The Portuguese Diaries: The Falling Baby

“We are formed by what we desire”. I dive in and out of John Irving’s latest novel but this one line from its opening page resonates and keeps drawing me back to the initial lines of the book. The truth is, my eyes are failing. Small and constricted, the font is the frontline in a battle to covey the words from the page to my brain.

This was our desire. Throughout the coldest British winter for 60 years we talked of it. Huddled for warmth under sofa throws and sweaters, hoods pulled up over our heads, this was our end game: a big house on Portugal’s southern Atlantic coast, baking in the heat, doors flung open, walking from the bedroom to the pool in 10 steps. Ten months of work and toil, rising before dawn and home after sunset in service to children has beaten the path to the great iron gates that mark the entrance to this 6 bedroom house. Personal energies distilled into a week’s occupation- living like the rich we so despise.

Timeless and dragging, the Sun pulls opposite the strong Atlantic breeze that constantly blows through the endless miles of Algarve coastline. The name is Moorish; Al-Gharv, meaning the western lands. In Roman times this was the end of the world, the furthest reaches known to man. Now it is a juxtaposition of package holiday Med and a rich history that gave us the first circumnavigation of the globe. Shops jostle shoulder to shoulder with inflatable rafts shaped like crocodiles and Portuguese linen delicately embroidered with the green of its former North African masters and Sangria red.

Twelve of us- on the whole a blood relation group peppered with a few additional friends occupy the house in the baked valley just inland from Gale Beach. The restaurants are few and crowded. Booking is essential. I am sent out in the noon day sun to secure a table for the same evening. The English like to eat at 7pm, the Portuguese at 9. Ever conscious of being a tourist who likes to be immersed in the local culture, I opt for an 8pm reservation.I stand in the restaurant waiting for the attentions of the bottle blonde Portuguese woman who stands behind the bar doting on her 6 year old daughter’s hair. A second child, a baby just old enough to sit autonomously is perched on the edge of the bar facing its family. Children are respected here, more so than in London. Restaurants welcome them. The very young can be seen chattering exuberantly and peeking their heads out from under the table cloths in most eateries.

The Portuguese mother continues to toy with her daughter’s hair. A brief exchange of smiles are shared between myself and the 6 year old but she mainly keeps her eyes focussed squarely on the baby perched precariously (IMHO) on the counter’s edge. I recognise the mother from the garish photo of her in a wedding dress which fills the great void between the bar and kitchen. Reservations must wait. There are children to attend to. And I approve.

With a twisting shoulder I watch the baby struggling to gain its fledgling balance. Default settings of child protection embedded in the ten months of dark working days bubble to the surface. I glance at the mother and daughter who so attentively had been watching the infant. But their collective gaze is temporarily distracted as a thick, blue elastic band is looped around the young girl’s ponytail.

In that split second, in this land where time is measured by the Sun dragging opposite the Atlantic winds, I shoot a glance back at the baby now extending its other arm in a primitive attempt to steady itself. But the balance has been tipped. The baby is leaning forward and falling irretrievably from the bar. Shouting out a guttural, inactive sound- void of recognisable words, I jump onto the counter top. With a great sweep of my bear-like arm I gather the baby up to my even greater body.

Both mother and daughter stare at me in disbelief. The clocks are standing still. The sun is not dragging but stalled. The mother’s face is contorted and confused, the antithesis of the joyous expression she wears in the wedding photo.

My heart is racing and filled with adrenaline. All my senses (including my failing eyesight, dear readers) are at alarm level. I look again at the young girl, her hands still aloft fussing on her ponytail. Her mother’s puzzled eyes meet mine as (I assume) she is realising the gravity of the situation.

It is only then that I feel the baby’s rubbery texture on my forearm. The hardness pressing into my torso is an electrical box on its back for 2 C-size batteries. I am holding a doll.

Half laughing, half panting from the excitement I hand the doll to the little girl with the ponytail just as the woman’s husband (I recognise him from the wedding photo) enters from the kitchen door.

