Saturday, January 22, 2011

Imagining a happy ending

It's been a couple of weeks since I posted here, and it will be a couple of weeks before I post again, so I thought I would squeeze in a tiny story, while I have a moment of peace in which to tell it.

It is early morning in Santa Barbara, and I am the only one awake in my house. Sunlight is coming in through the venetian blinds in golden stripes that fall across the couch, and across the two dachshunds snoring there.

Such moments feel especially dear just now, because things are a bit tough in other respects. In a few days I am taking an unexpected trip back to England, and as you'll know if you've read this blog before I am not a happy flyer.

The happy part of it is that I'll be travelling with my daughter Eleanor. She's got some hard months ahead of her, and needs to summon all her strength and determination to get through them. I'm doing the Mum thing: going as far as I can along the road with her, before I have to let her go on by herself.

So I thought I'd tell a little story about Eleanor that illustrates her ability to deal with challenges, and to find elegant solutions to her problems.

When Eleanor was three, we spent a year living in St. Andrews, Scotland. Our best friends while we were there were a Swiss family, who had a daughter the same age as Eleanor, called Leonore. I know. And they even looked alike.

They played well together, creating elaborate imagined worlds in the corner of the living room. They would assign themselves roles (sometimes several at a time), and then spend the afternoon acting out rambling, complicated stories that seemed to involve a lot of pretend food preparation. From the kitchen I would hear their little, flutey voices rising and falling, with never a cross word.

But one rainy afternoon things turned sour. They had decided to play Sleeping Beauty, but both of them wanted to be the princess, and neither fancied the role of the prince or the evil fairy. Eleanor was usually pretty agreeable, and I expected to hear her concede her chosen role, but she dug her heels in as hard as Leonore. The argument turned fierce. Uncharacteristically, I resisted the urge to get involved.

When things went quiet a few minutes later, I stepped out of the kitchen to see what was going on. There they were, fully back into story-making mode, moving couch cushions around and announcing to each other what features of the landscape they were constructing.

"Did you sort out who's going to be the princess?" I asked.

"We're both going to be princesses," Eleanor said.

"You're going to have two Sleeping Beauties?"

"Nope. We've decided to play Cinderella and Snow White Go Camping."


All of which serves to remind me: the next few months might be tough, but with that kind of out-of-the-box thinking, the kid's going to be OK.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Trouble with Balloon Reindeer

A story for the festive season.

This is from the time I worked in the BBC television studios as a lowly assistant, shepherding “the talent”—whoever would be appearing in front of camera—from dressing room to makeup, wardrobe, set, and into action. It was sometimes stressful and often boring, but overall I loved it.

There were 20 or 25 of us who worked that job. Some of us had our regular shows—one of mine was Top of the Pops, which meant I had the opportunity to shout at big recording stars of the 80’s as if I was their mother. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you! What time do you call this? Wait, are you wearing that?”

But everybody took their turn working other shows as well: the game shows, chat shows, kids’ shows: Play School, Jackanory, and the iconic Blue Peter, directed by the equally iconic (and deeply scary) Biddy Baxter.

As its name suggests, Play School was a doddle. The presenters were veterans, entirely self-minding, so once things were underway there was little for me to do but flirt with the sound guys and drink lots of coffee. The studio (and my services) would be booked for the day, but we usually wrapped early. There was, of course, the tedium factor: “Sorry, everyone, from the top again,” I would hear through my headphones, “and this time let’s try it with Humpty falling off the wall two seconds earlier.” But it was an OK assignment. So when my supervisor needed someone to work the Christmas show, which was to be filmed on Christmas Eve, I volunteered. I could use the overtime, and I reckoned I’d be free by two o’clock for some last-minute Christmas shopping.

When I pushed through the heavy double doors into the studio that morning, it was immediately obvious that this would not be a coffee/flirting day. The place was a hive of activity; something ambitious was up. Large cardboard boxes filled with balloons—the long, skinny sort people twist into shapes—were being lashed to the lighting rig overhead. The Play School set had been dressed in special wintery finery. And I had a special guest to look after.

“He’s elderly,” my Floor Manager told me. “Give him a little extra time to get everywhere.”


I don’t know why that bothered me; I’d had minor problems in the past with elderly actors and presenters—falling asleep in their dressing rooms, not hearing their calls, that sort of thing—but they were nothing like the problems created by, say, every single boy-band that appeared on Top of the Pops. Still, I mentally bade farewell to my hopes of an early getaway.

Apparently this chap had been a popular children’s entertainer years before, though I had never heard of him. It was easy to pick him out at Reception, partly because the place was virtually deserted (everyone else was obviously Christmas shopping), and partly because he looked like Central Casting’s version of a children’s entertainer. He was neat, dapper, white-haired, pink-cheeked, bright-eyed and smiley, and he walked with a spring in his step.

I can’t remember his name, but “Charlie” sounds about right. In any case, it became apparent, as I scurried to keep up with him, that Charlie was not going to need any extra time getting anywhere.

We went straight into camera rehearsal. The day’s show had been built around a single story, and Charlie was going to tell it to camera, while making a reindeer out of balloons. The story went like this:

Once upon a time there was a king.

Although his palace stood at the edge of a large forest, he had never seen any of the reindeer which were rumored to live there. How he longed to see one! So one day he called the court wizard and asked him to make a reindeer appear.

Unfortunately the wizard was completely useless and bungled the spell.

