Under the ash tree

28 June 2007

Ash branch and washhouse, originally uploaded by lusoblogdane.

They sat in a small group under a full ash tree. The grass was damp, but that didn’t seem to bother them at all: they were far too involved in their conversation—a heated conversation that was, to the impartial eye, threatening to spill over into an argument. They didn’t see it; they weren’t aware of their raised voices or of their animated gestures. They were too involved in their own private world shaded by the deep green leaves of the towering ash and dampened by the lush green grass. Their neighbours noticed. Other people who were using the brightly warm park for relaxation and recuperation: a smiling young mother pushing a buggy containing a child happily chewing on a Milky Bar; a group of shouting and running teenage boys kicking a battered old football towards a pile of jumpers; a running man wearing blue shorts and a red face and an iPod strapped to his waist; a middle-aged man throwing a ball for an eager, leaping young dog to chase and fetch; a kissing couple of freshly new young lovers intertwined on the grass making their declaration to the world. They all noticed the small group under the tree and heard raised voices, but they were also all in their own worlds: the young mother with the child was trying to think of ways out of having to go to the supermarket, her child wanted more chocolate; one of the boys playing football was cursing, wondering why he was always the last one to be picked and why he was always in goal when Peter was a much worse player than him; the running man was singing along to the Arctic Monkeys tune that was coursing along the wire and into his ear; the man with the dog was looking forward to a nice cold beer, while the dog just wanted to continue proving his devotion and usefulness by fetching and carrying the ball that his owner kept dropping; the young lovers were both thinking the same thing, and wondering if it was too soon to take it to the next level, afraid to mention what they both wanted because they didn’t yet know each other well enough.

The small group under the tree consisted of two young men and two young women. They were all dressed in black: they thought it was a fashion statement, a uniform that bestowed membership and acceptance on this group of close friends. One of the men, a tall, thin man-boy with a shock of unkempt red hair framing a narrow bespectacled face interrupted the flow: Green makes me think of the environment, he said, much to the bemusement of the others. A small woman with too much makeup and long, straight black hair ridiculed him. Do you have a single original thought in your head? I mean, the environment? Those middle-class self-important environmentalists have hijacked the colour and turned it into an elitist cause; a cause that big businesses are using to hike prices, emotionally blackmailing the poor into spending too much of their money on ‘environmentally dolphin-safe organic potatoes’. It’s a bloody shame to extort even more money out of those who can least afford it, while the green brigade take their organic honey, fair-trade coffee and recycled toilet paper out to their huge planet-killing 4-wheel drive cars that they use to drive little Johnny the three miles to his private school—people who have never seen the inside of a bus, let alone know what it’s like to live on benefits and have people look down their noses at you because you can’t afford to buy carrots that have been grown in cow-shit rather than immersed in artificial genetically modifying fertiliser. The other girl, taller and slimmer, burst in. But your mum drives a big car and buys all that green stuff, doesn’t she? It wasn’t so much a question as an accusation. The others all laughed and nodded in agreement. The red-haired boy smiled and said. So who’s the hypocrite? He didn’t get a chance to say any more as the smaller girl defended herself. So what if my mum drives a big car and buys shit-nourished sugar-free baked beans. I’m not my mum. Do you see me with a big car? When do you ever see me buying anything but the supermarket own brand tins from the bashed shelf? I’m not my mother’s keeper; I’m not here to defend her. She quickly moved the conversation on. When I think of green, I think of money and of exploitation. I think of the ‘man’, of American imperialism, of the ‘mighty’ dollar—the ‘greenback’. I think of oppression and how ordinary people are kept in their place, how their dreams are stolen from them just to keep a small number of people rich and powerful. Green is the colour of oppression, and red the colour of liberation. The last of the group, a young man who was lying on his back counting the leaves on the ash tree with a lit Marlboro cigarette hanging languidly from the corner of his mouth interjected. That’s bloody heavy! Do you really think that when you see the colour green, or are you just telling us what that poncy politics lecturer told you in class the other day? Jeez! Get a bloody life and stop being so serious! D’you want to know what I associate the colour green with? I think of Ireland. I think of grass and trees. I think of spring. I think of that rich bastard with the big house and the big car and wish that I was a 40 year younger version of him: I wish I was his only son, who will inherit the lot. Most of all, though, green makes me think of puke. And I don’t like thinking of puke. I like thinking of beer. The union’ll be open now, who’s coming? He didn’t wait for an answer: he just stood up, flicked his cigarette away and started off. The others sat, not sure what to do. They were all already bored with the conversation, and their leader had made a decision: their task was not to debate or delay, but to follow.