Patting my heart with the palm of my hand I relay to the groom, in slow and simple English, my misconception and my reason for being on top of the bar. He translates the story into Portuguese to his wife and daughter who burst out laughing.

I am not asked to leave a name for my 8pm reservation for a table for 12 people. They will remember me. I am the crazy English man who rescued the doll. The man made the fool in an attempt to keep a child safe- albeit a rubbery one motorised by 2 C-size batteries.

We are formed by what we desire.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The East German Accident

It has been said, dear readers, that one can go years without seeing a true friend but at that moment of reunion time melts away and we slip into the never-forgotten banter like an old t-shirt.

As the 30th anniversary of my arrival in Britain looms, I was pleased to meet up with the oldest friend I have in this country. I met him in 1984, when I was more than half the age I am now. He was Best Man at my wedding and godfather to one of my daughters. Sadly, our lives now run on different tracks and it is difficult to get together.

We sat in our front room, drinking bourbon and coke as my son listened in to the re-telling of stories that formed our friendship.

One story remained untold. We never speak of it much. When we do it is in cursory terms, each of us looking down and not making eye contact. It causes us uneasiness. It is held in solemn reverence deep in the recesses of our memories. But for both us, my dear old English friend and I, it is vivid. The images are strong, deeply personal and horrific. To retell the story resurrects the ghost from their casket which has been sealed for the sake of moving on with our lives.

It was 1986 and Europe was still divided by the Iron Curtain. Germany was physically split in two by political ideology; the capitalist west from the communist east. It was in this climate we decided to drive from London to East Berlin and sample the communist experience for ourselves.

The trip would be difficult. West Berlin was an isolated enclave deep in the heart of the former East Germany. To reach it we would have to take the international highway set aside for foreigners; a straight line of aging concrete that ran for many miles through the East German countryside. It was a heavily policed route, spotted with signs in English reminding motorist that cars were not permitted to stop under any circumstances and must make the journey unbroken into West Berlin. Failure to do so would result in imprisonment. A steady patrol of soldiers with Kalashnikovs made certain the rules were observed to the letter.

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The trip east was uneventful. It was the return trip that is silently summonsed on an almost daily basis in both our minds. It was the return trip that wasn’t shared as we sipped Jim Beam in the warmth of a British summer.

The snow had started as we departed Berlin and started out on the international highway towards West Germany. The signs on the side of the road were just as had seen on the trip in; DO NOT STOP YOUR CAR UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.

The snowfall quickly deteriorated into a blizzard and we focussed hard trying to keep the 70s model Saab on the icy road. Maybe twenty miles into the trip, we watched the car in front of us spin out of control and disappear over the small bank of earth that lined the length of the asphalt.

In a moment it was gone, but in my mind, years later, it happens in slow motion; the gray car against the gray industrial sky vanishing over the untouched white of the snow. The sharp intake of air from both of us in the Saab’s front seat gave way immediately to a moral debate as to whether we observed the signs warning us to travel straight through, or stop to help the vanished car’s occupants. We chose the latter.

Pulling over to the side of the road we jumped out and onto the icy bank at the shoulder. The drop off on the other side was much steeper than we had anticipated. The vanished gray car sat at the bottom of the 40 foot ravine, engine still running blowing great cloud of exhaust into the scene.

Sliding down the hill on our backsides we reached the crash scene in seconds. A woman jumped from the passenger side door, screaming something in German. We tried to reassure her in English as we peeked inside the car to see a child of about 5 years old in the back seat and a man at the wheel.

My old and trusted friend pried open the back door and began to get the child out. I raced around the car to attend to the driver. The woman followed me, beating me on the back to get my attention. “Hertz, hertz!” she cried.

I had taken two years of German at school, enough to understand that she was saying “heart” and I immediately made the assumption that the driver was her husband and he had driven the car into the ravine as the result of a heart attack.

Pulling open the dented driver side door, I found myself face to face with the driver. His skin was the colour of the industrial sky and he gazed at me as I tried to remove his seatbelt and reassure him in pigeon German.

