Categories
Thinking

All Is Mended

The Shakespeare Window, Southwark Cathedral (photograph © Southwark Cathedral)

Last week, on the last day of July, I said goodbye to a dear friend at her funeral service in Southwark Cathedral.

The site has been a place of Christian worship since c. 606 AD, when the first church was erected there, and the current building became a cathedral upon the creation of the diocese of Southwark in 1905.

Throughout its history, the church has had links with many people of influence, including William Shakespeare. He was a resident of the parish of St Saviour’s (now Southwark Cathedral).  His brother Edmund also lived in the parish, dying there in 1607.  

So, it seemed fitting that one of the three readings at my friend’s funeral should have been written by William Shakespeare. It was delivered by her grand-daughter a short distance from both Edmund’s ledger stone and the Shakespeare Window, the left light of which depicts Puck.

If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles, do not reprehend: 

if you pardon, we will mend:

And, as I am an honest Puck,

If we have unearned luck

Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,

We will make amends ere long;

Else the Puck a liar call;

So, good night unto you all.

Give me your hands, if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends.

William Shakespeare (c.1595) A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the Epilogue of Puck (V, i. 440-455)

Categories
Loving

Love After Death

I have, for many years, had a great admiration for the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman. A hero of mine, if you like (and even if you don’t). Thinking I couldn’t care for him more, reading this text of a letter he wrote to his dead, first, wife in October 1946, 488 days after she died of tuberculosis, disproved me.

‘D’Arline,

I adore you, sweetheart.

I know how much you like to hear that — but I don’t only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.

It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing.

But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector. Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures.

When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.

I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.

My darling wife, I do adore you.

I love my wife. My wife is dead.

Rich.

PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.’

Today would have been his 100th birthday, this letter shows the man. His awards and academic recognition show the scientist. I’ve always been a little in love with the person. A true magician.

(Taken from the book ‘Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman’, James Gleick (1993).)

Categories
Loving

Finding Jeff

I got the phone call in the supermarket. Already in a bad mood, I pulled the smartphone from my pocket to stare at its screen and a number I didn’t recognise. Too pissed off to ignore it, I pressed accept. It was a call from a tearful female –

‘Is that Jane?’

‘Yes, who is this?’

‘We’ve never met’ (Really, I need this?).

‘I found your number in some old papers’ (Not helping).

‘I work with Jeff’ (Mind clearing).

‘I didn’t know who else to call. I have some bad news’ (Right, I’m your go-to gal,then).

‘Can you talk?’ (Can I ever?).

Taking a deep breath, I put down my shopping basket. I told her to go on, please. She did, thank you.

‘We thought it was an abscess and he just needed a tooth out, but it’s mouth cancer and it’s too far gone.’

So, she was calling to tell me Jeff was dying and at a much faster rate than us. I said no, no I didn’t mind that she was calling me and not to worry that she was in tears but that I was in Asda and it was all a bit much to take in.

‘Why don’t you text me with your mobile number and then I’ll come visit? We can talk face to face and I can see Jeff.’

She stopped crying and apologising, agreed, and I rang off politely but firmly.

I picked up my shopping basket and put in a litre bottle of Jack Daniels. On the short walk home, I decided I felt guilty for not visiting before receiving Jeff’s death sentence. While waiting for the promised text, I entertained myself with the notion of how hard I’d punch the next person who told me that it’s best these things happen to me ‘because you’re a strong person, Jane, and you can take it.’ I stared at the still unopened-in-spite whiskey bottle, harder and harder – I used it as a lens to look around my room, an amber filter for my rage. The text arrived. It was signed off with kisses. I’d never met this woman. I replied yes, yes, of course I’d visit xxx.

It’d been almost three years since I’d last seen him, and that was at Grandad’s funeral. His Dad. Jeff had come to the crematorium with Dave. Dave had approached me as I received condolences in the rain ‘We need to talk, what happens when Jeff dies? Is there a funeral plan?’ He wanted to tell me about Jeff. It wasn’t the time or the place for that conversation. I gave him my number and my mother’s (wishing him good luck with that one, but hey, she is – technically – next of kin) and then continued accepting sympathy and stories as Dave drove Jeff home. Grandad took care of everything, he had told me so. I was his executor, so I knew ‘officially’, too. But I had no details, so I minded the gap and that bothered me. I resolved to visit Jeff and to find out. But I didn’t. I left the country again and on fleeting return trips he wasn’t a priority – Grandad had taken care of him.

