Coogi, Pablo And The Woman Next Door


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.
Poor Coogi.
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?”

Callicebus moloch

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.

                                                                         *****

MIGRANTS


Laz MU

We sailed from  Muhii to Cloijo then on to Iglan Porto, picking up what was left of the  Lete people. They were overjoyed to see us. Heroic survivors, they all had stories  to tell – tales of betrayal, lies, theft, promises, brutality, suffering….how they had managed to avoid/outwit the rogue soldiers  left behind from last year’s failed rebellion….  how some of the soldiers were  mere children but children with guns…how it was their own people who had robbed and betrayed them….how once the traffickers had your money that was it as far as they were concerned.
One of the Lete people, in overalls and tennis shoes, tall, well-spoken,  said she was blind, and to take them to Iglan Maché she had hired a guide who had abandoned them as soon as they left Trasmont.  It had taken  her  and her son a year to get as  far as this.

And cost her all the money she had, no doubt. And you’re not there yet, lady, I thought. Not by a long chalk.
” We’ll soon be there, ” I told her.
She was accompanied by a small boy, ten? eleven? who held her hand in both of his and looked fiercely up at me whenever I spoke. Who was looking after who it was difficult to say.
” We’ll be in Mervidia in a couple of days, ” I told her.
” I have some money, ” she said brightly, producing from her overalls for my inspection a thick wad of notes.
The old currency.

” Take it, ” she insisted, almost pleading.

I closed her hand over her valueless money.  “What’s your name?” I asked the boy who turned away from me and pressed himself against his mother’s legs.
” Take it, ” she insisted. ” If  it’s not enough, tell me. I have more. ”
” Put it away, ” I said quietly, aware we were being watched. They all put their faith in money, these people.  Money was their rock. With money you could escape to freedom. With money you could bribe the soldiers, guards, inspectors, drivers, police. With money there was nothing you couldn’t do. Without it  you were at the mercy of  the evil people who wished you harm. That was the way their thinking went.

The final crossing from Iglan Potro to Mervidia was the tricky part – if the pirates didn’t sneak up on you then the weather would. Luckily it seemed the pirates had other fish to fry and the black storm clouds hovering over Muhii  finally made up their mind to deprive us of their company for a bit and vanished  South. Blown off the map. Our map anyway. But there is always something new, something unexpected to grapple with on that particular crossing either in the treacherous, turquoise waters of Iglan Potro  or the deceptive cerulean blues around  Mervidia. When the strong eastward current rushes through the Mervidian gap and encounters an opposing east wind, this has the effect of building up  monster waves.

The wave that got us wasn’t 100 ft. tall but it was tall enough, tall enough and steep enough and fast enough. Suddenly from nowhere we were confronted by this  roaring glistening wall of green water.
Nothing  I could do except shout warnings just before it hit us, shout out orders that were immediately drowned in the water’s roar.
Down the boat went at first into a deep deep trough that preceded the wave then everything went quiet and we were being lifted up then just as quickly thrown back down, such a long long way down….. 

The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was the startled face of the little boy close to mine. As soon as I opened my eyes he was gone. I sat up. He was standing close to his mother who was facing out to sea although being blind it wouldn’t matter in which direction she was facing. He was tugging at her hand and saying something to her but she didn’t move.There were others strung out along the beach but not too many, not more than half the number who had set out with us from Iglan Porto.

After a bit I got to my feet. No broken bones. No  cuts.  No bruises. Even to be still alive was a miracle.
I walked slowly along the beach to the woman and child. ” Are you all right?” I asked them.
The little boy looked up at me then pressed his face against his mother’s legs. Without shifting her sightless gaze from the sea, she gently held him against her and said dully, “It’s all right.  I have some money.”

The Sandal in the Door


EMBRA 004

At the long table next to ours sat a group of a dozen or so  insurance salesmen, sober-suited youngsters who looked a little like these mild-mannered Mormons you see going around  in pairs, and a senior salesman, American-looking, going grey, lean, doing all the talking.
You know whyou’ve been so successful? ” he asked and without waiting for an answer “I’ll tell you why, ” he told them ( I gathered later they were the regional winners in  some national salesperson competition). “Because you’re like me. Yes, because you’re so like me. When I started in this business he leant back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head),  yes, way back when I started as a poor door-to-door salesman, a bit like Willy Loman,  what I earned was linked to what I sold yet when I walked into a house and saw a couple barely coping, with a couple of hungry kids, apologising for the mess the place was in, offering me a cup of tea, the last thing on my mind was my commission.”  He unclasped his hands and leant forward. ” You know what was on my mind? ” He waited until he had everyone’s attention before he told them what had been on his mind. “I’ll tell you what was on my mind. There’s a car crash, the husband is killed, it turns out he has no insurance and the next thing I see is that poor woman and her poor kids without a home, out on the streets, without help, without a future.”  He tapped his chest.  ” That’s what I felt. In my heart that’s what I felt. The need to save these people. It was a moral thing, not a money thing at all, purely a spiritual thing. How could I best help these people whom I hardly knew but somehow felt responsible for? ” He swirled the ice in his glass and gave it his serious consideration before looking up. ” I’ll tell you how. By making them take out insurance, that’s how. Yes, it was a spiritual thing. In fact ( he put his glass down on the table) in fact…. in fact if Jesus was to come back today, you know what he’d come back as?” He looked from one face to the other, waiting. ” I’ll tell you what he’d come back as.”  Once again he leant back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head before he told them. “An insurance salesman,” he told them. ” An insurance salesman.”

What’s it like to be dead?