A Hot Day

14 June 2007

Eléctrico, originally uploaded by lusobrandane.

A large group of loud German tourists competed with an equally large and chaotic Italian extended family to see who could make the most noise as the tram wound its way through the narrow alleys, almost scraping against the brightly painted walls of the ancient buildings and crushing any passing pedestrians who had been unable to find refuge in any available alcove or doorway. The tourists pushed and shoved their way towards the exit and towards the entrance, seeking a better view and knocking the driver’s cap off in the confusion. A young Portuguese couple looked on with disinterest, their eyes scanning the mass of passengers for the inevitable pickpocket, and holding their possessions closer to themselves just in case. Oblivious to the dangers, despite the signs warning them to beware of pickpockets, the tourists struggled to extricate their maps, guidebooks and cameras, just to have them at the ready for the view that may (or may not) present itself around the next corner. The tram driver had had enough. He was used to the crowds and the pushing; he was accustomed to the heat and to the noise; he could even tolerate the loud and obnoxiously excited foreigners who insisted in speaking either broken English to him or, even worse, broken Spanish. Why, he thought to himself, would they think that he can speak English, and why would they think that he would want to speak Spanish? Why, when he speaks the language of Camões and never ventures further afield than Coimbra, would he need to speak a foreign tongue? Can tram drivers in Germany speak Portuguese? Can bus drivers in Britain? Anyway, how hard would it be for them to learn how to say ‘Passa o Sé?’ instead of ‘Does this tram go past the Cathedral?’: the Portuguese is much more economical. Is it really beyond their ability to learn to ask ‘Já estamos?’ when they want to know if they have reached their destination, enabling him to respond ‘Já’ or ‘Sim’, instead of the much more convoluted ‘Yes, we have arrived’.

The heat was oppressive, even with all of the windows of the tram fully opened. The breeze that would normally provide much needed relief through the glassless openings was prevented from doing so by the mass of shiny, red and blond Teutonic humanity that had forced its large and happy faces through the void to watch the city pass by within milimetres of their sunburnt heads. The driver shouted above the noise of the crowd ‘Para com isto!’ The Italian tourists understood the call; the Portuguese passengers simply stared in amazement; the Germans continued with their raucous holiday behaviour, unaware that the driver’s outburst had been directed largely towards them: it was they who, afterall, had knocked his regulation Carris cap to the ground and who had made no effort to restore it to its proper place or to its proper owner. The speaker of Romance languages fell silent as the driver stopped the tram, stood up and looked directly into the eyes of the person he presumed to be the leader of the German group. ‘Olha, senhor, estou farto disto. Já basta! Vão! Todos! Vão agora! Sai! Saim todos!’ The German looked at the driver, bemused and uncomprehending. Some of the Portuguese and Italian passengers started sniggering, with some even applauding. ‘Was? What?’, asked the leader of the German group. The driver, assertively, replied ‘Olha, senhor. Não falo nem quero falar inglês. Estamos em Portugal. Fala português.’ The German’s expression was blank: he clearly had no idea what was being said to him. Just then a young Portuguese woman pushed her way to the front and spoke softly to the clearly angry driver and then, turning to the group of German holidaymakers, explained in English ‘I’m sorry, but the driver says that he is not going anywhere until you all get off’. The Germans looked at one another and started complaining in their own language before asking the young woman to tell them why they were being asked to leave. The woman simply repeated what the driver had told her, that the matter was not up for discussion. She pointed to the rear of the tram where a large queue of traffic was beginning to build up in the narrow street. ‘It really would be better for you to get off now. You are not far from the final stop and the driver is adamant that he will not move, and it is only a matter of time before a police officer comes to investigate the traffic jam.’

Clearly defeated, the Germans simply shrugged their shoulders and made their way off the tram. Once they had all gone, the remaining passengers – now with space to move and peace to think – started applauding the driver who bowed, retrieved his cap, sat down and set the tram in motion as he muttered, in perfect English, ‘And not a word from you Italians either, or you’ll be off too!’