I made an appointment and I visited. From my house to his was an hour’s walk either way. The address was an unassuming pebble-dashed bungalow in a residential part of town, next to a bus stop and opposite a large pub. I rang the doorbell and, after a few minutes, one of Jeff’s housemates answered. He was chatty and wary and eventually stood aside to let me in to meet the woman who’d called me. Jeff was on his reclining chair in the corner of the sitting room watching a musical on the television. He looked up when I went in, looked at her, then we all smiled at each other. I walked over and hugged him and then she told me the story of Jeff’s cancer diagnosis. A shockingly short story. He had months left, at best. Someone else came in and offered me tea, I accepted. It was a good cup of tea, I told him. By this time, I’d met Jeff’s other housemate, who’d been in to check me out – to be certain I had Jeff’s best interests at heart. Everyone had stories of Jeff, yet wanted to know more. Suddenly, we all minded the gaps.

I thought, well, he’s my mother’s brother, he’s 19 years older than me, I haven’t seen him for three years – that’s it, really. All I know. But, of course, it wasn’t. Not at all.

Between then and Christmas I visited regularly. I met more of the growing team who were caring, and cared, for Jeff.  As I did, we all tried to find him, to know a Jeff which matched all memories, none of them in common. He looked on; smiling, then frowning. But in striving for ‘Jeff always…’, we could only hit ‘Jeff, as far as we know’. I knew what I’d been told and what I’d witnessed from childhood to my twenties, until Jeff had to go into care. When my grandparents, ageing, could no longer cope physically day-to-day. His carers knew him from the time he’d gone to live in his shared bungalow. One of his housemates knew him from the time they’d spent together in an institution (the mere sight of which now caused an expression of horror to cross Jeff’s face). We all tried to find him though he was right there with us.

Jeffrey was autistic, and he never spoke. His silence and our not knowing was quite the burden. Yet it was all the blame that could ever have been laid at his feet and even that based entirely on our expectations, not his demands. Not knowing had eaten away at my grandparents: they’d looked tirelessly for answers, for help. Finding little, they’d provided their own and then some for many others. Grandad – A Tribute outlines some of their work. Grandad said he’d made sure that Jeff would always be taken care of and that he was proud to have a son who would never let him down. Jeff was there with me for my  Early Learning, I’d sit with him and recite my spellings and we’d draw letters together. He could communicate just fine to a receptive audience (can’t we all?) and I was always left with the impression that he was simply too good (or thought he was) for the rest of us.

As his condition worsened, I sat with his carers to plan his funeral. Grandad had taken care of it, of course. It was fully prepared, yet we had to choose music, hymns and readings still. We did. In the end it was so simple to provide everyone with a breath of air, a glimpse into a blameless life and one which taught us all so much about ourselves whilst giving away so little of its own. The last time I saw Jeff was a week before he died. I kissed him on the forehead and wished him ‘Good night, God bless’ as I left. It’s what Gran always did for me and him and one thing I had remembered quite clearly in finding Jeff.

Categories
Living

Lost and Found

Reading ‘Hurry Up and Wait’ by Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler, I was stopped by this:

‘When I was a kid my father would say,
if you get lost, don’t look for me.
Stay there. Stay there and I will find you.

He’s gone now.’

Instantly reminded of my complete trust and faith in my father to take care of everything – especially me – I wondered am I still waiting for him to find me?

Categories
Moving

Full Moon Over Tilos

(Taken from my diary for 24-29 June 2002)

You’re never alone on Tilos. You may think you are, but you’re the centre of attention. You’re never alone. My sister doesn’t want me to be alone, not right now anyway. She doesn’t think it healthy. She may have a point. In any case, I’m here and reminded of the first time I ever visited the Greek islands years ago – the smells, sounds, sights, ambience, mood. Well, a bit. We’ve all changed since then, haven’t we – as my sister reminded me earlier today in a call. At the port when I arrive, there are fights around the island catamaran ‘Sea Star’. The shouting and scuffles have been brought on by overbooking at Pentecost and a change of schedule. They’ve also brought out the full cast of port police, mayor, crew and municipal police. The overworked vessel eventually makes two later runs to Rhodes, at 18:30 and 22:00.

I find accommodation quickly in a small block of unremarkable tourist rooms a short walk from the harbour. The area’s not too picturesque but is extremely well-kept, with its neat gardens and alleys. The building itself is family owned and run, of course. The woman and her son do the work. The man tells them how to do it. The mother has a voice constantly on the verge of hysteria – ‘I’m so happy I could cry!’. She is childlike, looks younger than her years and is definitely not of this earth. She skips everywhere, taking great delight in the tiniest detail. I find her tiring company and am relieved that she is more a dreamer than a talker. I’m still having problems getting to sleep and staying there. I thought I might make a better job of it here, but no. On my first night, I was still up at 01:00, restless and claustrophobic, though have no idea why. After a fitful sleep, I woke at 05:00 with the smell of bread from the nearby bakery wafting through my open window. For a couple of nights, there’s an Italian couple staying next door to me. They fuck often and loudly through the night. They reduce me to tears, their lust for each other and life is too painful.