What appeared instead of a reindeer was “rain, dear!” (Ha, ha.) It poured!

Luckily, the wizard had the presence of mind to add an immediate supplementary spell. “Let us have a change of air!” he cried, and the rain turned into balloons.

This would be when, during the actual filming, the cardboard boxes above Charlie would be tipped over, and balloons would, indeed, rain down. For the rehearsal we just handed him a couple of balloons to make into a reindeer. No point emptying the boxes, only to have to fill them again. The story proceeded:

The wizard was better at balloon animals than he was at spells, and with a twist or two produced a balloon reindeer.

“If you place this in the palace window,” he told the king, “the real reindeer will be curious, and come out of the forest. That is how you will get your wish.”

I know. Not the BBC’s finest hour, plot-wise.

At this point, having fashioned his balloon reindeer, Charlie was to get up, walk over to the Play School windows, and set the reindeer there. Then he would peer out, and exclaim in delight that a real reindeer had turned up! After which, he was to walk back to the chair, while speaking the final lines:

The king was happy. His wish had come true at last.

And so…he lived happily ever after!

We rehearsed the whole thing twice without a hitch. Charlie made perfect balloon reindeer, and told the story with more skill and verve than it deserved. When we broke for lunch the mood on the studio floor was up: it would be a cute segment, everyone was rooting for the old guy, and we might get out early after all.

After lunch, we reconvened. Charlie hit wardrobe and makeup, and we were ready to go for real. The only thing we hadn’t rehearsed was the tipping of the balloons. If that went wrong, it would take a long time to reset, and the fact that the whole thing was being shot on a single camera created pressure to get it right first time.

Still, it was Christmas Eve. Things couldn’t help but turn out well. The director’s voice boomed cheerfully in everyone’s headphones, predicting that we would be wrapping up in half an hour. Thumbs up all round.

Charlie took his seat, and we got off to a brilliant start. Better yet, at the appropriate moment—“Let us have a change of air!”—the boxes overhead tipped perfectly, and balloons showered down as planned. Keeping his eye on the camera throughout, Charlie transformed a couple of them into a completely brilliant reindeer. The man was a genius.

Then he stood up, so as to walk the reindeer over to the window.

At this point, the entire population of the studio and gallery came to a sudden, shared realization: the floor between the chair and the window, the floor across which our elderly storyteller now had to walk, was covered with balloons. Covered. With balloons.

In a quiet voice, capturing the general mood, the director said: “Uh-oh.”

Charlie started walking. What made it tricky—well, trickier—was that Charlie had to do this while speaking to camera, not glancing down at his feet. He took a first step; the crew drew its collective breath. Another step; bigger breath. By the time he was halfway to the window we had all stopped breathing. Then he seemed to settle into a move that was more a shuffle than a step, pushing the balloons aside. It worked! We exhaled as quietly as possible.

He did his piece at the window, then turned, to walk back to the chair. I wanted to shout, Stay there! Save yourself! But Charlie was a pro. If the script said “walk”, he would walk. He started back. Again the studio-wide intake of breath; again the leaning in, eyes riveted on his feet.

“The king was happy. His wish had come true, at last,” said Charlie, as he shuffled the last inches. He put his hand on the chair back and twinkled at the camera.

“And so…” One last step, before he would say the final words: ‘he lived happily ever after.’

One last step, with which he trod on a balloon…


Coming when it did—just as we were about to be released from unbearable tension—the balloon pop hit us like an exploding bomb. We recoiled, in unison, and then stood, slack-jawed, silent, gaping at Charlie. I felt a stab of pity for the old guy. He had done so well! The mistake was ours! I hoped he wouldn't try to apologize.

He didn’t. He kept smiling to camera, his twinkliness undiminished. Then he finished the sentence he had begun, maintaining the same warm, cheery tone as before.

“And so…he shot himself."

This time, the explosion was laughter. We literally fell about, staggered, bent double. I had to take off my headphones before the director’s bellowing laugh actually deafened me.

Then, still giggling, we prepared for a second take, one in which Charlie would not have to run a balloon gauntlet. The mood in the studio was ebullient.

I can’t remember what time we wrapped. I don’t remember if I went shopping afterwards. In fact, I wouldn’t remember anything at all from that Christmas Eve if Charlie had not stepped on that balloon. As it is, I’ll never forget the moment when an elderly children’s entertainer took a minor disaster and, keeping his eye on the camera throughout, transformed it into a completely brilliant experience for us all.

The man was a genius.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Almost Lost in Translation

There’s no doubt about it; Stephanie and I are being followed.

It is the afternoon of our third day in the hills—Granny’s hills, as we think of them, since my grandmother worked here among the hill people for most of her life. Tonight we will stay in a guest room on the grounds of a school that was founded to continue that work.

We have had the official tour of many impressive aspects of the place—the classrooms and dormitories, the vegetable gardens and fruit trees—led by the dynamic, tireless director of the whole operation, Reverend Jonas. Now Dad is resting in our room before dinner, and Stephanie and I have ventured out for a less organized walk on our own. And we are being followed.

They are not exactly threatening, our tiny pursuers. There are about eight of them, all little girls, all in their school uniform, all giggling. They hold their distance, moving when we move, stopping when we stop, watching absolutely every little thing we do. We have tried chatting with them, but after discovering that the word “Hello” exhausts our common vocabulary, we have reverted to a regular exchange of smiles, and this strange procession about the grounds.

