Thursday, October 8, 2020

My tennis ball is 18 (WARNING: traces of nuts).


I cupped my hand around the back of your head, your small, pink face with its puckered mouth and closed eyes seeming too small to be human. Baggy outfits, nappies that fit like comical sacks covering you from your thighs as thin and curved as bananas over your entire waist. Weightless. 

Doctors and specialists threw out thoughtless suggestions about your future health – she’ll always be small, might have problems with this and that. They didn’t say it, but I heard that old curse from times when farmers knew how to size up the newborn young in spring: runt. 

No, no, no. From the first day, my whole being has refuted them – you were tiny, the smallest baby I’d ever seen and held, but you were utterly perfect. 

Within a few months you grew to be a solid ball of happy baby. Charming fat wrists and ankles and delightful cheeks. 

Oh, those early years were a blur, with your toddler brother hurtling around on his plastic bike with the grating wheels, the endless laundry, cleaning and impossible time management. Mobility was your chance to get closer to the action – you refused to sleep, especially not in your bed. You’d have your bedtime story, feign sleep for a bit and then emerge like a tiny intruder later on. I’d find you sleeping in the passage, trailing your blankie like a cape, or just on the floor next to your bed, with your doll, Middle Baby, at your side.

A memory – the time you actually broke all the rules of possibility by falling asleep standing up, arms on your bed, feet on the floor, knees dipping from side to side, but managing it. 

From early on, you were considerate – perhaps wanting to maintain the status quo and avoid cross voices, but then making sure that people around you were happy. Always ready with an infectious chuckle but just as likely to have huge tears wobbling on your eyelids. Emotions that refused to stay hidden.

It’s hard for a child whose emotions are so visible, you can’t pretend to be anything other than what you are, but, on the whole, you’ve been a happy one.

I think your peanut allergy forced you to take on a level of maturity that was unusual – taking care to ask at birthday parties if the snacks had any nuts in them and learning to read food packaging hieroglyphics early on for the telltale “ALLERGIES” legend. Other kids could gleefully stuff their faces, while you had to slow things down and make sure that it was okay, sometimes politely declining treats unless full assurance could be provided.

The acceleration of childhood was prevalent with you as you careened though primary and then high school, developing a fierce determination to achieve along with a strongly developed sense of right and wrong and the desire to see good vs. evil identified and encouraged or avoided, accordingly.

Some children are child prodigies, precocious in their natural abilities – your genius has been systematically earned through hard work. 

Best of all, you seek to be fair in your dealings with people and analytical in the ways in which you accept humanity. I admire your growth as a person and that you prioritise justice, recognising that we’re never too old to learn more about people, life and how it all works.

I’d like to say that you can be whatever you choose to be but we both know that’s not true. Life can get in the way – not everyone can be a success at their dream future scenario - but I am convinced that you are determined enough to take your circumstances and overcome trials and challenges. Your fierce heart is your superpower. 

To anyone, ever, past, present and future, who has underestimated you or pigeonholed you as quiet, small, or undermined you as a person, I know you will prove them wrong  not out of spite, but because you are an exceptional woman entirely capable of writing your own story, with deep veins of humour, compassion and joy running through it like lines of crystal in immovable granite.

I’ll always be on your side, even as you move towards independence – I’ll always be that proud dad cupping your tennis ball head in my hands, imagining the very best for you.



Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Last Will and Testament of a Distant Aunt

The attorney’s office wasn’t what he’d expected – instead of a red-spined law library, there was a yellowing stack of old National Geographic magazines on a bookshelf next to a few old photographs in black and white. A parasol plant skulked in one corner, its leaves fidgeting with every turn of the fan. Darren looked at the desk once again, nonplussed.
A spoon. A wooden spoon, to be more precise. Not carved with any kind of ornamentation nor wrapped in felt or velvet – just an ordinary spoon, lying there.

His attorney coughed. That’s it, that’s the… bequest.

Darren reviewed his memories for any indication of how this should have come to pass. His aunt had been a bit of an enigma, never adopting the route of marriage and procreation the way her siblings had. He had vague recollections of her house being full of decorations and paintings, original artworks that carried the faint grooves of the artist’s brushes in the heavy lines that she seemed to prefer. There were kilims and lamps, and perhaps an old piano somewhere under a stack of books – he couldn’t quite be sure if he’d made that up.