Cannot stop thinking about work and realise the more I try, the worse it gets. Time for a swim, so I take the bus to Eristos, and an odd comfort from three other passengers saying they’d had a bad night’s sleep as they couldn’t get their minds off work, either. The beach at our destination seems to go on forever – there are no cantinas and only 9 sunbeds and umbrellas on the whole stretch. The bus disgorges us four tourists. Just a note: the other three insist upon being described as ‘travellers’, despite having come on a package holiday, but I’m having none of it and so have used the word ‘tourist’ as much as possible during the bus ride. Unsurprisingly, they move as far away from me as they can on the beach – and stay there. I watch two fishing boats land their catch, then spend a detached afternoon swimming and reading before hitching a ride back on a farm truck.

A few days in and I decide it’s time to leave. I’m down at the port watching the island catamaran set sail and think, suddenly, ‘I must, too!’. My experiment with ‘being alone’ is done. I head to the local travel agent to buy my boat ticket, to find out that they cannot sell me one for the catamaran or the flying dolphin (there’s only one place I can do that, and it’s not there) and that the inter-island ferry which normally calls once a week has broken a propellor and is out of action for at least a fortnight. I go visit an oleaginous, imperious little man who happens to be the one who can sell me that much-needed ticket. My desire to leave is now so compelling, I cannot wait until Sunday for the ‘Sea Star’ and I take a ticket for the next passenger vessel out – tomorrow’s flying dolphin which takes two hours to reach Rhodes as it calls at Halki en route. Not ideal, but it’ll do. I go eat, relieved.

At the restaurant, I tuck myself away at a table under the trees – I don’t want company and I can smell the loneliness of all those long-distance travellers desperate to tell their tales to someone. Body language designed to repel travellers doesn’t have any effect on locals. Within five minutes, I’m joined by the restaurant owner and one of the waiters. Maria (the owner) remembers me from my days teaching in Rhodes and Hassan (the waiter) remembers me from my days teaching in Damascus (his home). Hassan is looking for a German wife, he might accept an English one (they tell me) – do I know anyone suitable? I say, no, I really don’t. My food arrives. They get up to leave. Maria hesitates. ‘Jane, are you married?’ ‘No, I’m recently widowed – very recently.’ She hugs me and apologises. I eat, pay and leave.

I go back to my room, dodging desperately bored flirts. Cheap chat up lines from men who can’t even be bothered to stand up to deliver them, punctuated by whistling and catcalling. In the dark, below my balcony, I’m offered a boat trip by moonlight. No. Just no. The old woman opposite comes out onto her balcony with news. She shouts across You’ll sleep well tonight. The Italians sailed out on the freighter!’, waves and disappears into her own private shadows. It’ll be a while until I sleep through the night again, but tonight the silence of solitude is a welcome blanket.

Categories
Loving Moving

Flora’s Story

This is a guest post – I asked the author to write out her feelings on living in Greece now, and she duly did. Here is her story.

A while ago a friend suggested that I write about my experiences as an Australian here in Greece, living through the current crisis. I agreed that I would do so, but it’s taken me a long time to sit down and actually put pen to paper, or rather, do the digital equivalent of letting my fingers dance across the keyboard and letting them express through their staccato symphony the thoughts and feelings that are churning through my heart and mind during this exceptionally difficult period for me. I have gone through many years of uncertainty, loneliness, and depression, but no period of my life has challenged me as this past year has.

Boy, that sounds bleak. But the end of my Australian work contract in March 2014 was a catalyst for my venturing into a new stage of my life, one that was utterly unplanned and uncharted. As far as I knew, I was simply heading overseas to see family and to holiday in Archaggelos, Rhodes, after the death of my grandmother. This bereavement hurt my mother as nothing else has for over two decades, though I greeted the event with a mixture of grief and relief. Relief as, by that time, my grandmother did nothing but suffer each day unable to recognise her loved ones anymore, unable to communicate, unable to eat or clean herself. I occasionally stumble across short videos I’d recorded of her on my computer and my heart lurches in my ribcage and squirms like a frightened animal – I loved her only as one could love somebody they’d gotten to know on the phone, and by seeing for two to three months every year or two. I wish I’d had the chance to know her better, to speak with her, to hear her stories, to see the light in her eyes, to hear the cadences of her voice, to feel everything she felt as she spoke. My mother loved her as she has loved no-one else, apart from me. I had never seen such acute and crippling grief before the day I had to tell her that her mother had passed. She instantly cried out ‘no, no, my mother, my mother’, she tore her top off, and bent over the sink, sobs racking her body. I was unable to contain my own sadness, and we both let the tide crash over us for what seemed forever. My mother, understandably, has not been the same since.