Their scrutiny, however, is making me uncomfortable. I am here to observe, after all, not to be observed. I am here to see India, to photograph it, jot down the odd brilliant thought, to ponder the Greater Significance of it all. It’s impossible to do any of that in front of such an attentive, giggly audience.

It makes me hyper-aware of my own movements, and how dull they are. When one’s every step and gesture is tracked by eight shining pairs of eyes, one feels an obligation to be interesting. Instead, we walk…like this…over to a bush…where we…point at a flower. I needn’t worry, though: our flower-bush viewing is a hit. They convulse in giggles, ducking their heads and covering their brilliant white smiles with their hands.

This is not the first scrutiny we’ve endured today. Arriving at the school, we were swept along by a boisterous, delighted crowd of students to Rev Jonas’ small whitewashed house, for a cup of tea. While the tea was poured, the the open doorway and all the windows filled with the faces of students. They jostled quietly into position, shifting here and there to allow fellow students a better view, and then settled down to watch us, in total silence.

Obviously, they had heard of Dad, and were excited to see him in person, but it still felt as though we were all on a talk show with not much to say. We sipped our tea as entertainingly as possible, and then Jonas suggested we start our tour. At which point, in a piece of singularly poor timing, Stephanie helped herself to a banana. Conversation in the room was officially over, so there was nothing for Dad, Jonas, and me—and all the people outside—to do, except watch in complete silence as Stephanie chewed. Which she did with difficulty, eyes widening in alarm, as she felt the weight of that huge collective stare settle upon her.


Stephanie and I have run out of things to look at, so we turn and approach the girls who’ve been shadowing us. I want to ask them to show us around, but I do not know the Tamil for “show” or “us” or “around.” We make some elaborate gestures, hoping to indicate our desire to walk with them—more likely indicating a confused mental state. They giggle. But then, either grasping our meaning or taking pity, they begin to lead us in a new direction. We end up outside one of the dorms, presumably theirs. Through the door, I see a clean, polished concrete floor, and a line of neat bedrolls against the far wall. Next to each roll is one small straw basket of personal possessions.

I don’t know how old these girls are; their size suggests six or seven. I also don’t know if they are orphans, or from villages so distant as to require boarding, but either way I feel a pang. My sympathy may be misplaced—they seem delighted with life, at the moment, and it is clear they are well looked after—but I long to gather them up in a hug. I’ve been told that’s probably not a good idea, but it’s the second time today I’ve had that longing.

The first was this morning, during a visit to another, much smaller school, at which we were firmly in the spectator role: a program had been prepared for us to watch. First some children danced in the schoolyard, then they ushered us towards the hall for the rest of the event. On the way, they showered us with flower petals. At least, it started as a shower. The problem was that there were lots of petals, and the children were eager to throw them all.

Time was running out as we started up the steps to the hall, so petals were flying thick and fast, coming in larger and larger handfuls. The petals at the bottom of the baskets were damp, and could be compressed into a clump for more efficient delivery. A direct hit from a wet clump of petals packs a bit of a sting, we discovered, especially when thrown overarm. We all but sprinted the last few feet to the doorway, and took our seats feeling the exhilaration of a narrow escape. Still, we could not have been welcomed with a more joyful enthusiasm. Or with better aim.

The children sat in rows on the floor and sang for us, in Tamil, really very loudly. Then they prayed in Tamil, with a similar passion. It’s not often that I feel all choked up at the same moment that my ears are actually ringing.

After that, we honored guests were invited to say something to the children—preferably something of an edifying, spiritual nature. Dad spoke first, through an interpreter, and I took those few moments to hastily plan what I could say. All too soon it was my turn to be edifying.

Having an interpreter translate your words into another language, I found, is a bit like being stared at while you admire a bush. The most ordinary thing is bathed in a light of unwelcome brilliance. I would say one sentence and then pause, inwardly wincing at the thought that anyone should exert the slightest effort translating such banality into another language.

At the same time, I was amazed that the exotic sounds then made by the interpreter had been prompted by my thoughts. At least, I assumed they had. For all I knew, he was rehashing one of his own edifying speeches.

I attempted a little humor. “I think you are all very clever,” I said, “because you can speak so fast in a language that I can’t even understand. How do you do that?" They laughed: a light, nervous flutter.

“I could not understand your prayers,” I said, “and perhaps you wouldn’t understand mine. But that doesn’t matter. God understands every prayer in the universe, even one that has no words. He does not need an interpreter.” I looked at my interpreter, hoping I hadn’t hurt his feelings. Then I sat down. The children looked pleased, probably more with my brevity than with my theology. They were, after all, the ones with their bottoms on the concrete floor.

When we left that little school, the children lined up outside to say goodbye. They stood up very straight, accentuating how tiny some of them were, and this was when I had to work hard to keep from scooping a couple of the teenies into a hug. It probably had more to do with my situation than theirs: I miss my own girls so much.


Well, we are having a fine old time, sitting on the edge of the porch with our flock of girls. Shyness has officially been thrown to the wind, and heroic efforts are being made to communicate with gestures, but Stephanie and I remain completely ignorant about every aspect of these little lives.

Suddenly one girl hops down and beckons to us to follow her as she skips a few feet away. Then she crouches down and points at the ground, her face shining. Steph and I peer down, and see…dirt. The others crowd around, also eager to see our reaction to…to what? We examine the ground more closely. I begin to wonder if they are playing a little trick on us.