His eyes were glazed over. Instinctively, I knew he was dying. My friend, holding the small child was trying to calm the woman, his frau I imagine, who by now was hysterical.

The driver looked at me, his head slightly tilted towards the open car door. I told him to stay with me, I would get him out. He coughed and blood spouted from his mouth as he breathed his final breath.

I think I must have gone into shock. I remained in the same position, leaning in through the car door, my hands on his shoulders telling him he would be alright. The blood he had brought up from the deepest recesses of his circulatory system covered the front of my jacket and gave off steam that entwined with the exhaust form the car.

A few moments of silence were punctured by the screech of the woman as she realised the man was dead. I stared at her, unable to move, to speak, with my hands still on his shoulders and my jacket dripping with the blood of his final earthly act.

I recall German voices tumbling down the steep embankment at the side of the road. Someone pulled me out of the car and in broken English told us to get out of there before the police came. We clawed our way up the snowy hill and got back in the car.

We drove on in silence, in shock, in disbelief of what we had just experienced. The blood, still wet on my jacket was slowly drying to a deep brown. We drove on to a lifelong friendship, peppered with stories of drunken debauchery and football or cricket matches. But the story of the East German accident is never spoken, never summoned to the clink of a bourbon glass.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Frozen Fox

ImageBy the time I reached the classroom the rumour had evolved from gossip into gospel. Summonsed from my morning constitutional of greeting the children and their families at the main playground gate, I made my way as quickly as possible down the long, airport-like corridor that connects the four wings of my school. A child had passed the message to me, (in strangled English heavily laced with a Bengali lilt), that a fox was sleeping outside the window of class 6 Yellow.

The thought of a fox in the urban side streets of the city’s poorest district may seem farfetched. In reality, there is probably not a single Londoner who has not spotted one at some point in the past year or so. Steadily, the population of the much maligned mammal has risen as the environment provides plenty of shelter and food scraps.

What started as a group of three living in the thick undergrowth along the edge of the staff car park has risen to a skulk of 10 or more. As their numbers have increased, so has their bravado. They can be spotted several times a day, plodding along the car park, peeking into windows on their way to the neighbouring park. It is possible to spot individuals; the one with a damaged leg that limps along on three paws, the spindly and mange-ridden mother, the sleek and quick male who I remember as a cub last April.

I doubted the sleeping story immediately. The foxes don’t sleep in the open. The path between their car park den and the local park was a motorway to them; a means of getting from A to B. It was familiar to them but equally it was a place of danger. They seldom loitered let alone slept in the open, other than to boldly peek in a window or two as they padded down the cobblestones. No, the fox was surely dead I thought.

And sure enough dear readers, upon reaching the classroom window, I could see it was too still to be sleeping. By now Big Bert, the school caretaker had joined me with a makeshift array of equipment soon to be a fox-disposal kit. “Sleeping, eh?” he winked at me as we opened the classroom door and approached the lifeless body. Our collective breaths froze in the mid January air, as we circled the remains.

Big Bert poked the torso with a litter picker. It was hard, frozen both from rigor mortis and the blast of Scandinavian cold currently blanketing Britain. He lifted the animal up and the body did not change shape. Gravity has no providence in such matters.

I held open the rubbish sack but the weight of the body was too much for the litter pickers; they bent and strained. Bert’s baseball-mit-sized hands draped in thick industrial gloves grabbed the animal by its sleek tail and stuffed it into the bag. A chorus of disgust arose from 6 Yellow and I turned to see 30 faces pressed against the glass; processing the collective realisation that the fox was not actually sleeping at all.

Hello again, dear readers. I offer no apologies for my sporadic efforts in updating this blog. The blog has always and remains driven by catharsis and life has been quieter in the post-inspection era. The school is thriving. Just like the skulk behind the car park.

It was in that moment; the stiff and frozen carcass being lifted by its tail that my thoughts turned to this blog for the first time in months. Something so full of life, now dead to this world and frozen in an un-natural pose, how could one not have drawn parallels with the journey of this blog?

