer couples spend together, the less eye contact they make – the interaction changes from face-en-face to side-by-side, arm-in-arm. I have noticed that. And so sometimes I just stare at him, with no other purpose than seeing his face again.
What I love most is his neck. The way he arches it back when we’re in bed, the place where it softly and smoothly joins his jaw, that tender sweet spot. One day I will get a proper macro lens and draw these beloved lines with light.
It is immensely satisfying, having a shower when you really need it. After a day’s mucking in the garden, carrying bricks, building a new plant bed, weeding, planting and mixing compost, I am caked in dirt. Sweat painted dried out riverbeds in the dust on my breast. The water runs grey, and I scrub my skin until it is pink; somehow there is soil even between my toes, in spite of the shoes. It feels so good. It takes me back to my childhood, especially the black dirt stuck under the fingernails. Cat’s mourning robes, we used to call it.
“I could have had a child last year. A friend of mine is a very rich film producer. We’ve known one another since we were children. He’s been in an unhappy marriage for years, and his wife strung him on promising she will give him a child. But in the end she said she didn’t want to; she already has children of her own. He flew over here from Los Angeles, and we talked for a long time. And he made me an offer. He asked me if I would give him a child. He would take care of everything.”
“He would not divorce his wife, of course. But he would be here every month, and he would provide for both of us. I could keep working if I wanted to, he would pay for a house suitable for a child, and the nanny, and a nurse, and everything, whatever I wanted and needed.”
I look at her intensely. This is a fairy tale scenario.
“I refused. In the end, I would still be a single mother. And I still want to meet the love of my life. I am still vain enough to think it may happen.” She smiles.
“I’ve had three abortions. Two were illegal, the whole back of the van in a blindfold scenario. The third one was the worst. There was a feeling already that the law was changing, so I just had to prove to a tribunal that I was mentally unstable and incapable of caring for a child. It was a contest, there were few places, and that day I had to compete with two rape victims and a mentally handicapped woman. And because I was middle class and educated I knew how to behave, and I got it. And that was the trauma.”
Snorkelling is like… Flying. Flying in space. Sometimes the planet below is dull and brown, just a few vividly yellow sponges and an occasional turquoise flash of a wrasse warning me off its turf. Often thousands of tiny fish hang like a silvery curtain, stretching into the distance, parting gently as I dive between them. Schools of black damsel fish keep a loose, casual structure, like leaves caught in an updraft. Below, groups of salepa move cowlike from pasture to pasture. One time I came across a gently swirling ball of young barracuda, long silvery spikes with watchful round eyes.
Most mornings we took the first dive at a cove near our apartment. There were always plenty of fish and starfish there, and once even an octopus, which quickly turned brown and weaved itself into the grasses disappearing as if into a jungle. I loved that place. On our last day there I was disturbed to see a long black cord stretching along the sea bed. An unwelcome intrusion of the human. I tried to keep my eyes off it and enjoy myself, but it bothered me. Swimming back, I noticed with the corner of my eye an odd shape.
Still, a metre or so under the surface, bright pink and yellow and white against the deep blue. Something about it bothered me. But I was curious. Was it a new type of fish I had not spotted before? I swam closer, peering. Suddenly my buttocks clenched and my blood ran cold, a sickly taste in my mouth making me spit into the snorkel. Monstrous, wrong, evil. An abomination. I reversed violently, eyes locked on what I started to realise was a body of a comber, hooked, and somehow turned inside out. I have still not forgiven Man for this.
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