1985 Matinique linen jacket

25 May 2007

Larga-me, originally uploaded by lusoblogdane.

On occasions such as these he wished he were somewhere else and, as much as he tried to give the impression that he was content, it was apparent to anyone who cared to notice that he was very far from it. He meandered through the room, gazing longingly out the large sun-filled window as he went—very reluctantly—about the task he had been set. He knew not to complain: that would only make things worse than they already were—and they were already very bad. At least that’s what he thought as he surveyed all the old clothes—all his old clothes, all his favourite old clothes—spread out on the bed, waiting to be condemned to the black bags that his wife had brought up from the kitchen. From there, the expensive designer linen jacket that he bought in 1985, and which he thought made him look like Crockett, and many other similar items of 1980s clothing, were finally to be consigned to the local charity shop—or worse.

His mind returned to that balmy summer of 1985 when he was young and single, had his own place for ‘entertaining’, a good job, lots of friends and plenty of money to spend in the trendy wine-bars and designer boutiques of Glasgow’s West End. He remembered that he used to drink Schlitz in Nico’s, where Charlie Nicolas was a regular (and sock-less) customer; he would drink Rolling Rock in Bonhams, where Robbie Coltrane was often spotted; he would drink Furstenberg in the UB Chip, where Billy Connolly was an occasional sight.

He. Him. Them. Young, single, comfortable and carefree. As he saw his white leather Matinique sandals being reduced—without any ceremony—to bin-liner fodder his mind raced frantically: seeking both to understand what happened to all the years—half a lifetime—between then and now, and to obtain a reprieve for the clothes that had long ceased to be simply clothes—he knew that he would never wear them again, and not only because they had somehow shrunk as they waited at the bottom of the wardrobe. No, they had become more than just clothes—woven threads sewn together—they had become symbols of his lost youth and of many fondly remembered and long-lost friends and sultry Ashton Lane evenings. He watched his wife go about her task, and felt a tear escape from his eye.

His wife started muttering. He quickly dried his eye, but too late: she noticed. He faked a sneeze and mumbled something about dust. He suspected that she knew he was lying, and he respected her for not saying anything about his pathetic attempt at deception. She glanced down at the clothes that lay on the bed, and picked up the linen jacket, holding it to her cheek. It smelled of the inside of the wardrobe in which it had been hanging for the past 15 years. She looked at him and patted the space beside her on the bed, inviting him to join her. As he sat, she said I remember this jacket. You were wearing it the night I met you for the first time. Do you remember? He said Yes, I remember. Back then I wore it all the time. I wore it with that big pink and white shirt, the blue linen trousers and those white sandals. They were all very expensive. I was proud of them, and I thought that I looked good. She stroked the jacket like one would stroke a purring cat. I noticed you, she said. I was with my friends from work, and I noticed you, trying to look like a character in Miami Vice. I saw you there with your noisy posh friends all laughing and drinking trendy beers out of bottles. I noticed you. He turned to look at her and said I noticed you too. I looked at you, and saw you looking at me, and I said to my friend that I wanted to buy you a drink. She remembered him asking her what she was drinking and him buying her a Southern Comfort and lemonade and then sitting drinking his bottle of Rolling Rock with her and her friends: speaking too fast and laughing nervously at her jokes and getting closer and closer until they finally kissed. She looked at him and spoke: And here we still are, all those years later. They sat in silence for a while, just sitting on the bed surrounded by the warm memories of long-ago summer evenings. They did not speak: speaking would break the spell and dispel their pleasant thoughts. They sat on the bed, surrounded by their carefree youth and each other. Neither wanted the moment to end: they could hear the songs in the bars and the traffic on Byres Road; they could feel the warm summer sun on their faces and the moment when love was new and young and vibrant and exciting and fresh and daring and unpredictable. They remembered what it was to be young again. They looked at each other; they didn’t need to speak: they knew that their love had grown and changed and blossomed during the years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes and seconds since that first moment. Then they were discoverers and adventurers, now they are partners and soul-mates.

