The lovely but impatient Griselda, my speech-impedimented next-door neighbour, seemingly finds me such good company that she spends more time in my house than in her own. Love thy neighbour (Jesus); but don’t get rid of hedges (Benjamin Franklin).
Last night after work, for example, over a glass of cool green Chardonnay on my verandah , she even asked if she could have a spare key so that she could pop in before I came back from work and switch on the central heating, do a bit tidying up, even prepare a meal if I wanted, as a way of showing her gratitude for my friendship and company. Otto, her head-hunted husband, had flown off to Bolivia’s Western Amazon forest to film the Callicebus Moloch (a titi monkey on the threatened species list), leaving Griselda in the care of Pablo, their large white Alsatian (an avant-garde dog, Otto told apprehensive visitors, thus the name, and yes, he was quite safe with children).
Unfortunately on her first visit to me after Otto’s departure, as soon as I opened the door Pablo had burst past like a greyhound out of the trap and with a single crunch and shake of his big head put an abrupt and savage end to Coogi, my constant companion, my lovable friend, the one-who-made-me-smile.
Alas, poor Coogi.
No point in blaming Pablo, it was his nature after all. Griselda should have muzzled him. Or had him on a lead at the very least. Common sense. However I could also see she was so distressed by it all that I couldn’t add to her misery by pointing this out to her. As it was she went away in tears.
I could hardly just drop him casually into a hole in the garden. We had been together for seven years, ever since I moved here in fact. He deserved some sort of dignified funeral service. The thought of dirt landing directly on his body was emotionally upsetting. I picked up the limp, still warm body and wrapped it in a crisp, white pillow case. In the attic I unearthed a cardboard box still containing the walking boots I’d bought years ago but never used, replaced them with the shrouded body (he had ceased to be ‘Coogi’) and found a spot which he used to stare at with great concentration from the veranda.
The rectangular hole I dug there was about 3 feet deep – deep enough I hoped to prevent Pablo or one of his kind digging up the body. As I shovelled the earth over the box I had to stop and stayed that way for long enough, leaning on the spade, not thinking about Coogi in particular but about life in general. And death. I tried to think of something to say, a prayer, a final farewell…
Some sort of marker then? A shrub? Tree? Flower?…..
I stood leaning on the spade till it started to rain, feeling the way I felt when I was small and Miss Sutherland asked the class a question to which nobody knew the answer and the silence went on and on until I put my hand up and said the first thing that came into my head. Bicycles. Everyone except Miss Sutherland had laughed.
I had just sat down at my desk and begun reading my students’ essays on the relationship between mankind and nature in the poems of Edith Wales, when Griselda came back – without Pablo – but with a bottle of Talisker and poured it and her heart out : about her parents sp litting up wh en she was eleven, panniculitis, a difficult time at sch ool because of her sp eech p roblem, a teaching job wh ere the staffroom was m ore un pleasant than the classr oom…and…
She had changed into a green silk dress I’d never seen her wear before. ‘Whenas in silks my Julia goes, then, then methinks, how sweetly flows the liquefaction of her clothes!’ Great eyes to boot. A very attractive woman no matter what she wore and her green dress was certainly eye-catching. Lucky Otto who was short and a bit on the tubby side. Still. Good looks do not a person make, as Suckling so nearly put it. Nor nylon bras a cage, I thought as she sat slumped forward in her seat, eyes on the carpet, elbows on her knees, hands clasped round her glass, talking, endlessly talking.
Aided no doubt by her rapid consumption of undiluted Talisker, her voice became less of a monotone, she sat up, looked at me as she talked, her face taking on various expressions, lighting up or dulling down as memories came flooding back to her……….an Italian boyfriend………..a trip to Elba……….an interview with…impossible man who…wild parties where….doldrums when….
I’m afraid from here on I nodded and looked serious but my mind was elsewhere until I realized she had asked me a question for the second time and was waiting impatiently for my answer..
I shook my head and mumbled something.
“I m et Otto, ” she said gleefully. “That’s what h appened! At one of his lectures. I adored him from first sight and I thought he adored me l ike that too. I am his sh adow. I worship him h and and foot. He is so intelligent but he can be also very f unny when you do not expect. Why do F rench people not h ave two-egg omelettes? Because they think one egg is an oeuf. Everyone laughs his head off. I adore him. We are inseparable. We go to concerts, we go to cinemas, theatres, dinners, parties, balls, exhibitions, we go everywhere together. We go together on holidays. We go to L atvia, we go to L anzarote, Lichtenstein…..
While Griselda was telling me about her high life with Otto in places that began with L, I was trying to remember a joke he had once told me that made me laugh out loud….something about fish……
Funny things, jokes… Jokes and dreams…Where do they go to? And yet. I was stopped in the street the other day by a policeman who informed me he had been in my class a dozen or so years ago and had enjoyed my lectures very much. I didn’t recognize him – seven years and every cell is changed after all – but I was flattered and told him so. I asked him what he remembered from my lectures. Awkward pause. Then he grinned. ‘That was a great joke you told us’, he said, ‘about
“Then gu ess what happens?” Griselda was asking me, waiting impatiently for me to respond. I shrugged. She sighed.
” He goes away. On h is own this time. Work, he t ells me. I wouldn’t like it, h e tells me. No count ry for young women. First he goes to B otswana. For the wh ole summer. Then it was Brazil. And now Bolivia. And I am so un happy again. B ack in the d oldrums. So un happy. Can it be s omething I have done or something I have not done? I ask myself. ‘Is it s omething to do with s ex?’ I asked him He made me sit down and explained it was his career, his raison d’etre, it was what gave him w orth and what gave us this b ig house and this b ig garden in this n ice v illage and the big V olvo to go to nice country p ubs in the evenings. But I do not b elieve him. All the time I think I don’t know where I am concerning this man. I tell him that. ‘Everything is a j oke to you,’ I say. ‘Everything except your w ork’. That is the truth. I do not am use him any m ore. I feel it. He is g lad to g et away. I kn ow it but he won’t say wh y. Too late I realize he is one of those m en who want only what they can’t have. I b rood. I am so angry. Hurt. I do not t alk to him. I do not t alk to anyone. And then guess wh at happens?”