But I digress. I arrived in Greece with my mother, and we set up a little life in the house my grandparents had been living in shortly before. The house, though charming, was in desperate need of renovation and, lacking most modern amenities, it wasn’t particularly comfortable. But I spent most of my time across the way with my mother’s younger cousin and her two daughters, both of whom are younger than me. They are lovely people. Simple, village people, stereotypical though that may sound. They are people content with a very simple life. Time was spent with family chatting or watching films or discussing the events or news of the day, and there wasn’t much else to it. I spoke of Australia with nostalgia colouring my voice, and they with wonder and awe in theirs as they asked about every conceivable part of life down under, from food to entertainment to transport to the life of the Greeks there. It felt like a distant paradise, a life that was not altogether satisfying, but one that I still missed very much.

You see, my problem in the village was that I felt that there was no-one I could be myself with, I could have fun with, or talk to about things that I enjoyed or that interested me. I was, therefore, not very talkative. I did my best, but I am reserved and weigh and filter my words to an incredible degree at the best of times, and not having people to relate to didn’t help. Somehow, the months until June rolled slowly by, until my mother one day was inspired to commence renovating the house. I can’t remember if the light bulb flickered on before or after her idea that we should relocate to Rhodes because she had grown tired of ξενιτιά, life away from the motherland, and because I had been lonely and unfulfilled and restless all my life. And with my work contract having ended, and with my boss informing me by email that my replacement was happy to stay on permanently and take on my role as junior lawyer, I thought that it might be fate showing me a new path. I have always been like that, after huge periods of stagnation, I rouse myself to make great changes. This seemed like just the cure for whatever was ailing me, for the wanderlust that had stained my skin and seeped into my blood. So, the renovation of the house began, and we managed to renovate the front bedroom (which was mine), the living room and the front half of the hallway between all the different rooms. Shopping for paint colours and furniture was stressful but enjoyable, and we managed to furnish the ‘new’ rooms the day before we were due to fly out. The final night in Greece I spent lying on a plastic-coated mattress to get a couple of hours of rest before we were to be driven to the airport for our long and exhausting flights home.

My return to Australia, I remember, was a happy one. I got to see the friends I had dearly missed, and got to sleep in my dearly-beloved bed, be with my books and have the rest of my things with me again. I was due to come back to Rhodes in a month or two, but for several reasons, one being my mother injuring herself, I ended up flying over in October. It was the beginning of a new phase in my life, and from what I can remember it was more of an occasion to hope than to fear. I had never left my mother ‘permanently’ before, and I didn’t know how long it would be before I saw her again. Our farewell, needless to say, was fraught with unspoken words and emotions unexpressed; there were no words to communicate them in all their raw truth. There were tears for me, and for her, but I remember with surprising clarity that there was a well of calm in my soul. I must have felt ready to meet whatever challenges lay ahead, even if I wasn’t quite sure what they were, what they would involve or their toll on my spirit.

Returning and settling into the house didn’t take me very long. There was no welcoming party, my relationship with my mother’s family being what it is, but I dealt with that stoically. Eventually, my mother’s cousin saw me in the garden, and came to greet me with her girls. I swiftly became her third daughter who’d be invited over every midday for lunch and to spend time with them. It was comforting, and she became my surrogate mother. Not that I got a chance to miss my mother at all, at least initially, with her calling several times a day, to share her news and remind me to be careful and eat well and take care of the house and be tidy and a hundred other things a mother feels compelled to remind her daughter to do. However, the loneliness that plagued me in Sydney soon flitted across the globe and hunted me down in the village of Archaggelos.