A spoon. It was written in the will as THE spoon, as if it were a gold pocket watch or a small cottage in the French countryside. There, next to the spoon: his name.

All he had with him was a newspaper, so he wrapped up this curious effect and tucked it under his arm. After all, a will isn’t just about getting things, it’s a moment of reflection captured in a document. He puzzled at the link between his name and a wooden spoon but couldn’t make a connection.

That evening, he sat in his lounge with the doors to the balcony opened up. He could feel a gentle breeze and smell the fragrances of the garden as he relaxed. He didn’t cook all that often – it was just him, and it seemed extravagant to prepare food for one person, but today he felt like the alchemy of the kitchen.

If he was completely honest, it was a magnificent kitchen. A massive gas oven dominated, with endless cupboards and surfaces all bracketing a spacious island where he preferred to prepare the food.

He had many appliances that he’d tried out, from air fryers to egg boilers, but still enjoyed the physical energy of chopping, stirring, pouring.

Emptying his fridge, he assembled various ingredients like spectators at a sports event, all lined up and ready to get engrossed in the action.

It’s important to honour family, Darren thought to himself as he took a sip from a large glass, before unwrapping the wooden spoon from its newspaper nest of headlines and advertisements.

The spoon was the length of his forearm and blackened on the curve of the bowl, slightly worn down on the left-hand side from incessant stirring.

As he held it, something he couldn’t quite articulate happened. It was as if a warm blast of energy blew up his fingers and into his arms. A burst of images filled his mind – casserole dishes, rich puddings, platters groaning with the weight of snacks and party food. He could smell spices and herbs, hear the sounds of knifes and forks against porcelain and the faint giggle of laughter.

He remembered how he and his brothers would flinch instinctively when they saw that same wooden spoon, a symbol of rebuke – had it been in their mother’s hands – but in his aunt’s kitchen it was as powerful as Excalibur, able to turn peasants into royalty, an instrument of myth and legend.

He knew, then, that his aunt hadn’t just left him a spoon, she’d dubbed him heir and recipient of her immense legacy, a legacy passed down over centuries, building an impregnable strength with each successive owner. In this kitchen, he had become regal with that simple gesture, as gentle as the tap of a sword on a shoulder commissioning a knight into service.

Darren held the spoon up to the lights, and murmured a commitment that he swore to honour, always; to be a fine Servant of the Spoon.

Back in the office, the old attorney smiled as he turned the pages of the will, remembering how Darren’s aunt had insisted on the inclusion of that spoon, before signing over her immense wealth to The Long Home for Retired Dachshunds. She was no fool – she understood the ways of people. Always had.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

When raindrops race

Strange details stick in your mind from childhood. A memory isn’t a linear thread that has a beginning, middle and end, it just floats into view uninvited, a moth exposed by a peculiar flame just for an instant.

Travelling as a family when I was a kid was a big deal. I don’t recall practical details – perhaps my dad filled up with petrol at the pump they had at the factory, and my mum packed our bags for us. In any event, the responsibilities I’d have would be to take along something to keep myself engaged for the trip.

Inevitably, this would involve looking aghast at the paper and pens I’d brought as I realised the bumps of the road made it impossible to create something meaningful, like a picture of Tarzan swinging on his impractical lianas from tree to tree (I’d tried that too many times with ropes and had the calloused palms and bruises to prove it), or maybe a knight with a broadsword like the one we’d seen another summer at that castle with the moat where swans drifted in their creamy arrogance.

No, drawing was out. My two brothers had brought things of their own. The eldest always seemed to get it right – after all, where he had the Lone Ranger action figure, I had Tonto. He got Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, while I got Han Solo and a stormtrooper. He’d have brought just the right toy and created a base in the corner of the back seat he’d claimed after much bickering and negotiated pleas from my mum. I want the window! I want the middle seat! I was here first! You rode there last time… My younger brother would probably have a stuffed toy of some sort – maybe the always-soggy bear he’d named, mystifyingly, Sophie Jesus. And a rusk – so bear and rusk would take alternate trips to his mouth.

The best trips happened at night, with cat’s eyes flickering out of the evening fog and street lights at regular intervals clocking out progress. It would still be possible (when it was early enough) to play I Spy with everyone until we got annoyed with each other and one of us would accuse the other of cheating.

Mum would offer us our travel food – her go-to meals would be hard-boiled eggs, ham rolls sweating in their containers and maybe an apple. Eggs would bring about a furious round of bickering about who let off a fart while my dad would grin fiendishly in the rear view mirror: guilty.

