Monday, 10 September 2007

Quiet days are the most dangerous

Quiet days are the most dangerous. Days that are in between more important days.

Like today in Krakow. Yesterday we arrived by plane. Tomorrow the trucks carrying our bikes will catch up with us and we will start our holiday journey to Budapest. So today is a free day and we have time on our hands. There’s no point in unpacking.

A town called Ozwieczim is only twenty kilometres from Krakow and we decide to go there. It’s a hot August day and we share the cost of a taxi. The countryside is green and wooded. We pass small farms where the harvest is beginning.

It’s mid morning when we reach Ozwieczim. There are many other visitors. During the war the German occupiers gave the town a new name: Auschwitz.

Our guide is Polish. She speaks quietly and our group has to stand close to catch her words. She leads us through what is left of the camp: rows of brick-built barracks and tall tenements that remind me of nineteenth-century factory buildings. Between them are gravel paths and many tall trees. And it’s quiet: leaves rustling overhead, dappled sunlight, our guide’s soft voice.

Here are the main gates with the inscription ‘Arbeit macht frei’ – work makes you free. Here someone has threaded a white carnation between the bars. Here the transports arrived. Here new prisoners lined up. Here the separations were made: to the right those fit enough to join the working parties; to the left, all others. Here is where the prisoners slept and ate and defecated and became infested. Here is the ramp down to the bunker where they undressed. Here are the heavy metal doors. Here are more flowers.

We go into one of the tall buildings where there are maps and photographs. At each stop our guide speaks briefly and then the group silently separates to look at what is there.

In some rooms long sections of floor have been angled up. Tumbled out on these slanting surfaces are the prisoners’ possessions: a tarnished slope of a thousand silver cigarette cases; a slope, wide as a playground, of dolls and teddy bears; a slope of jumbled artificial limbs; a slope of false teeth; a slope of hanks of hair.

And then the longest slope of all, extending the full length of the long building. The slope of suitcases. Suitcases and suitcases and suitcases. Nothing else. Each case has a name and address painted neatly on the lid by its owner: Stein, Rosenberg, Pehrlmann; Warsaw, Berlin, Dresden.

And I stand in that quiet room and I look and I think.

I think of every case I’ve ever packed for every journey I’ve ever made. Suitcases packed in hope for arrivals safely achieved. I choose one case and read the neat white painted name and I try to picture A E Bergmann packing it on a quiet day like this. I turn away.

Outside it has grown hotter. An Australian family tags on to our group, the father balances a video-camera on his shoulder, seeing the camp through its lens.

Near the gate a taxi is waits to take us back to Krakow.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Running away

Reading is easy when it’s just me and the book. I look at Janet. I look at John. I look at them on the beach, or by the river, or playing with their dog. I look at a picture and then I look at the big words in the white space underneath. And then, while I’m quiet and thinking, the words come floating up off the page and into my head and they tell me the story. And then I turn the page and more words come floating up. It’s quiet and happy for me and Janet and John.

It’s harder when I have to read to Sister André at her big desk. The book is between us. I stand so close that I’m pressed against the big black folds of her habit. I can see the soft, downy hairs on her plump hands as she turns the pages. The words aren’t always light and floaty when I’m with Sister. But she is kind and she smiles. She helps me when the words get stuck to the page. If she is pleased I get a sweet from the small green tin she keeps deep in her pocket. Her rosary beads rattle as she reaches for it.

But today Sister wants me to read to the class. I am going to have to stand up with my book. And while Janet and John play and laugh and splash, the big words in their white spaces will curl and twist into hard spiky shapes. I’ll stare and stare but instead of flying gently up towards me, the words will hook themselves into the paper. And there they will stay. And while I’m staring my tongue will go tight and dry and there will be heavy weights hanging from the corners of my mouth, pulling them down and down as my eyes fill with hot, splashy tears

And that’s why I hid among the trees at the edge of the playground. The big hand-bell clanged and the other children lined up. Nobody missed me. And when it was quiet again, I walked through the empty playground, past the little house where the lavatories are and down the tree-lined path to the street. And I walked home. Along the top lane, past the allotments and down the hill by the railway line. I felt free and happy and safe as I passed the park gates and saw the swings hanging still in the morning sunshine. Then I was on the long uphill street that led to the edge of the town and the winding lane where my house and garden was – the last bit of the town and the first bit of the country. Nearly home.