And so, another omen. I poke at these words with a cheap litter-picker to see if I can coax life back into the body. Perhaps I shall try again, when and if needs dictate. Perhaps the rumour was correct: it was sleeping, not dead. 

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Homeland Diaries

Bone cells last the longest. Regenerating every 30 years, they are the oldest cells in our body. Our stomach lining is renewed every couple of days, red blood cells 3 times a year.  So there is nothing of this place left in me. None of this dust or thick, humid, mosquito-plagued air permeates my being. I have London skin, English blood, British bones forged from 30 years of wet brick and the breeze off the Thames. My building blocks are of fish and chips and strong beer and the breath of passing tourists from around the world.

But I am acutely aware that this is home. This is the land and community into which I was born. My fetal cells, child cells, teen, were all collected on an isthmus of land sandwiched between swamplands and the Delaware River. That child was built of maple trees and flying cut grass. He was forged in summer sunlight, bright enough to turn the highway white.

ImageFrom the height of the great green steel bridges that straddle the river I gain my first view of the town.  The canopy has thickened in the 30 years since I left. Lush, green, inviting, the leafy clumps are enriched by the slow flowing marsh.

But it is cancerous, toxic and silent.  I swivel my head across the landscape left to right from the chemical plant at the north end of town to the south where it disappears into the swamp amidst charismatic churches and bait shops.

My maternal grandparent’s house was a copy of every other one on their street. A functional box design, it nested between a toxic, foul smelling canal that poured perpendicular from the sprawling chemical factory that employed half the men in town.

We lived down the street until I was 3; the house behind the fire house. Tacked to the wall above my bed, a large map of the world was the last thing I saw as I fell asleep.

ImageAt the other end of the street a copse of 100 maple trees hides the chemical factory gates. The trees are not so close together as to provide cover. There was tokenism in mind when they were planted. Like the canal, they draw their lifeblood from the chemical tainted waters deep underground. They are contaminated and poisonous.

It is one of my first memories- the great maple trees towering overhead, their trunks far too wide to embrace. Their paper bark peeling away perhaps blistered and burned by the chemical water table.

My grandparents would hide Easter eggs there in the hollow and knotted feet of their roots. Pastel colours of a hot water and vinegar dye, they would dot the copse like phosphorus mushrooms fed on the noxious emit of the chemical plant.

I expect the maple trees in the copse to be 500 feet tall by now. Nearly half a century has passed. But they are not. They are the same height I remember them as a child.

My grandparents house has been rebuilt and is unrecognisable.

I look to the white hot highway. It is the fierce summer sunlight that turns the world the colour of faded Polaroid photographs. It is the sunlight that awoke the child behind the firehouse, illuminating the global view above his bed.

We would sit on the curb in that white summer heat watching the parade of veterans and marching bands some pageant queen perched on the back of a convertible.

John ran the shop across the street. He was old and sold soda from a fountain that was antique even then. After church we would go in for a pretzel rod or a banana popsicle. John was kind, quiet sort of man.

I heard the adults talking. John had gone to Greece and died.

I asked where Greece was. The explanation was far across the sea. I was thrilled. Thrilled to learn there was another land beyond the seashore.

I associate this place with boredom and that association has not left me 30 years on.

It is not real. It is a snap shot. I measure myself against it and make a notch on the doorframe.

My mother tells the story. I have no recollection of the event at all. The facts are diluted and shaken in the space of a generation. I ran with a branch around that maple tree. My aunt tried to take it from me but I eluded her chase, falling and somehow ramming the stick down my throat. The hospital extracted it and the distance by which it missed my larynx shortens with each re-telling.

I do not recall one dot of the event. It is folk lore to me. But the paper thin bark peeling from the maples, the pastel coloured eggs, my grandparents’ house built by Russian tradesmen are all clear.

At two years old I could have lost my voice.

But I have not lost my voice. I have a voice.