Sure, I spent my day with three women who cared about me and wanted to make sure that I ate well and had company to help me pass the time, but I felt the dull ache of the lack of mental and emotion stimulation like a weight between my temples and somewhere deep in my belly, especially at night when I returned home, locked the door behind me, and stared into an empty house, the rooms of which were mismatched like some cut and paste work by a child; two modern rooms leading into three still holding the scent of a dying woman, neglect, and loneliness – that persistent, pervasive, omniscient spectre. I would lay in my bed, curled up in the foetal position, cradling my horse plushie and letting the emptiness flood me, feeling a complete lack of purpose, a detachment from the world, though I spent every day in the company of others. But they were different. They held opinions and expressed views I could not agree with, but had no choice but to pretend to. They would speak with complete devotion about the village and express an unassailable disregard of any other place and way of life in the world. Their way of life was the best, their food was the best, their entertainment was the best, their people were the best, and there was no disagreeing with them. Nothing could compare with their beloved village with its beloved inhabitants. And I would hear them, and see the flickering Sydney city lights in my mind, and I would ache.

One of the greater problems I was faced with, apart from a finite amount of funds to keep me going with completely uncertain employment prospects, was finding other people to spend time with apart from my mother’s cousin and her daughters. I fretted at the lack of variety and felt that my daily horizons needed to be broadened, at the very least, as much as the place and situation allowed. I had no idea how to do this. I was forever ‘the Australian girl’ who dressed ‘conservatively’ and wore the same pencil skirt every day; girls I passed on the street would eye me in an unfriendly manner; guys would either catcall or make lewd comments. How was I supposed to mix with these people? I find it difficult to make friends at the best of times, and the circumstances were not helping. The fact that I was of a more open mind than most, and didn’t feel the need to judge people immediately meant that I ended up befriending people who were ‘wrong’ for me, and who eventually proved to have nothing very much to offer me apart from making me the subject of gossip. ‘Why are you spending time with people like them?’ I would be asked. ‘They’re beneath you’. How was I to do that? People in the village have known each since infancy, and I was a newcomer. Older women and friends of my mother would be absolutely lovely to me, would always enquire about my mother and ask how I was and whether I was happy, but the people my age.. well, we were worlds apart. And there was nothing to remedy that. I spent every day knowing that I was being talked about, and almost certainly not in a positive way. Anything unfamiliar, different or which did not conform was unacceptable. That rule was absolute, and applied, whether I liked it or not, to me. Not knowing what to do with myself, and growing tired of spending every night staring at the ceiling listening to music and being savaged by loneliness, I took up the habit of going down to the local bar for a drink by myself. Well, was that a mistake. Because there it is seen as completely inappropriate for a girl to be going out by herself at night, and because it also meant that I attempted to drown my turbulent feelings in alcohol, which of course led to some rowdy nights, and to some loss of my inhibitions which I am not proud of. But I am a mere mortal, and was struggling.

Some months later, began a series of events which led me to where I am today. I met a boy, the eve before I was due to fly to London to start over, who convinced me to stay. Stay, he told me, and I will help you find a job, and I will support you and be there for you. Stay. And because I was anxious about the move, and my ability to create a life for myself in London, I stayed. He turned out, unsurprisingly, to be completely wrong for me, and to have a hidden past and a current marriage that he had failed to tell me about, so things ended almost immediately between us shortly after that. I had befriended the owner of the bar in which I met that boy, and a while later agreed to go out with him for dinner and drinks. It was quite possibly the most uncomfortable, awkward date I have ever experienced. Alcohol taken over time helped me loosen up a little, and by night he expressed how fond he was of me, that he would attempt to make more of his life now that he had met me, that he would help me find a job, and would support me and be there for me. Familiar words. I was unsure, but I smiled at him and thought that perhaps this might be it, what I had been waiting and hoping for for so long.

But it wasn’t.

After a few drinks at a few different bars in Rhodes town, we decided to visit the old town and he said he knew a great bar he’d take me to. Several potent drinks later, he was retching over my lap and had to be escorted outside to get some air, and I was left alone at the bar, staring into my drink and seeing my disappointment swirling at the bottom. This wasn’t right. It didn’t feel right, and didn’t look right, and I wasn’t impressed at all. I wanted to be at home, but that seemed very far away. Then, compelled by something unknown, I got out of my seat and went to speak to a boy who had been watching me throughout the evening. As I spoke to him I forgot about everything else. I forgot about my drunken date recovering outside in the street, about how much I wanted to go home, about everything. All that existed in that moment was that boy, in that bar. I was charmed, I wanted to see more of him, but something reminded me about my date in the street, and I reluctantly went to see how he was doing. Still very drunk, he was indignant that I had left him alone, so I agreed it was time to go home. Fortunately, I had exchanged contact details with the boy at the bar, and so was content to leave.