And then a blue car that I recognised was coming down the hill towards me. It was our car and my mother was driving it and she had seen me. The car stopped. I climbed in and we drove off. But we didn’t go to the shops and we didn’t turn around and go home. Instead, we sped past the park, up the hill by the railway line, past the allotments and straight back to school. Within minutes we were outside the classroom door and my mother was talking quietly to Sister André.

‘Of course, I told Miss Briggs immediately,’ Sister said.

Miss Briggs? Miss Briggs was the headmistress. She taught the big children. She didn’t look a bit like plump, comfortable Sister André. She was tall and thin and wore a brown scratchy tweed suit. She had round, wire-rimmed glasses. She carried a stick. When Sister André took you anywhere, she held your hand. If Miss Briggs needed to, she held you by the wrist.

And while my mother and Sister André murmured, Miss Briggs appeared at the far end of the corridor: almost as thin as the stick in her hand. Her heels click-clicked on the polished floor. Miss Briggs gripped my wrist and led me down the long, long corridor.

I can’t remember much of what happened next. I think she asked a question that began with ‘Why?’ and I think she asked me to promise that I’d never run away again. I promised. She smiled. And I noticed that Miss Briggs was much younger than my mother.

And then I was back in the classroom. Janet and John were still playing on the long tree branch by the stream. The dog was still splashing in the shallow water. The words floated up towards me as I sat quietly reading to myself, sitting at my desk at the back of the class.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Swim with confidence

It is the first day of our summer holiday.

We are in Cornwall. The sun is shining. Gulls are squawking. There are five of us. But we are not staying in a ruined castle, or camping on a small island just offshore from a deserted cove, or roaming the lanes in a gypsy caravan. Instead we are at the Hotel Bella Vista, West Looe.

We are sitting around the breakfast table in the bay window, overlooking the crazy golf. Beyond are rocks, a curve of tide-washed sand and the sea, turquoise near the shore, then sapphire. This morning it’s glinting with a million diamonds. And it’s waiting for us.

From oldest to youngest we are: my mother, recently widowed; her (and my) cousin Vera, who is blonde, glamorous and twenty-nine; my brother Jack who is sixteen; my brother Brendan who is fourteen; and Rory (that’s me) who is twelve.

This is the first time I have been on holiday in a hotel. Everything is excitingly different from at home: the dining room, vast with a rich, swirly pattern on its carpet; our table, with its ranks of cutlery, the heavy silver pots for tea, coffee and hot water – and the butter, scooped into little swirls, in its own silver dish.

And we have our own waiter: Bruno, tall, Brylcreemed and Italian, who calls my mother signora, and Vera signorina, and who winks at me. Everything about the hotel makes me feel grown-up.

My mother is not so sure about Bruno: ‘Don’t trust those Latin looks, Vera. A bit of a gigolo if you ask me.’

Vera laughs. Why? I’ve not heard Bruno giggle once.

‘Please, Mum, can we all go to the beach today?’

‘I don’t see why not. Jack, Brendan, you’ll be happy with that?’

‘You’ll come in the sea, won’t you, Vera?’

‘Not today, Rory – much too cold. Maybe at the end of the week.’

‘But the holiday will be almost over by then. Swim today, Vera. Please. Please.’

‘No, thanks. I’ll watch you, all right?’

‘Oh, Vera – you’ll enjoy it once you’re in. Honestly.’

A look from my mother: ‘Don’t insist, Rory. Vera will swim when she feels ready.’

But I have an idea: ‘Vera, if you’re nervous about going in the sea, there’s a special pill you can take and then you don’t feel even a bit scared of the water.’

‘Oh, really?’ says Vera, pausing as she cuts her bacon.

‘Yes, there’s an advertisement in the Readers’ Digest: a picture of a lady diving off the high board into a swimming pool. It says: “Use Tampax and swim with confidence.”’

There’s a short, but very distinct pause.

'Jack, don’t snort,’ says my mother. ‘Rory, I think I’ve left the car keys in my room. Run and get them for me – at once, please.’

As I push back my chair, she reaches for her Daily Telegraph, unfurls it briskly, scanning the headlines: ‘“Russian Spacewoman Orbits Earth”. Well, Vera – whatever next?’

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Not VG at games

Dear Headmaster
It is imperative that you excuse my son Rory from taking part in outdoor sporting activities: rugby, soccer and hockey are entirely out of the question.

As an educationalist, you will appreciate that certain pupils have ‘special needs’. Few, if any, have needs that are more intensely special than those of this gifted, sensitive and deeply intellectual boy.

At this critical stage of Rory’s development, exposure to the rigours of the sports field could trigger an irreversible physical and psychological disintegration.