But no, there is something there. It is a line of shallow bowl-shaped depressions in the soil, four or five of them. That’s it. Holes in the dirt. We hover, staring hopefully down at them, waiting for further revelation. Has the girl planted something here? Buried something? Is it a game-board, where pebbles are moved or thrown?

She and the others talk rapidly, their voices like the chatter of small birds. Whatever they are saying probably answers all our questions, but the sounds just bounce off our eardrums. So we just squat there for a while, all of us looking at the ground. It’s actually kind of restful.

I am here to see India, and I am seeing it: this patch of it, between my feet and this child’s. Her fingers flutter around the holes, patting and moving the soil so that it is just how she wants it. I revise my earlier assumption—that everything she owns is in the small basket next to her bedroll. Clearly, this patch of ground is hers, and whatever else the little scrapings in the earth might be, they are beloved.

She looks up and grins, then chatters on, her little toes gripping the dirt. The unfamiliar sounds continue to bounce off my ears. I accept that I will never know what she is telling me, or what it is that she has made, here. The only thing coming through loud and clear is the joy.

As translations go, I decide, it is pretty fine.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Thoughts On a Mattress

I have just fallen into bed.

It is the end of the very first day of the India trip. I have said my good nights, closed the door of the guest room in Premi and Bijoy’s apartment in Delhi, and staggered through darkness to the bed. I am sure it will be mere seconds before I am asleep. This is the moment for which I have been yearning for the last thousand or so hours.

It has been the most extraordinary day. Eventful, fascinating, alarming, and long. Almost all those thousand hours have occurred just since this morning, when Premi collected us at the airport. Since then I've been doing my impression of a toddler—veering back and forth between super-charged excitement and head-lolling sleepiness.

I don’t know how many hours’ worth of jet-lag I have (I think it may actually be incalculable), but it isn’t just the jet lag; it’s the being vertical for too long. The whole last day in Leeds, the trip to Heathrow, the sitting at Heathrow, the flight to Delhi, the thousand hours since then, all of it has been spent upright.

Oh, the longing to be horizontal! At lunch I imagined sweeping all the plates aside and lying down on the table. From a sight-seeing walk around the neighborhood, the only sight I remember is a bench that looked just about my length. I could feel the earth’s gravitational pull, and it was focused on my head. But “Don’t nap!” I kept telling myself, quoting travelers’ lore. “Napping makes it worse; sleep when the locals sleep."

It is dark now, and the street outside my window is quiet. Premi said that a night watchman patrols this street; she said I may hear him whistling and tapping his stick. I find this image reassuring, even charming, but I know will hear nothing. The locals are asleep, so I'm allowed to sleep too, at last.

Falling asleep...

One nice thing is that I will do so on a brand new mattress. If I were the sort of person who worries about bedbugs (which I haven’t been but now that I’ve thought of it I might be), I could rest easy because this mattress is definitely not infested. The other thing it's not is soft. At all. I said earlier that I fell into bed; onto bed would be more accurate. Still, a firm mattress is good for the back, and I won’t even notice how hard it is, since any second now I will be sound asleep.

Here I go, drifting...drifting…

I know the mattress is brand new, because Premi bought it on the way home from the airport. I was surprised that she chose that moment for mattress-shopping, especially since we were in a taxi, but what do I know about the customs of Indian mattress shopping?

The taxi was a splendid old Hindustani Ambassador, as was almost every car on the road. I didn’t know about the others, but this one was falling gently to bits: the window on my side appeared to have fallen into its socket for the last time, and stuffing was emerging by the handful from several gaps in the upholstery, giving the back seat the look and feel of a nest. After the rigid contours of my British Airways seat, it was rather nice. I could do with some of that stuffing now, to be honest.

Premi gave the driver—a grizzled man in a turban who never said a word—some instruction in Hindi, and then explained her mattress-buying plan to Mum and me (Dad had gone straight from the airport to a meeting). Soon after, we pulled off the road at a row of roadside stalls and Premi got out. She went to a vegetable stand and bought something vegetably, after which I expected her to get back into the car so we could go to the mattress store. Instead she walked to the next little shop in the line, and began talking to three men who were standing there.

That’s when I realized we were already at the mattress store! In the shadows of the little building behind the men were neat stacks of what were undeniably mattresses. But Premi was apparently not interested in any of those. She was looking upwards, out of my field of vision, and pointing. I leaned over to peer out of Mum’s window, and saw perhaps twenty more mattresses on the shop’s roof, rising improbably in a tall, teetering, colorful stack up to the lower branches of a nearby tree. It looked like an illustration for a very peculiar, dusty version of the Princess and the Pea.

I thought about getting out of the car to observe the proceedings; this was exactly the sort of local color that I had come on this trip to see. On the other hand I was busy being really very comfortable in my stuffing-nest, and I could see just fine out the window. Two of the three men now clambered up onto the roof. They had poles in their hands, and they pointed at mattresses up and down the stack, looking to Premi for an indication of her preference. Then, with a flip of their poles, they raised the upper third of the stack and whisked Premi’s choice out. It was like a big, soft, card trick.

While Premi paid, I watched a woman in a turquoise sari walk past the car, carrying a tall, teetering stack of round flat things on her head. Two tall, teetering stacks of things glimpsed in as many minutes. Mum explained that the round flat things were dried cow-dung, to be burned as fuel, but she could not have carried them with more elegance had they been crystal.