My date, of course, was in no state to take us home. I helped him down the street, reassuring him that I was not going to abandon him and that everything was ok between us despite his behaviour that night, and we got to just outside his car. It was immediately clear that he was about to be sick and so he sat down on the sidewalk and proceeded to throw up. I was despairing by this point. I didn’t know what to do and felt alone, uncomfortable and helpless. After he caught his breath and mumbled something at me, he decided to try and get us home, but ended up sitting in the driver’s seat, utterly incapable, with his head in my lap in the passenger seat. Slow, thick, hot panic trickled through my veins as the sky progressively lightened and the new day dawned. I stared out the window at the fountain in the yard across the street, not knowing what to do. So, I reached out to the boy I had met just before, and told him the situation. He was about to go to bed, but suggested that I ditch my date, get some sleep at his place and return home later. Politeness compelled me to refuse his offer at first, though my date snoring away and drooling in my lap filled me with pity. However, the day brightened and I accepted the boy’s offer. I needed to sleep and had no knowledge of the old town and its labyrinthine streets. I sent him a photo of the fountain across the street. He found me a few minutes later.

He rescued me. I fell in love with him instantly, and have not parted from him since. He is charming, attentive, affectionate, polite, kind, well-spoken and of a mind that made my own rejoice, someone I recognised as a kindred spirit. I saw in him everything I had always wanted in a partner, and it was effortless to love him. I felt protected and safe as never before; more, accepted, understood and appreciated, too. I was filled with the thrill of first love, and that thrill, though it has since settled over my skin like a warm, comforting blanket, and become as much of a part of me as my own flesh, every so often stirs and rouses me in a reminder, filling me with awe, wonder and gratitude again. I have never known anything like it, and though it is a cliché to say so, I can finally understand and appreciate all that stories, songs and films have said about love. That is definitely the beautiful part of my life now. I have a new home, a new life, a new group of people who love me and have vowed to protect and support and be there for me, and that is infinitely precious to me. But it would of course be too much for me to expect life to allow everything to fall into place all at once, wouldn’t it?

My relationship with my mother is the poorest it has ever been. She is grieved by the fact that I refuse to return to Australia to be with her, and demands that I leave this boy who has brought colour and passion and love into my life after a forever of bleak grey, and reassures me that life will bring me someone else when the time is right. I try to make her understand my thoughts and feelings so she knows I am happy and safe and loved, something that surely every parent must want for their child. Is that not so? It seems not. She reminds me that in Australia I will find a wonderful job and earn the money I need to live comfortably and have what I want and need and one day start a family. And that’s the one part of what she says that upsets me most, because I am here in Greece in the midst of what is surely its greatest crisis, with just over 11 euros to my name, and with doubtful employment prospects. I have struggled for months to find work, applying for various jobs and failing because I don’t speak the languages that are in demand here, or because I don’t have the right work experience. I have felt utterly hopeless, and unable to go out, buy things for myself, or even cover my basic daily needs. It has been distressing and humbling and has placed a strain on my relationship. And all this, while I think of the rich, independent and varied life I could be living in Sydney; that’s been the most difficult thing for me to deal with. Feeling as though I am a burden on the people around me makes me utterly miserable. I wasn’t raised to be a ‘freeloader’ and to be paid for by others, it has always been my dream to be independent. This thought, though quietened and dulled by the love that I finally have after so long, is ever present and continually niggles at me like a child at its mother’s hem. I little like the prospect of having to take on a job far ‘below’ my qualifications and experience, but I have to make concessions if I am to stay and build a life for myself here. And my relationship with my mother will have to be fixed somehow… but that is an old bruise that keeps being bumped and pushed and will linger and ache forever. I fear that that thread of the story will have an unhappy ending, with our two minds being so different and so apart, though perhaps that is something that can’t be helped. My life is my own to live, and nobody else’s, and not everything can become as I wish it to be, no matter how fiercely I may fight.

Comparison is the surest and greatest killer of happiness. If I am to make it here, and settle, I have to accept Rhodes for what it is and what it can offer me. I always suspected that my restlessness and desire for something ‘other’ would forever torment me, but I can’t forget that this is a unique and beautiful place, that here I have met the first man I have ever truly loved, that here my mother was born and raised and that my family, no matter how fragile our relationship, is here. Home is truly where we are loved and where we love, and not a physical place. Home is a state of mind and a concoction of emotions, and I have to allow myself to feel this, or I know I will never be happy and will constantly want to be elsewhere.That said, it is truly difficult to leave the place you were born and where you have spent 25 years, in which you have left people and places you love. I will always love Australia so much it makes my heart ache, and picture it when nostalgia and homesickness grip me. I will return one day, I am sure of it, even if only temporarily. It is a place unlike any other, where so many colours and flavours and sounds and sights and walks of life mix and merge. It is my home past. But my home present must be in my heart and in my new love until I am finally ready to give that title to Rhodes. I had always felt that there was something keeping me from leaving, something that kept me wanting to come back, something that made me weep forlornly every time I had to fly back to Australia, and being ruled by my heart, I have to trust in that devotion and persistent love. My roots may be in the soil of Sydney, but my flowering is here, on an island on the other side of the planet.