He watched his wife take his linen jacket. He watched her carry it back to the wardrobe. I know that it’s silly, and I know that you will never wear it again, but I can’t part with this jacket any more than you can. It’s nice to hold on to things from the past—things that mean nothing to anyone but us: our secret. I’ll put it back, and twenty years from now, we’ll get it out again and we’ll remember again a time when we were young and when we had it all ahead of us, when everything was…. When everything was up for grabs and the world was ours for the taking. We’ll look at this jacket and remember again what it is like to be young. He looked at her: he didn’t believe that it was possible to feel more love for a person than he felt for her at that moment.


24 May 2007

Booksellers’ kiosks, originally uploaded by lusoblogdane.

The sun beat down unrelentingly on his back. He was not used to such hard, physical work and his muscles protested at each unfamiliar exertion. With the back of his calloused, blistered and stinging hand, he wiped the sweat from his forehead, leaving a smear of black where the moisture now returned, making a path of light as it made its way through eyebrows and into eyes. The salty perspiration caused them to sting; or at least he thought that’s what it was, although it was probably caused by the silt that the stream of sweat disgorged onto their delicate and sensitive surface. The pain in the muscles of his back, arms and legs, and the stinging of countless burst and dust-filled blisters on his sweat-drenched and aching hands distracted his mind from his smarting eyes. The sun continued to burn his unprotected back and shoulders, which were now glowing an unhealthy shade of scarlet, and which he knew would burn through the night, and for many nights thereafter. He took a drink of tasteless tepid water from the bottle he had placed in what little shade he could find nearby. He wished that he had brought coffee; he wished that he could run into the sea. He wished that he could be anywhere but here, and not have to witness this, not have to smell this, not have to taste this, not have to experience this. He rinsed his mouth and poured what little water was left down the back of his neck where it provided some all-too-temporary relief to his burnt skin.

Somewhere further up towards the wreckage he heard someone call out ‘¡Ayudame! ¡Ayudame! ¡He encontrado una persona herida!’ He sat down for a moment and watched the sudden upsurge in activity as men and women in uniforms began moving in the direction of the faint noise. Their voices seemed calm and dignified and excited and eager at the prospect of finding just one more person who had managed to escape from this tangled and torn mass of blackened metal and fractured glass and broken stones and hot choking dust; one who had managed to escape with their life intact even if not with their body intact. We take what we can, he thought, and we are thankful for whatever small victories we get. There is no glory here, no heroism, just a hot sun, hot dust and destruction. And hope: there is always the hope that we might just find another fortunate-unfortunate survivor-victim who will be pulled out of the rubble by dozens of avid and anonymous hands and carried urgently to an ambulance that will carry them off to the remainder of their life; a life that is now shattered and will be forever defined by their unwilling and unknowing participation, and which will be forever haunted by their survival when so many other equally unwilling and unknowing participants surrendered their souls to the evil that engineered this tragedy.

The crowd around the voice went silent, and the urgency of its movement died away. He heard someone softly speak: ‘Está muerto’. He mopped his brow again and muttered a silent prayer as the dust and blood covered body of a young man was carried away and laid down on the grass embankment. A young police officer knelt beside the young man’s corpse, and with tears streaming down her face reached into his trouser pocket for his ringing telephone.

The sun beat down on his sunburnt back. He ignored his aching muscles and his stinging blisters and his smarting eyes and picked up his shovel. Just let me find one more alive, he said. Just let us find one more alive, they said.

Boardwalk allegory

22 May 2007

Boardwalk, originally uploaded by lusoblogdane.

Something was calling him; taunting him to move on. He surveyed his surroundings, examining the skyline for any clues that could help him determine which steps he ought to take next. There was little or nothing of use: or at least that was what he felt, and what he thought. His eyes followed the black line of trees on the distant horizon, and then tracked the glistening flow of a small river until they rested on an incongruous bright-red box-shaped structure in the midst of all that green. He pondered for a moment, wondering what use a phone box was there. Was this what was taunting him? Or was it simply another puzzle sent to confuse him? He didn’t know what to think; he didn’t know what to do. Without an obvious reason for his plight, and without a clear way out of his current predicament, he guessed that the best next move would be to resume scanning his environment. He found the red box again, and then followed what appeared to be a wall made of fallen stones. At the far end of the wall there was a gap which he supposed–but he was far from certain–would contain a gate. Perhaps it was an old-fashioned field gate made of wood, he thought; however, he knew that it was probably a new-fangled zinc alloy gate that groans in complaint like an arthritic man when it is moved.