The taxi driver got out and opened the car’s trunk. A bit optimistic, I thought, to imagine the mattress would fit in there. Still, having been surprised on all matters mattress thus far, I was open to being surprised again. Then the trunk slammed shut and I saw the driver had just been fetching a coil of rope.

The next second, one end of the rope flew past my nose. The driver and a mattress-shop guy had set about tying the mattress to the taxi’s roof. In my window and out Mum’s the rope flew: over the mattress, back through the windows, all done and dusted in about thirty seconds. Premi and the driver got back in the front, and we were off! I was impressed. Less impressed when I realized that Mum and I were now effectively tied into the car. If we crashed, our doors would be impossible to open, so it was just as well that my window was missing, giving us an escape route. And if the car rolled, I thought, at least the mattress would cushion the impact.

Not so much, I am thinking now, still awake. “Cushioning” is not this mattress' primary quality.

I don’t know what time it is. The power in the whole apartment building is out, so my lamp won’t work. Can’t see my watch. Can’t read. Still, mustn’t complain. Partly because that would be rude, but also because the power outage was technically my fault (another story). Still, who needs to read? I will just lie here and enjoy the deep peace of the Indian nigh—

Suddenly a shrill scream tears through the darkness. I leap up, gasping. Was it a scream? It sounds again, and this time I realize it is actually a whistle. The night watchman has arrived.

When Premi told me about him, I imagined a reassuring, burly chap, strolling down the alley and whistling the Indian equivalent of “Goodnight Sweetheart.” Instead, he’s blowing a police whistle, at full volume. The sound must be audible ten blocks away. I wonder who can possibly benefit by this, other than the burglars working unhurriedly ten blocks away, regularly alerted to his exact location.

“Thunk! Drag, drag, drag…THUNK!”

This is the watchman’s stick. Again, in my imagination, the burly, whistling chap was going to be tap-tap-tapping a walking stick. Whatever is hitting the pavement now sounds more like a battering ram. It drops with a heavy, hollow sound, then gets dragged a few paces before being lifted and dropped again. The effect, to my admittedly Western, jumpy, jet-lagged ears, is indescribably creepy. I would not like to meet this watchman. In fact, if I were those ten-block-away burglars, I’d run away now.

The watchman moves on, and my adrenaline level subsides. The whistles grow faint; the thunk-and-drag sounds like distant thunder. And it is now, as the silence washes back into the room, that I finally feel the beginnings of sleep. What do you know? I think to myself. Maybe the watchman serves a purpose after all.

It is my last waking thought. This is the one that gives a gentle push to the tall, teetering, colorful, stacks of things that have been piling up in my mind for a thousand hours. Finally I feel the sensation I've been longing for, of everything beginning to tilt, to slip, and at last to topple altogether, into the bliss of horizontality.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Honest Scraps

Well, I am thrilled to announce that Lori Walker, over at her wonderful blog, has awarded me an Honest Scrap blog award! Recipients of this award are supposed to post a list of ten honest scraps of information about themselves. I realize that a list is not really in keeping with the storytelling format of this blog. However, a few of the following honest scraps are almost little stories unto themselves, some of which I may tell properly one day, so I hope you will all bear with me and not ask for your money back.

So, ten things:

1) Something I wish I were brilliant at, but in fact do quite badly: playing the guitar.

2) Something I had no interest in, but turned out to be brilliant at: breaking a concrete breeze block in half with my bare hand. At least, I was brilliant on the one occasion I attempted it, in a college karate class. The trick, I was told, is to aim at a point just beyond the target, rather than at the target itself—a zen-type bit of instruction whose wider applicability is uncertain. I’d like to say that no one was more amazed than I by my success, but I think that the 40 or so men in the class—who had not managed to break their blocks—were more amazed. Oh, if only more moments in life were as thoroughly satisfying.

3) During that same phase in my life, I was stood up on a date by fellow student David Iglesias. He went on to become United States Attorney for New Mexico, and was then fired by the Bush administration in a move that was later ruled to be politically motivated. David had asked me to an ice hockey game but then apparently forgot he had, and went without me. I’m not saying he deserved to get fired. I’m just saying: um…David? Ever heard of karma?

4) A sight I love: when the sun catches and illuminates some single feature of the landscape, against a background of dark, stormy skies.

5) A sight I hate: well, I'm not going to say, specifically. This is a fairly common sight, one that most people are entirely comfortable with. I won't elaborate because (a) I am so horrified by this particular thing that I don't want to discuss it and (b) I don't want such sensitive information falling into the wrong hands.

6) In 1984 I spent a few minutes crawling around on the floor with Cyndi Lauper, while the Top of the Pops director Michael Hurll shouted into my headphones: “Where is she? Where is she?” Cyndi and I were in the hallway outside the studio where the show was about to be recorded, but the immediate concern was that she had lost her Barbie doll earring. I’d love to say that I found it, but no; for all I know that earring is still there, having lain under some radiator in the dark and dust all these years. Cyndi went on stage with only a dozen or so other earrings, and blew us away with Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.

7) I once took second place in the North Wales German verse-speaking competition. Maybe I could have come back to win it the following year, but we shall never know. A fire at my boarding school necessitated a move to a new school building in Bedfordshire, where there was no German verse-speaking competition! Upon request, I can still recite the first stanza of “O wunderbares, tiefes Schweigen” by Joseph von Eichendorff, in a prize-winning manner.