Uncertainty is a curious author of life, but it certainly makes for the richest tales. And something tells me that my story is just beginning to spread its wings to take flight.

Categories
Learning

Day 6 of 21: in London

in June 1995. I returned from living and working abroad and started teaching ESOL in my home town of Colchester; before becoming a student again myself. My first class was a group of Russian language teachers from the former East Germany, who were being ‘re-trained’ to teach English.

This three-week course will pass very quickly, I’ve a great team of colleagues and the students seem fine – though I’m not sure how happy I’d be if I were them, being ‘advised’ suddenly to switch from teaching Russian to teaching English. The first week passes in a sunny and breezy fashion; well, the weather does. Able to sit outside to finish re-reading ‘The Levant Trilogy’ while eating my lunch, I’m sometimes joined (silently) by students who feel lonely but don’t want to speak. We smile, nod at each other, then sit companionably awhile until it’s time to return to the classroom. Once there, I quickly find that seemingly innocuous grammar points can lead to instantaneous student catharsis.

For example, work on the third and mixed conditionals to express regret or nostalgia; well, I would take that back right now if I could. Truly. First student (after looking intently at her dictionary): ‘If I had known that my abortion would give me such sadness, I would never have listened to my husband’. Cue mini-group hug with friends and then tears. Lots. My emergency supply of tissues is quickly exhausted so I fall back on distributing my emergency supply of chocolate buttons. The last one of those eaten, another in the class volunteers: ‘I would have killed my sports coach if I had known he was doping me when I was a child. I’ve never been able to have children.’ Some students are visibly cheered at the thought of killing-any-random-piece-of-shit-who-ever-treated-me-badly, and smile with faraway looks in their eyes. Eerie silence descends and then the tears start again.

One of the women, realising that my emergency rations have been consumed, produces her own. She pulls a roll of toilet tissue and a tin of Quality Street from her bag. Chewing those toffees has a calming effect and definitely shuts us all up. We make a picture from the wrappers and I announce haughtily I don’t believe in having regrets, so let’s move on shall we? We do, just far enough. My ability to ‘make students cry’ becomes a badge colleagues make me wear for some time. Each course participant is asked to keep a diary; hopes that mine will use this document to keep trauma on the page are quickly dashed. They write about me. (1) If all teachers are like her, students must learn easily and with pleasure. (2) She is fantastic and humorous. (3) An energetic and lively woman with a sense of humour – very interesting. (4) Jane demands quite a lot, but we like this. (5) I’m sure she likes teaching and has good relations with all her students. (6) A charming, energetic young woman – her gestures and facial expressions are especially striking. In the meantime, classroom recollections of trauma become ones of pleasure, admittedly often illicit, but I feel we’re getting somewhere (and consuming less chocolate and fewer tissues).

I’ve signed up for a six-day working week, and on the sixth day we visit London as part of the group’s cultural orientation. Everyone boards the coach in good spirits; the day before we had the hottest June day for 20 years and we’re still talking about it as the temperature dips and the sky clouds over. Orientation over, we all go our separate ways to do our shopping-thing or our let’s-catch-up-with-old-friends-thing. Fun done, back at the coach I notice we’re one down. I ask her friends, who, initially, say they have no idea what’s happened but they’re sure she’s fine. We leave. By the time we’re back, I’ve been told that this woman has had a miscarriage in John Lewis on Oxford Street and that her ‘friends’ got her to St. Thomas. They were very reluctant to tell me anything, then almost blasé about the whole episode with no intention of staying with her overnight. I find this strange. I ring the relevant authorities to report the event and check all is well. Three days later, discharging herself from hospital, this woman has returned from London in a taxi and reappeared in class. Nothing is said. No catharsis needed here, move along please – oh, and by the way, say nothing to the husband who’s visiting next weekend. He didn’t know about the pregnancy. It’s day 9 of 21.

Categories
Loving

A Few Days in April.

Taken from my 2010 diary, written while I was living at The Blue Door, Colchester, England.

