So Vast A Distance


moon 2

An English guy I was sharing a taxi from the airport with told me this story about his mother. Great storyteller. Hard not to listen to him. He had one of those rich, brown voices and it was a sort of ghost story. I could see the taxi-driver leaning back in his seat so as not to miss a word…Anyway this is what he told me in that James Mason voice of his:

Valerie, my mother, he said , had reached the stage where she had to be put into sheltered housing. She was becoming increasingly deaf but poo-pooed the suggestion that being fitted with a discreet  hearing aid would improve her social life and without her glasses she was blind as a bat so if she mislaid them they remained mislaid. When the phone went and I saw who it was I guessed (usually correctly) that she needed me to find them for her, had probably spent hours groping on and under chairs and cushions in a fruitless search for them. Not that she called very oftenShe’s a very independent lady, dislikes being what she called ‘a burden’ to anyone.  It must be like taking your dog for a walk, she told me  the last time we went for a very slow stroll round the park.
Her new flat was only a 5-minute drive away. If you have any problems, just call me, I told her. Anything at all just give me a call. Seriously. Anything at all.
You’ve done quite enough for me already, she said. I’ll be fine.

The first night on her own in her new flat she called.
Richard, she said, her voice little more than a whisper.
I’m hearing voices, she said.
From the street? I asked. From the neighbours’ flat?
No.
Have you switched your computer off?
No reply.
Have you checked that you haven’t just left the TV on?
No reply. I could hear her rapid breathing.
From where then?
You’ll think I’m losing my mind.
From where?
From the ceiling.
Oh

I switched on the bedside lamp. It was 3 am.
What are the voices saying?
Voice, she said. A woman’s voice.
What’s she saying? I asked. It was 3 am. and I was tired.
Richard, she’s frightening me, she said. She  knows who I am. She knows my name.
That woke me up. She’s not the type to imagine things. But a voice emanating from the ceiling…..
This woman, what is she saying? Is she saying something nasty?
The same thing over and over.
What same thing? There was a pause then her voice dropped even lower. A little less than a whisper.
Hello Valerie. 

Hello Valerie?
Yes, my mother said with a quiver in her voice. That’s what she says. That’s all she says. Hello Valerie. Over and over again. Hello Valerie. Hello-
Okay, I said. I could hear her panic. I’ll be round in quarter of an hour, I told her. Don’t worry. Trust me, there’ll be some simple explanation.
When I got there I quickly located the voice.
Right enough, it came from the ceiling.
It was the smoke alarm’s automated voice saying  L o w   B a t t e r y  at 15 minute intervals.

When I got home I told this story to my Mary but either I told it badly or I screwed up the ending or something. Any how she didn’t find it funny. It’s one of these Reader’s Digest urban myths, she said, not even looking up from her computer. Like the legend that Kennedy made a trip to Germany in the 60′s and in a speech in Berlin, trying to win over the crowd,  he told them, “Ich bin ein Berliner”.  According to the myth however, a “Berliner” is also a type of  doughnut so the crowd just laughed at him. They thought he was telling them, ‘I am a doughnut’.
She finished whatever she was doing on the computer and  looked up at me. What do you think? Fact or fiction?  She shook her head. 
All nonsense, she said. Fiction. Fantasy. All of it. I’m surprised that people let themselves be taken in by that sort of stuff.
I just shrugged. She says the same thing about my religion – Fiction. Fantasy. All nonsense.

A hot bath and a generous glass of Glenmorangie later, I went for a stroll round the garden, watched the stars, heard a skein of geese honking their V-shaped way to wherever, whatever, somewhere South…..
Summer where have you gone?
And what was the name of that James Mason film with the Hungarian guy on the zither and Orson Welles coming out of the shadows to ask what have the peace-loving Swiss ever done apart from invent the cuckoo clock? (Which they didn’t; it was the Germans, according to Mary when I asked her what the film was called. It was called The Third Man she informed me. And James Mason wasn’t in it. Joseph Cotton was. And the Hungarian zither player was called Anton Karas. And…..)

I sometimes wonder how a husband and wife can become separated by so vast a distance.

Learning a language



I was standing at the long bar in the Museo de Jamon in Madrid,  half-lifting an arm, half-opening my mouth in a vain attempt to catch the bartender’s eye when the Spaniard beside me, either out of pity or irritation, told me that to activate a waiter in Spain you simply called out Oiga, and forthwith demonstrated how it was done.
Oiga. The bartender responded immediately. No offence taken; none given.
The man went on to tell me that he could identify the nationality of  people by the way they entered a bar. The English, he said, stop as soon as they’ve crossed the threshold, look round sort of helplessly, fiddle with their tie (this was long ago when men wore ties), wait to be told what to do next.
So the next time I was in a bar I walked straight to the counter and tried out the Oiga gambit. The waiter seemed quite comfortable with it (although I wasn’t!).
To me it was like shouting  Oi to a perfect stranger.  Probably a class thing. A middle-class language thing…. I wonder if you would be good enough to pass the salt, please….sorry to trouble you, sorry to disturb the universe….

poppies spain PRINT good

When we were having a stroll in the Spanish Pyrenees one summer, we passed/were passed by other walkers and, as is the way of hill walkers, greeted/were greeted with a friendly Hola. So we decided to perfect our pronunciation of this one word greeting, replicating the Spanish stress, tone, intonation and pitch rather than simply saying  Hola with the English stress etc.  of  Hello.
It was surprisingly difficult. It made me think how much information you convey with a simple greeting. About class, age, personality, sexuality…..

Going back to my schooldays, I remember my excellent French teacher, Miss Yuill, telling us about the mysterious French sense of humour where foreigners were concerned.
” It was a picnic, ” she said, ” une pique-nique, beside a field of poppies on the hillside above the beautiful town of Collioure, famous for all the artists who painted there…..how many of you have heard of Matisse?……Good. Picasso?……. André Derain… There is something so special about the bright, clear light in Collioure.  Derain, who was Matisse’s friend, said that ‘Collioure has no shadows’. Can you imagine such a pure light?”
She paused, and gave a little smile, remembering.
” Anyhow it was a beautiful, warm sunny day, ” she went on, ” and we were having a picnic and Jean-Pierre had just passed me one of these French cakes that are so light, so delicious… ” She smiled again, then frowned.  “When  out of the blue,  à l’improviste, a wasp descended on the back of my hand and I leapt to my feet and shook it off and cried out ‘Dites donc! Un guêpe!’ And you know what? Everyone laughed. Yes, everyone laughed and I was so embarrassed, so hurt…..And you know what they found so funny? You know why Monique and Jean-Pierre and all these lovely people laughed at me?”
She paused and looked down  at her hands. We waited. She sighed and looked up.
Une guêpe. Silly old me. Not un guêpe. Une guêpe. Une guêpe!”
The class was silent. She sounded so angry with herself.  Or with her remembered self. All that time ago. Thirty, forty years. And still so hurt. Still so angry.