8) I have sailed from India to England (twice!) on a ship. The first time as an infant, the second time old enough to have a costume (Jill, of Jack and Jill fame) for the ship's fancy dress parade. I've sailed through the Suez Canal, pausing to ride camels in the desert. I only wish I could remember it all. Perhaps it was all that sailing that prompted this...

9) In my early twenties I blagged my way onto the crew of a sailing trip across the Channel to France, by implying that I actually knew how to sail. I then rushed out and bought a book called “Start Sailing!” so as to not make a gigantic idiot of myself. It turned out I was the only member of the crew who never got seasick, with the result that I ended up being asked to take the helm...on my own...before I had finished reading the book! I did not sink the boat even once, though the skipper never invited me back. He thought that, for a woman, I was entirely too uppity.

10) In a quiet moment on that trip, I shared with a friend my dream of becoming a writer. I told her of a particular writer who inspired me, and said I hoped one day to write the kind of books he did. As kindly as possible, but quite sincerely, she said I could probably learn to write as well as him, but the difference was he actually had something to say. That conversation still haunts me.

In next week's story, perhaps I will have something to say.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Happy Birthday!

I wake up, not sure what has woken me.

I’m in the guest bungalow at Karigiri. I squint my eyes open. There is a gentle light coming in at the window. Reflected from ten thousand shining leaves, it penetrates the deep shade of the verandah and turns my room’s white walls a pale green. They match the pale green lizard flicking its tiny way across the floor.

The room is simple and square, a fan centered in the high ceiling. The fan is not turning, and the air feels heavy and warm. I have a dim memory of being hot in the night. Dim, because after the flight from Delhi and the long drive from Chennai, I was nearly comatose when we got here. That was at 3:30 this morning, long after I’d stopped thinking clearly enough to turn on ceiling fans. Or, apparently, to find my pajamas.

My suitcase lies open on the other bed, its contents clawed through and scattered, as if by bears. I appear to be wearing the top of a salwar chemise, inside out, as a kind of nightie. It’s quite comfy, actually.

I sit up, propping myself on my pillow, so I can see outside. There’s nothing to see but trees, which makes me happy. I have heard about these trees. Apparently when this property was first acquired for the hospital, there was nothing here; it was considered waste land. As the buildings went up, trees were planted, largely thanks to the vision of Ernest Fritschi, a Swiss colleague of my parents. Now it is an oasis for the whole area. Trees tower over the buildings, providing a canopy of shade and a home to thousands of birds.

Then I realize: that’s what woke me. The birds! And then I remember: it’s my birthday! And then I think: I need a cup of tea. Or coffee. Right now. Not fussy about what, just fussy about when.

At home in Leeds, Mark would have brought me a cup of tea in bed, and the girls would have piled on, with home-made cards. I am stabbed with homesickness. I need to be around people.

I look at my watch: almost eight! My parents have probably been up for ages! I throw back the bedcover and lurch to my feet. Picking through the stuff that the bears left behind, I find a T-shirt and loose cotton long pants. Then I splash a little cool water on my face and head out in search of liquid of a much hotter variety, and some company.

What I would love is another cup of the tea I had at 2 AM, at a roadside stand on the way here from Chennai. Dad suggested the stop, partly so the driver could have a break, partly so I could watch how the chai is made, but mainly so we could all have a few minutes of not being in fear of our lives.

I thought being driven around in Delhi was scary. Pah! That was nothing! Well, no, actually, that was really scary, but this was really scarier.

The highway had two lanes, prompting the novice to assume that one lane was for traffic moving in one direction, the other for traffic going the other way. To be fair, I think that was the original plan. The reality was more a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” plan, and by “fittest” I mean “least likely to give way to oncoming traffic.”

How it played out was that we would be driving along in the darkness as fast as the potholes would allow, and then we’d see two pairs of headlights coming towards us, solidly side by side, jostling for position. Long after a hideous crash looked inevitable, they would still keep coming. It was one game of Chicken after another, after another.

Lucky for me, I’d used up my whole day’s supply of adrenaline getting our plane safely landed at Chennai. I was still relieved just to be on the ground, and too exhausted to do more than hunker down in the back seat with my eyes squinched shut. By contrast, Dad had slept the whole flight and now had his eye on the road every single second. He flinched and gasped on behalf of all of us, and every few minutes stamped on his invisible, auxiliary brake, which made our driver chuckle.

For the most part, our guy held his ground against the oncoming vehicles, and most of them did—at the last possible nanosecond—swerve back into their own lane. Only once (“Only once!”) were we actually forced off the road, careening to a stop on the earthen shoulder. I tried not to think about the places where there had been no shoulder—just a ditch, or rocks.

After that, we stopped for tea. The stall was in the sort of roadside structure you see all over India—exactly like a row of small garages with metal up-and-over doors. Even at this hour, in this remote spot, two doors were open. In one, a man waited behind a stainless steel counter. In the other, two men sat watching television, intent on a screen filled with white static.

The chai-seller poured a milky brew from a saucepan into a metal cup, then poured that into a second cup, smoothly pulling the two cups apart as he poured, to expose the steaming arc of liquid to the night air. Back and forth he poured, working fast, and each time there was a split second when the ribbon of tea seemed entirely free of both containers, flying under its own steam (as it were) and with a clear sense of direction.

When he handed my cup to me, I found I could drink it straight down. The air had brought it to a perfect temperature and frothiness. In the fluorescent light from the stall we stood and sipped and sighed with pleasure, while the man waited in silence, to get his cups back.