Woken up early by The Sinister Ice-Cream Van starting its rounds again and so the long Easter weekend comes to a juddering halt to the tune of ‘Three Blind Mice’. I’ve spent a sunny, quiet four days and here it ends. Soundbites come to mind and I think of letting them swim back into the air before trapping them in writing. I remember this day exactly 30 years ago, when I made myself invisible for a tiny while, paralyzed by life. That was until I realized I didn’t have to be that way and didn’t want to be, either. I survived, and still do, by managing my expectations – and that, in itself, is a triumph. It’s my victory over disappearance. Yet, still, if I knew I could control it, I’d embrace that oblivion: letting go, floating free, riding on thermals. I come up for air and go down for coffee. 

The Bash Street Kids have thrown a large boulder into my front garden during the disquieting nursery rhyme. They knock on the door to tell me it’s there and point at the rock. I adopt an air of pleasant resignation while they explain to me the need for vigilance ‘in these parts’. Two of the girls seem very bright – while they’re whispering to me ‘that boy by the palm tree done it’, I ask myself what hope there is for them here. Eventually, The Kids all agree to move the stone (using my wheelbarrow) and to keep an eye on The Blue Door for me ’cause it’s nice, innit, and a bit dif’rent’. The wheelbarrow is upturned unceremoniously onto the public footpath and returned by the tallest girl who confides in me that no-one will really ‘mess with the house’ as it’s haunted and, truth be told, everyone’s a bit scared of the place. She runs off. 

I’m into day three of a detox and realize there’s no coffee in the house. I sigh as I look into my cup of green tea. I’ve given the house a detox, too, hope it’s grateful. Four large bin bags of old paperwork have gone out and I’ve cleaned places I previously didn’t even know existed. The phone rings, the first of many calls of the day, and in my haste to answer it, I almost fly headlong over the pile of Sunday papers stacked neatly in the doorway. I remember, with a sense of satisfaction, making the time to read the whole damn lot of them this week. Don’t mistake my speed for eagerness, oh no. I know exactly why the phone is ringing and I don’t want to. All I can do to help, you see, is call and be called. But oh how I resent it, because it means I have to know. The-best-friend-that-ever-could-be-wished-for just died and I am numb. I have the energy to be angry, but shouting makes her disappear. I have the tears to shed, but crying washes her away. I have the words to say, but the more I talk about it, the truer it becomes. I pick up the receiver, take a deep breath, and start constructing that bleak reality over again.

Categories
Loving

Good Night Irene

In the first week of August, 2011, my father died after a long illness. He’d just made 93 when he was declared out. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time; my mother acted as ‘gatekeeper’ to that relationship and to describe her as a difficult person is polite. Once he’d died, she made short work of disappearing him physically. She removed him almost without trace; if you’d wanted to believe he hadn’t existed, you’d not have had to try too hard.

Just under a fortnight later, Dad was cremated with minimal notice and no service. I knew where he’d gone, but not where I was, and still have no words to describe my feelings. How to cope? I carried on working and, in fact, worked harder. I took on a six-day week. Insomnia invaded my nights, precious sleep interrupted by vivid dreams of my father. Frequently I saw him standing, holding a little boy with black hair and pale skin in his arms; both of them looking quite calmly at me, sometimes smiling.

So, my sleep was valuable, and Sunday mornings were my only chance to lie-in. Two days after my father’s unceremonious cremation, a Sunday morning, I was furious to be woken up before 7 a.m. by shouting. Of course, becoming furious made going back to sleep impossible. I climbed out of bed and, unable to see what was happening from my window, pulled on a jacket and went down to the garden. The noise was coming from a neighbor’s house, the voice was almost incoherent, the only intelligible word being ‘Help!’ I climbed on the garden bench, but could see nothing over the fence.

I ran round to the house and knocked on the door. The elderly husband answered in a confused state, I’d woken him up. His wife was calling, she’d fallen and couldn’t get up. She sounded as though she’d had a stroke, I called an ambulance and talked to her while her husband got dressed. The paramedics were with us in under five minutes and were fantastic. We watched while they worked tirelessly. Even while she slipped into unconsciousness, they spoke to her and treated her with the utmost dignity. Yet she drifted away, and we all saw her letting go. She was pronounced dead in hospital.

The husband came round to thank me. He sent flowers and chocolates. I was for a while the talk of the street, but I knew nothing of this. I’d had enough. I’d taken off, travelling light. With a sigh of relief (no-one wants to deal with a bereaved colleague) my boss had signed me off work on the compassionate leave I’d not asked for my father’s death. A good friend told me I was meant to see Irene out; it did feel right and it did go some way to helping me see Dad out, too.

Categories
Loving

One of the miracles of love

For this is one of the miracles of love; it gives…a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.

CS Lewis ‘A Grief Observed’