 

                                   

ONE NIGHT  last week I sat up in  my hotel bed and  and saw  that what had awakened me was  the creaky bedroom door  being   opened to admit some crazy woman dressed in a green ballgown who kept banging into things and swearing not quite under her breath as she did so. She said she had been on her way to the Hunt Ball at Denholm Hall when she realised she had forgotten her spectacles, couldn’t see a thing without them, had turned back to get them, was sure she had left them on the table beside the bed, had run into a group of enemy troops, been taken prisoner and executed as a spy,  but because of the missing spectacles she was doomed to roam the earth looking for them and only when she had found them would she be released and had I seen them anywhere?

I asked her how she had been executed. She said she had been shot at dawn against the wall of  the church, blindfolded (which was sort of ironic) and that it had been extremely painful and she didn’t want to talk about it.

I asked her what it was like being dead and she said there wasn’t much to it, you got used to it after a while and was I sure I hadn’t seen her spectacles anywhere? All this while she was lifting things up and putting them down again, looking under chairs and tables and beds, even  lifting up my book from the bedside table and  giving it a good shake, losing my bookmark in the process.

I was feeling sleepy and disappointed in her impatient replies to my genuine questions, so I turned over and in spite of  her thumps and effing and blinding, quickly fell asleep again.

I woke up just as the sun was rising and was relieved to see that there were no overturned chairs or broken vases left to mark the stumbling passage of my myopic night visitor. At least she had had the decency to tidy up before she left for wherever these nocturnal peripatetics  go to during the day.

But my very expensive spectacles which I distinctly remember leaving  on the bedside table were gone.

I looked for them everywhere without success, on the duvet, under the pillow, getting on my hands and knees to look on the carpet  but beginning to come to a very unwelcome  conclusion. Yes, my night visitor  (I tend to blame other people when things  go wrong) !

However once again I searched the duvet, the pillows, on and under the chairs, the bedside table, then peering one last time under the bed, out they popped from  the breast pocket of my pyjama jacket where I now remembered I had put them for safe keeping before going to sleep. But my bookmark was between page 41 and 42 whereas I had read up to page 147 before carefully marking the place and switching off the bedside lamp.

When I went downstairs, I mentioned the woman to the receptionist who said yes there was a Denholm Hall which I must have passed on my way to the hotel but otherwise I don’t think he believed my story one little bit so I wrote a full account of my nocturnal encounter in the guest book and on flicking back to see if previous occupants of my room had experienced anything similar was relieved to read that on the night of June the 24th, a Mary Martin had been awakened by a group of soldiers looking for a woman who they claimed was a spy in the pay of the French. No mention was made of the green ballgown or the spectacles however.

GR2

Selfless Love


LANZA ladyinredside

Priscilla has left me for another woman.  The first woman she left me for was so mean and jealous that after a month she was back, promising she would never leave me again. For a while it was like the early days when we couldn’t do enough for each other, couldn’t get enough of each other. But last week I came into the house to find her with a woman I had never seen before, Rosalia, a Spanish flamenco dancer over here for the Festival, dark  flashing eyes, liquid voice, great cheek bones, skin like ivory. And those hands!
I went to see her dance. She was magic.
My friends are generally full of sympathy and at work my boss put an arm round my shoulder and said, ” Don’t feel bitter. And if you want some time off, just say the word. “
But what is there to feel bitter about? If I were her, I would have left me too for a woman like that.

Al Fresco Love


 

When my girlfriend becomes aroused, she insists that we go outside and find somewhere very public and very dangerous to act out her crazy impulses.  

She especially enjoys  kissing and entwining her supple self round me in the main street with all the cars whizzing past, honking their horns,  flashing their lights.

Most of all she is stimulated by the lewd remarks shouted at us by shaven-headed thugs leaning from the windows of their flashy cars  with CD players turned up full volume and making obscene gestures with their fingers and forearms as they pass.

When we get back home, fired up after one of these outings, she likes nothing better than kicking off her shoes and lying on the sofa with a giant tub of popcorn on her chest, watching old Humphrey Bogart movies, flicking popcorn into her open mouth and shouting things like, Get ’em off, baby! and Just do it for Chrissake!

The African Queen is our favourite.

The-african-queen-1-.jpeg

Self Love


  • Munch 2

With some people it’s dentists but with me it was hairdressers so for a long time in my teens I had been cutting my own hair.

The top and the sides weren’t too difficult but I had to cut it blind at the back, trying to taper it but taking out big triangular chunks in the process. My mother kept going on about it and eventually sent me to get a repair job done at Delila’s, the cheapo hairdresser  that used to be The Singing Kettle before it got burned down. “Your dad used to get his hair cut there, ” she said, as if that made everything  all right.

It was a woman hairdresser. She tugged at some of the tufts sticking out at the back of my head. ” Someone’s been at this already, ” she said.

I mumbled that I’d done it myself.

” Ah, you’re one of those, ” she said. ” So. How do  you want it? ”

Ashamed, I told her just to tidy it up a bit.

” I’ll tidy it up for you, ” she said. ” No problem. I’ll tidy it up for you all right.”

I couldn’t bear to watch her progress in the mirror. Hair was cascading down the white cape thing I was wearing,  floating softly to the floor around my feet,  and there was no pause in the frantic snick-snick of her crazy scissors. I folded my arms and stared at the pink and blue bottles at the back of the circular basin, not letting a single thought squirm into my head until she had  finished.

“Well?” she said, holding a mirror up behind my head so that I could see in the mirror in front of me the full extent of her artistry. “What do you think?”

Munch 2

I managed not to cry till I got home.