-Southern New Jersey

Summer 2012

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Serbian Shot Putter

I am not invited to the party. The roads are closed. Many of us are leaving town.

2000 soldiers guard a great crystal bowl turned upside down. I press my nose against the glass and fog my view. Visitors to the city, my city, politely squeeze past and enter the party bowl. I am invited to watch on tv or for £15 a big screen in a park.

We are the old women outside the church watching some unknown bride.

Optimism once reigned supreme. Seven years on when the preparations became part of each day’s conversation have been building in crescendo towards this moment. MacDonalds and Cocla Cola are crowned. Long live the King the corporate suits cry out. But This is not about the burger. It is nominal and exclusive. The lack of a debate about the whole morality issue of corporate influence to the point it is unapologetically accepted.

It is the party we are not invited to.

So the teams sometimes in groups of half a dozen, sometimes in pairs, sometimes alone.  They wear matching chinos and sporting tops. They photograph everything looking for Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter.

Team Indonesia holed up in the Waldorf. The Swiss tucked up behind Southwark Cathedral. The streets filled with the sporting fruits of Polynesia . Everyone is lost and asking for directions. Where is the Oxford Street?

Instead I walk along the Thames towards Tower Bridge. I want to see the rings simple and still meaningful to me; hanging from the ramparts of Tower Bridge. They are still the rings of Munich of Mexico City, of The Games with soul still in situ.

At first glance I thought he was wearing a varsity jacket; the Serbian shot putter. Squat and rooted in the earth. Thick, unmovable like a tree trunk.

I walked behind him for about 50 meters from the reconstructed Globe, lovingly rendered so not to look like a Disney attraction.

He slipped into a nook outside the Anchor pub on Bankside. I wanted to stop and share the legend with him: beneath the pub is a fabled tunnel into the Clink prison next door. But my Serbian does not even extend to hello.

The shot putter is young. In his jacket he reminds me of my high school days. I watch him until he notices that I am staring. It dawns on me that he is a sentry; standing guard as I take my leave from this city.

Someone sends me an email: ”We all need to go home every now and then.”  I have not ventured onto the  soil of my birth for nearly half a decade. It does not feel like going home. It feels like I am taking refuge.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Beatle

As if on cue, the dead rose from Forest Lawn.  Discarded bin liners and copies of the Daily Mail stuck to their legs and they stiffly found their balance and staggered towards the mass of people paying homage to a distant messiah-like speck on the horizon. We nodded along to the music, raised our hands when directed to and shouted out the Messiah’s name as if he could hear us from 150 meters.

The whole day had been in jeopardy. Three months of unseasonably cold rain had made London’s green fields a sea of mud. The concert venue carefully segregated from the rest of Hyde Park had been turned into a sea of clinging mud and rough wood chip.

I have lost count of the number of times I have seen the man perform now. Bruce, The Boss, Springsteen, whatever he is known as; I have been attending his concerts with loyal regularity since the mid 1970s. Then I was a young teen following the music that the older kids were listening to. Eventually the music became a reflection of my own life. But each time I had seen him play, the crowd around me had gotten older. I hadn’t aged; of course, I was still the child of the 1970s hung-over from Woodstock and embracing David Bowie. My arthritic hip prodded me in the side reminding me that youth was an illusion.

We had arrived two hours before he was due to perform. My wife suggested we sit on the plastic bin liners she had brought in front of a big screen on one of the few relatively mud-free areas of the venue. We sat back to back, drinking vodka and munching magic brownies as we waited for the show to begin. Others joined us on the grassy knoll and soon about 20 small camps filled the space. I took great consolation in the fact I was neither the oldest nor the fattest concert member- not by a long shot.

The brownies worked their magic and I sought out conversations with those camped around us. The man behind us, far too young for the woman he was with, smoked a cigarette which caused huge dismay to the people behind him. In that passive aggressive tone only a sanctimonious ex-smoker can recognise, the indignant woman invited him to blow his smoke in a different direction. I invited him to blow it our way not just t remind myself of my Benson and Hedges days but also to counter the aggression with a spirit of “all is cool.”