Below the field entrance, to which he supposed there must be a gate–although he could not see one from where he was–there was a narrow path created by hundreds of farm animals’ hooves. The path followed a meandering course across the field of tall meadow grass. His eyes followed it until it entered an expanse of deep yellow and dark green gorse bushes. At that point the trail was lost, yet he still felt that he was being called to move on: ever onwards, always onwards, upwards and onwards. He still did not know why. He walked to the end of the boardwalk in the hope that he could get a better view: a clearer understanding of what was expected of him. He found no enlightenment: nothing; he was merely approaching the problem from a different angle: nothing. The boardwalk continued onwards and upwards on its journey into the grass covered sand-dunes. There was no revelation; there was no solution, no salvation. There were only gorse bushes in his eyes; arthritic gates in his ears; incongruous phone boxes in his head; sand in his shoes; and a creaking boardwalk for a path.

Never in my wildest dreams

22 May 2007

Never in my wildest dreams, originally uploaded by lusobrandane.

It was wet that morning: wet and cold. The rain wasn’t so much falling as it was driving horizontally. It struck the window in countless miniature explosions before running down the glass in large runnels and joining another million raindrops and cascading from the roofs of a thousand houses across the town. The little boy was awakened by the noise of the rain drumming against the roof and hissing and crashing onto the pavement below. He had never heard anything like it; he had never seen anything like it. He jumped out of bed and sprang to the water covered window through which he could see very little. It was like trying to see the sand on the beach through the sea, he thought: everything was misshapen and discoloured; nothing was as it ought to be–as it once was. He was struck by the lack of colour, and joked to himself that God must have only paid for a black and white television licence… and green, too. Everything but the bushes and the trees had been stripped of colour. Blues were now black, browns were now dark-grey, reds were now grey, oranges were now light-grey, yellows were now white; however, blacks remained black, whites remained white, greens remained green. Everything glistened and sparkled shining and smooth. All of the dust and dirt of the town’s streets and of the houses’ roofs was being carried away by the falling and driving water: pushed by nature’s weight and pulled by gravity into the drains, then into the rivers, then into the sea.

As the little boy gazed into this wonderful and frightening scene he noticed some blackbirds sitting on a tree branch, sheltering from the worst of the rain’s drops. Through the downpour’s hissing splashes he could just about make out the sound of their whistling song. He supposed that they were telling each other that they were safe and mostly dry, and that they’ll be over just as soon as the rain stops. He saw a wet dog shivering in a doorway–cursing its owners with its big brown eyes and its always-happy-always-smiling mouth–and he thought of his uncle whose house always smells of happy wet dogs with big muddy paws. Further down the street he could make out a man standing waiting for a pause in the rain before making a break for the bus stop. He held his hand out and looked up at the steel grey sky; he pulled his collar up, held his bag over his head and started running like a soldier trying not to get shot. The little boy watched him as he ran down the street: he ran the way adults run–the walkingquicklystumblejog that all adults seem to do when they stop being children and forget how to run properly. The man passed under the little boy’s window and then tripped and fell onto the wet pavement, dropping his bag, which burst open to shed its contents of pens, pencils and lots of paper onto the soaking ground. The little boy sniggered inwardly as he watched the angry and embarrassed and cursing wet man getting wetter and wetter picking up his wet things and putting them into his broken and wet bag.

Abruptly, suddenly, the rain stopped. The water fell away from the window; the last of the cascades gently slowed to a whisper then faded to almost silence. God turned up the brightness and all the colours started returning to normal. The streets and cars and roofs and trees shined even more: everything looked like it had just been through a car wash–even the air smelled cleaner. The blackbirds began to sing louder: he imagined them saying ‘just a minute until my wings dry’. The wet dog shook itself less wet as it barked at the door and jumped in excited circles towards the blackbirds taking flight to begin winging and soaring overhead. The wet man with the broken bag and wet belongings now had an angry face: he just stood where he was, muttering curses underneath his breath and looking at the clearing sky. He looked at his wet coat and his wet trousers and started walking back the way he came. As he left, the sun began to shine and the sky’s colour changed from grey to white and then to blue. The little boy tore himself away from the window and leaped downstairs, three steps at a time. It was the first day of the school holidays, and never in his wildest dreams could he have hoped for a better start then this.