On the verandah in Karigiri, I want nothing more than to be handed another cup of that chai. But that whole event feels like a dream now, and my present reality is that I’m by myself without a clue where to go. My parents’ door is closed, as is the blind on their window. Apparently I’ve chosen this occasion to get up before them, for the first time in my life. Should I strike out alone in search of tea? Is there some sort of cafeteria at the hospital? Where is the rest of the hospital? All I can see are trees.

And then I notice, at the end of the line of guest rooms, a door with a little sign saying: “Dining Room.” Bingo!

Possibly. The room is empty, but a buffet counter appears to be set up for the breakfast crowd. More importantly, at one end of the buffet is a cluster of cups and a hot water urn.

I let the screen door slap shut behind me, and head for the urn. It’s not clear what the policy is regarding self-service but there’s no one here to ask. Above the door to the kitchen, a sign says, flatly: No permission.”

I could use a sign like that at my house: “Mum, can I (insert questionable activity here)?” “What does the sign say?” “Oh, right. Sorry. Never mind.” Brilliant!

A young woman steps out from the kitchen. She is very small. At 5’3” I’m not in the habit of towering over anyone, but I tower over her. She is also pretty, very dark, and has a dazzling smile, which she demonstrates now as she tells me her name is Daphne.

I tell Daphne I desperately need a cup of tea or coffee, I don’t care which, and she picks up a cup and pours. As she does, I have a childish impulse to tell her it’s my birthday. But then I know she would say “Happy Birthday!” in that automatic way people do, like saying “Bless you” after a sneeze, and somehow that would feel lonelier than her saying nothing at all. Instead I could let her find out on her own, and then she would say, “It was your birthday and you didn’t say anything!” I choose this plan as a better demonstration of my maturity.

Then she hands me my cup. On the side of which, I am not kidding, it says: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

I gasp. “This is amazing!” I say, ditching my more mature plan in an instant. “It IS my birthday! And you just gave me this cup!” I point to the cup, and wait for her to adopt the same look of goggle-eyed astonishment I know I’m wearing. Instead, her dazzling smile falters, and she looks down at the counter. I follow her gaze, and she gestures almost apologetically at the other cups in their neat rows.

Which all say, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY!”

We both sort of laugh and shrug, as if the fact that all the cups say the same thing undoes the magic of the moment. I take my cup outside, to sit on the verandah steps in the sunshine. I sip my tea/coffee, which tastes pretty bad whichever it is, and I listen to the birds in the splendid trees, and I look at my happy birthday cup and feel absolutely happy.

Because the magic of the moment is not diminished at all by the fact that Daphne has fifty identical cups. So what if everybody who stays here gets handed one every day, no matter when their birthday is? The way I see it, whoever is in charge of tiny little miracles in my life knew that it would be tough to arrange getting one particular cup into my hand at exactly the right moment. Clearly, the only way to make it happen was to blanket the area with Happy Birthday mugs, and then sit back and wait for me to arrive.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fright in Flight

The plane smells of mothballs.

It is dark, maybe 10 p.m. We are flying south to Chennai, from where we will drive to Vellore, and the plane we’re in smells of mothballs.

Perhaps the fumes wafted on board with us at Delhi airport, where there are mothballs in the drains of all the sinks in all the restrooms. Apparently that’s to discourage cockroaches from coming up out of the plumbing to investigate the greater delights of the airport. Cor blimey, I’d be discouraged; just standing in front of those sinks made my eyes water. Here in the plane it is less noticeable—the merest hint of camphor—as if someone a few rows behind me is rummaging through a trunk full of their grandmother’s clothes. Nevertheless, I feel uneasy.

Of course, “uneasy” is my baseline state during any flight. I’ve already taken note of the worn-looking cabin interior, and the tendency of the lights to flicker every time the engines rev. Now the smell of mothballs has focused my skittering thoughts firmly on the question of just how old this plane might be.

I can picture it clearly: long-forgotten in the shadows of the airport hangar, this old clunker has been hauled out of the mothballs—literally—and pressed into service. A couple of mechanics look her over. “Reckon she can make it after all this time, Joe?” “Sure, Buddy, she may be missin’ a wheel, and that wing there needs a-fixin’, but the old gal’s got a big heart.” (Apparently Joe and Buddy have recently moved to India from Texas.)

I would love this story in a picture book. As a reader, I would root for the plane: “Of course the Old Gal can make it! Her big heart will save the day!” As a passenger, however, I can see that the mechanics’ conversation foreshadows disaster, and I’m appalled by their cavalier manner.

Wow, I really need to think about something else.

I look at my watch. In a couple of hours it will be midnight, and officially my birthday—the last birthday I will celebrate in the 20th century. But the atmosphere here in row 15 feels decidedly under-festive. My mother has nodded off to sleep over the Bible lying open on her tray table. Her face hovers just a few inches above the pages, as if she had just leaned forward to examine the finer points of some text when sleep struck. Whenever the plane dips and lurches—which is more often than some of us would like—her nose bobs down almost to the point of contact and then bobs away again. My father, in the next seat, has fallen asleep with his head back and his mouth open. This is the crowd I’m partying with tonight.

Then again, I am actually flying across India for the first time in my life, so that’s special. Thousands of feet below me in the dark lies the country of my birth, and I am heading for the exact location of my arrival, on the very eve of its anniversary. My immediate surroundings may be drab, but my position relative to planet Earth feels eerily perfect.