I made the observation to my wife that the knoll now resembled a cemetery.

As the chords of the first song were struck, the 50 bodies on the lawn began to complain in unison that they couldn’t see. Their small claimed patch of little England had been infiltrated by people actually wanting to stand, dance, interact with the performance. I struggled to my unsteady feet and hoisted my wife upright. I was a child of Woodstock, not the Stock Exchange.

And at the concert’s end, a Beatle walked on stage. I had waited 35, 40 years to see one of the Fab Four in the flesh and the moment had come in a muddy field where the Stones had played their legendary 1968 concert for Brian Jones. It was a defining moment for me in my 50th year.

And then the sound faded out. Curfew. The rich and powerful residents that live in the multi million pound apartments along Park Avenue had lobbied Westminster to ban any noise after 10.30. The moment was gone, evaporated.

I shouted out my disgust and raged against the system. I turned to vent my disgust that the free spirit of the 1960s was gone, replaced by the selfish gaining the moral high ground. The Beatles were either dead or had sold their soul out long ago.

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head

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The Condemnation

Condemned to Hell by a five year old: strike that one off the Bucket List, dear friends.

The playground at lunchtime is a market place. Children of varying ages compete for the attention of staff. Children, each in their own world, dragging their own personal baggage and level of need. Some hold tightly onto my arms. Others side step my gait, eager to get face to face in order to pass on the details of every injustice bestowed upon them by other children. Others want confirmation that I am, in fact human, asking questions that seem obvious but shows they cannot separate the Head Teacher from the person: “Do you have children? What are their names? Do you tell them off?”

The games I play with them are designed to include as many as possible in a short amount of time. The aim is for dozens rather than a few being able to make contact before the playground bell marks the return to classes. Even then, they trip over my size 11 Doc Martens (equally at home defying the diagnosis of the Diabetic clinic or exiting the playground) as they squeeze any remaining attention from the sponge. “How old are you? My gran is older than you.”

One little girl and one little boy are the first to approach me every afternoon. Both are five and keen to take part in the game of Monster Chase or Sticky Toffee we will play each day. The girl is quieter.

The boy is inquisitive. He is stocky and thickly built. His halting Urdu accent reflects he is second generation Pakistani British. He smiles incessantly, obviously loved and nurtured at home and safe enough in his school persona to ensure he will flourish in the next 6 years with us.

Today he danced alongside me as the children funnelled from their classrooms onto the playground. It was not my daughter’s ages or the name of our cat that he wanted answers to. “What religion are you?” he asked.

The suddenness and bluntness of his question caught me off guard. I stopped and stooped so to look him in face. I had an innate sense that this was an encounter he might remember when he was 20, 40 60 years old and I wanted to handle it correctly.

“I’m a Christian,” I said.

“You will go to Hell,” he blinked back.

“Why do you say that?”

“Because you don’t have my God,” he offered. “You are not Muslim so you will go to Hell.”

To witness someone so young indoctrinated and intolerant drew a sigh from deep inside my lungs as I said, “I think God loves everyone.”

The child, a five year old, shook his head to confirm my damnation.

By now the quiet girl had joined us. I knew her story well as I had been briefed before she had even started her first day at our school. Born in Kabul the young girl knew only war. The same was true of her parents before her and her grandparents before them. She joined us 8 months ago with no English, no writing. The Taliban had banned all girls from education so she spent her days holed up in her Kabul house playing games with her mother.

Eight months on; she speaks fluent English. She writes beautifully and frequently brings her work to my office to admire and discuss. She writes about life in London and how much better it is. She is joyful at the idea of going to school, of being free to walk down the street and feel her hair in the unseasonably cool July breeze.

She is my personal battle with the Taliban. She is one who got away from Afghanistan. She is the one we will save and teach to read and write and think freely without fear of judgement in the name of God. She is proof I will not go to Hell. 

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head 

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