Naturally I wish to support the school’s sporting ethos. Rory’s consultant and I are eager that he should take as much appropriate exercise as possible – swimming, for example.

With this in mind, I am considering making a donation of £1.75 million to fund an Olympic-sized heated pool.

I feel sure, Headmaster, that you will have no difficulty in complying with my request.


L A Keegan (Mrs)

It’s lunchtime on a granite-cold January afternoon and, regrettably, my mother has once again failed to write this letter. So, barring a lucky outbreak of bubonic plague, it looks like I’m going have to face my fate: I’m sentenced to rugby.

Boys are heading upstairs to get changed. I stall, extending my piano practice by five minutes: Scarlatti (Grade 1) needs me. By the time I get there, the dorm’s deserted. I rush into my kit, clatter downstairs and check the team lists, ranged in hierarchy from the Olympus of the First XV to the grungy depths of my team – the Junior Scraps.

I huff and puff up the hill and along half a mile of pavement to the Scraps’ prestigious twice-weekly venue in a rented-out farmer’s meadow.

Despite my inaptitude for team sports, I’m not too bad at running. At least it warms me up and gives me time to prepare for the challenge that lies ahead. I am about to exercise the power of my will.

Raising an eyebrow, Mr Carter (cords, duffle coat, college scarf, bobble hat) checks me off his list. I take my position – full back (where else?) – and the incomprehensible ritual begins.

‘I am invisible. I am invisible. I am invisible.’ As I murmur my mantra, my breath forms arctic cloudlets. And it’s working. A confusion of boys is doing something violent in a steamy blur at the far end of the field. Stay there, guys.

Gradually the combination of wind-chill and mental exertion numbs me into submission. Rooks flap up from the skeleton trees, black splodges on a moleskin sky. The two white aitches tower impassively over us – twenty-nine true believers, and one just-visible heretic.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Life class

Tall, brisk and confident, Brother Sreenan teaches chemistry and religious education as if they are the same subject.

Whether dispensing facts and formulae, or rules and rubrics, he expects maximum attention and minimal interaction. We need information. He has it. What’s to discuss?

‘Boys, now that your upper-sixth year has arrived, we shall divide our RE lessons between two vitally important topics. The first is to prepare you for the trials and temptations that will assail you as you enter the world beyond the sheltered confines of your schooldays. The second is how to fill in your UCCA form.’

So here we are, an assortment of middle-class youths from nice enough homes in a school that, though private, is far from pretentious. Outside, the Vietnam War is cranking up, the Beatles are recording Sergeant Pepper and 1967’s summer of love is bursting into leaf.

Meanwhile, pacing to and fro in front of us, Brother Sreenan has information to impart.

‘Boys, I need to warn you about a particular kind of man.....

'I mean the homosexual.

'Boys, be on your guard. And read the signs. Beware the mohair sweater. Give the suede shoe a wide berth. And should you chance to find yourself in hospital (following, perhaps, an injury sustained in a vigorous game of rugby) be careful lest you find yourself prostrate and alone with a male nurse. I say no more.’

Chalk dust floats in midday shafts of sunlight and my thoughts drift.

I see myself gasping helplessly in mangled wreckage, my life ebbing away.

Then, ‘Don’t worry, pal. We’ll soon have you out of here. You’re safe. I’m a nurse.’

I look to my rescuer. But relief turns to horror as my gaze takes in the moral nightmare that confronts me: maroon mohair – and Hush Puppies.

‘Boys, you need to realize how very different women are from men in their attitudes and assumptions. For instance: you return home at the end of a taxing day at work. Your wife serves your dinner. You eat it with a good appetite. And then, to your astonishment, your better half bursts into a flood of tears.

'“Whatever is the matter?” you inquire. And through her sobs you learn the cause of this contretemps: “I have spent the whole of today making and hanging a new set of curtains for our dining room. And you have not even noticed!”’

There are guffaws from around the room.

‘Yes, boys, amusing enough. And yet how very much a part of the natural scheme of things. It is in the female nature to prize and cherish such domestic matters. And it is equally a part of the male psyche to fail to notice them.

'It is your duty as a man and as a husband to make allowances. Always remember: that is how she is; that is how you are.’

‘But, Brother, the thing is…. Well, actually…. I would have noticed. We’d probably have chosen the material together. A jokey design with a pop-art theme. Maybe in the sale at Habitat.’

My interjection, of course, is silent.

I’ve decades ahead of me in which to work out what it means to be a man.