I look out of the window. I can see a scattering of lights down there, faint and very few, separated by great oceans of blackness. I think of towns and cities back in England, ablaze with light even in the dead of night, and then I wonder: wait, am I already 42 back home? Which way do the clocks go? Which way does the world turn?

I once saw a film clip showing the movement of nightfall across the face of the planet, as seen from outer space. It was amazing, but somehow the line of darkness looked unreal—too abrupt and sharp, lacking all the shades of twilight. I recall now that it resembled old newsreel images of Communism advancing across Europe, east to west. East to West. Which means that where Mark and the girls are, the sun is still shining and I am still a solid 41. But 42 is coming, rolling inexorably across the time zones. (Is 42 old? Is it old in plane years?)

The thing is, I don’t feel 42 in the slightest, or even 41. From the moment we landed in Delhi I have felt somewhere around 17. Being on holiday with my parents instead of my children, I’m not a wife and mother; I’m a daughter. Woohoo! No responsibilities! No need to organize anyone’s day, or clothes, or meals. Quite the opposite: I am the focus of our hosts’ organizational enthusiasm—eat this, go there, wear that—and I surrender to it happily. To complete the effect, people keep introducing me as Pauline Brand (not Nelson), which is shocking and deeply familiar all at once.

There’s just one problem.

While I have been enjoying my second childhood, my parents have been attending conference meetings, making public appearances, struggling with jet lag and a stomach bug. I look at them now, crumpled in exhaustion, their color poor in this dingy light; they look every one of their 80-plus years.

I feel a pang of guilt at the thought that my presence may actually have added to the stress of their week, even though my coming was their idea. “We want to show you India again,” Dad said back in August, with real excitement. And I was sold. Yes, I knew how old they were technically, but they were as joyful and energetic as ever. They do this trip all the time; I’ll just tag along!

But that was then. Now, in Row 15, things look quite different, and I know what needs to happen. I’ve had my fun. Now I need to be the grownup, and look after my parents.

I look out of the window again. It’s not that I like seeing how high up we are. It’s just that, now we’re up here I want to be sure we’re staying up here, that the ground hasn’t suddenly got closer. Also, I hope I might be able to identify what I am seeing, to know which dim smudge of light might be Vellore, and the hospital where I was born. Could it be that, with a Salman Rushdie-style ironic twist, we will fly over it at the exact hour of my birth?

Just as I think that, the plane takes a sudden stomach-flipping dip, and the engines rev furiously for a few moments. My heart dips and revs as well.

Actually, what would be really ironic is if we crashed into the hospital I was born in, at the exact hour of my birth.

Think about something else…breathe deeply…remember you were born at 7 a.m….we’ll have landed way before then...

Suddenly, everything gets much worse. The plane starts shuddering, dropping, rattling, climbing a little and then falling again, first one wing and then the other pointing at the ground. I grip the armrests, listening hard to the furious racing of the engines, working to interpret every sound for good or ill. (This is one of the ways I help the pilots of planes I am in. It has worked so far.)

Perhaps I wasn’t born at 7 a.m.! My mother was always hazy about the details of my infancy—sixth out of six kids and all that. She probably just chose some random time, to satisfy my curiosity. Perhaps we will crash into the hospital at the exact anniversary of my birth.

The plane sounds as though it is literally rattling apart. I am practically climbing out of my seat with terror, on the verge of tears, mentally bidding farewell to my children. My mother continues to nod over her Bible. We are like a pair of illustrations in a How-to guide for handling stress. My approach would be the one with a red X through it.

Ten minutes after I resolved to look after my parents, I am shaking my mother awake to tell her I am scared.

She looks up at me and blinks, blinks, blinks the blur of sleep away. By the third blink, she knows where she is and who I am, and she smiles the most tender, radiant smile I have ever seen. I don’t know how it is possible in that dim chaos, but her eyes are literally twinkling.

“Hello, precious girl,” she says, and I realize she hasn’t noticed that we are practically definitely about to fall out of the sky. So I explain that.

She takes my hand, and holds it between both of hers, patting and stroking it. Her skin feels cool and papery smooth. She keeps twinkling and smiling, and then she starts to pray.

My mother prays about everything, and for everyone. If she were getting mugged I guarantee she would ask the mugger if she could just take a minute to pray for him. I often joke that God has a red phone on his desk, for my mother’s private line. Right now I’m sort of hoping it isn’t a joke.

Of course, I’ve been sending up my own little “Help! Help!” prayers for the last ten minutes, but it’s hard to pray and monitor engine noises at the same time.

She tells God how thankful we are for our lives, and I agree completely. She says if the plane crashes that’s fine too, because we know our future is in God’s hands. (I offer a private dissenting vote on that one, stating my personal preference for a not-crashing future.) And then she tells God what a joy it is for her to be travelling with me, and my throat aches with the effort of not bursting into tears.

By the time she’s finished praying, I feel better. In fact, the panic started ebbing right about the time she took my hand and called me her precious girl. I think I will wait to start being the grownup until tomorrow.

Mum goes back to sleep, and the rest of the flight is fine—apart from the smell of mothballs —and that decrepit old plane from the back of the hangar with the missing wheel and the broken wing lands smoothly in Chennai around midnight.

Buddy and Joe were right, after all. The old girl might be showing her age, but she's got a big heart.