She made encouraging gestures with her hands.
” I’ve no idea, ” I told her.
“You!” she said. ” You h appen! You rescue me. You are so kind. So un derstanding. You are my knight in sh iny armour. You listen to wh at I say. I am in the d oldrums and you c ome along and r escue me. It is like an earthqu ake when s omeday s omeone walks into your l ife and m akes you realize you have w asted so much time p retending n othing was the matter. “
She poured herself another glass of Talisker. Quite a generous glass.
Not once did she refer to the brutal killing of Coogi; it was as if nothing at all had happened.
Alas, poor Coogi.
Not a hundred bottles of Talisker could make up for his loss.
Anyway, last night, when I refilled her glass with what was left of the Chardonnay and asked her about Otto, she said, ” S ometime I th ink he prefer his m onkey th an me. “
Leaning on the wooden railing of the veranda, I could see in the failing light the patch of disturbed earth, the unmarked grave, close by the white fence that separated my lawn from Griselda’s. It was this veranda with its sweeping view across the river and into the trees that really made my mind up to buy this place seven years ago . Seven years! Where did they all go to?
” Of course I w orry for him,” Griselda was saying. ” Do you know there are p eoples in that j ungle that have s een n o-one and that n o-one has s een? The inv isible peoples, they are called. N aked men and women with b ows and arrows and b lowpipes who still make fires by rubbin g sticks together. You see n othing, you hear n othing then….Pffff…and you die. Do you kn ow there is a tribe there that still practises h eadhunting? So I w orry. Silly old me but I w orry for him.” She sighed. ” It is so safe here. Why do you want to go to th ese dangerous p laces? I ask him. You know how he replies? ” I shook my head. ” Because th ey are th ere. Th at’s wh at he says. Very English.”
” But he’s German, ” I said.
” But he can be v ery English at times, ” she said.
I asked her how they kept in touch, him being in the depths of a jungle half-a-world away.
” He ph ones”, she said. ” Otto is a very r egular m an. Every W ednesday he ph ones. It is strange because his v oice sounds so different, because of the long distance perhaps, very h ushed, as if louder would scare off some p recious animal and r uin his close-up. Like your Mr. Attenborough does. Anyway I tell him about the garden, what I have p lanted, how the lawn is c oming along, how much f ruit his plum tree is carrying and I tell him about Mrs Robertson who works with me in the library and the conversations I have with p eople in the village. And the w eather, of course. I too have b ecome very English, you see….”
Griselda paused as I refilled our glasses.
” And Otto,” she continued when I sat down again. “What does he tell me? He tells me th ings like that that his m onkeys bond for life, are n ever more than a few y ards apart, sit on a b ranch leaning against each other with their t ails intertwined. Sing to each other. Him on the other side of the w orld and he tells me th ings like that! He doesn’t worry, he doesn’t need to worry about me but I worry about him. I really do. He tells me about one sp ecial disease, B ilharzia, you get it from all the rivers and lakes there. It is because of the climate.” She fanned her face with her non-drinking hand as if I needed a sign, was deaf or something. ” It’s so h ot. It’s the Equator after all. Like in an oven. So, what do you do? You jump in the nearest river or lake and these….bl oody things….these slimy microscopic things ….. they enter you and lay eggs in your b lood with little h ooks that tear the v eins as they pass. ” She shuddered. ” And th end you die. Wh en Otto tells me all this, and I tell him how he must be very very careful, he just laughs. As if I am m aking a song and dance about nothing. So wh at you think?”
“About what?” I asked, confused.
“The spare key”, she said impatiently. ” Is a good idea or no?”
I gently explained to her that the central heating came on automatically and that although I wasn’t the tidiest person in the world there was a method in it, I knew exactly where to lay my hands on what I wanted, and that actually I enjoyed cooking, I found it quite relaxing, in fact if she was feeling peckish there was a Hungarian recipe for Kohlrabi soup I’d love to try out on her, a bit spicy perhaps but full of quite unexpected flavours. And that afterwards there was nothing I’d like better than to watch again one of Otto’s excellent wild life videos, especially the one where his canoe was almost overturned on Lake Poopo by the giant enipoxea.
I offered to refill her glass. She raised her hand like a traffic policeman and got unsteadily to her feet.
” I have had enough, she said, ” more than enough in fact. And I’m sure you have students’ essays to mark and interesting stuff like that to do.”
And off she went.
After she had gone, I took a glass of whisky and a large flat white stone I had brought back from somewhere because of the markings on one side which look as though they might mean something, and placed it carefully on Coogi’s grave. I raised the glass.
” Goodbye Coogi, ” I said and looked up at the night sky. ” Look how the floor of heaven is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold. There’s not the smallest orb which thou beholdest but in his motion like an angel sings. Such harmony is in immortal souls but while this muddy vesture of decay doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.”
I could hear Pablo howling next door. If I shut my eyes it was like the jungle.
When I came back from college this afternoon, I noticed a Landscape Gardening truck outside Griselda’s house and workmen busily replacing the fence with some sort of evergreen shrubs, cupressocyparis leylandii I would say from the brief look I got of them as I parked the car.
No doubt she’ll be rushing over to tell me all about it before I’ve even got my coat off.