Each road sign would be the closest I’d ever get to some of these towns, and, if this was a trip we’d done before, I’d know which ones to watch out for. A personal favourite was the one for the town Darlingscott, a blip on the rural map that often passed us by with the stench of fields ablaze as farmers prepared the land for the next planting. There’d be cows to shout at from the car, murmurings that one of my brothers felt car sick and, if we were lucky, a tin of boiled sweets passed around (always try for the red sweet, don’t pick the… yellow… oh, man!).

I’d often get a runny nose, and mum would offer me a tissue that smelt like Chanel No. 5 from her handbag, but I’d mostly opt for my sleeve.

The real race was when it inevitably started raining, the wipers smearing the view ahead with rippling waves. On the side windows, two raindrops would judder into view, seeming to be held in space and weightless by the air currents that swept past the car. They’d twitch and zigzag their way down the glass, one darting ahead and then pausing to let the other gain ground. Too soon, they’d vanish into the rubber frame and I’d look for the next candidates to assert themselves.

My parents would be silent, mostly, occasionally squeezing each other’s thighs to remind themselves that we’d soon be wherever we were heading.

As we arrived, we’d be admonished to be on our best behaviour – and, with the prospect of fun on the cards, my brothers and I would call an unspoken truce, to be broken only on the trip back.

My parents have left on that trip forever now, and, like raindrops on a window pane, they’re always on the move, shifting into an increasingly blurry landscape that’s made up of fewer and fewer memories, memories that flutter unbidden like moths into view and then away again.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Older than time (and Sun Tzu)

There are some notable people from history who died at the age of 48.

I mean, people in history are supposed to be old, right? If you’re in an oil painting or a black and white photo, that adds a hundred years to your age. It must take decades to accumulate the kind of fame that translates to history books and statues, to odes and tributes.

I’ll give you some context.

Sun Tzu (author, The Art of War) and Khalil Gibran (The Prophet). Dead at 48.
People as disparate as Whitney Houston and Al Capone. Dead, 48.

An entire monarch! Charles l, King of England. Cecil (damned) John Rhodes. Graham Chapman of Monty Python.
Hey, man, you guys all died at the age of 48.

My own longevity benchmarks are people like Elvis, dead at 42, and John Lennon, 40.
Hell, Paul McCartney has been alive for nearly twice as long as Lennon was.

Forget the 27 Club, those kids with lives swallowed by drugs, booze and bad driving (Hendrix, Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones), or even that idiot heroin addict Sid Vicious – dead at 21, there are swathes of people throughout history whose lives ended less glamorously in their thirties or forties.

It’s no longer a tragedy if you make it as far as your forties before dying.

According to a whack of articles and estimates we are given the expectation that we’ll live into our 70s in a first-world environment.

That means middle age, as a concept, should cover about a decade somewhere in our thirties.

The thing is, a decade sounds like a long period. We’ve grown up with reverence for the 60s, 70s and 80s as if they’re a cultural talisman instead of a blur of fashion, music, architecture, art and design. A decade passes like a whim.

I may have a couple of decades left. Maybe. Too few years to leave an iconic stain on history, that’s for sure. It could even just be months that I have left.

But you guys who died at 48 or younger? I beat you suckers.

You’re probably younger than I am – almost everyone is, these days, but take a moment to consider that your age is a rug that gets pulled out from under you before you can say “happy birthday”.

If you’re looking for me, I’ll be remembering making forts for my plastic figures out of string and twigs and chewing my teddy bear’s ear. I vividly remember the toothmarks on my sippy cup, so don’t speak to me of legacies.

I’m still a child.
49 tomorrow.

Monday, September 23, 2019

A whisper is still spoken

The black dog is restless, backwards and forwards against the fence, sniffing furiously at unseen, anticipated forces. Sneezing occasionally and bucking its head. Its breath is warm and rank, meaty.

There, far beyond the gate, a path leads up to the meadow where daffodils grow in the more sheltered parts, a patch of yellow narcissus. The flowers nod at their reflection in the stream when it whisks down the spring rains, heads bobbing in acknowledgement of their own fugitive beauty. Transitory.

The peaty soil beneath the bulbs is rich with winter’s preserved decay, earthworms diving in and out of thrusted tunnels with blind glee.

Grey clouds tumble in on themselves like dirty sheets in a washing machine, rolling and falling over the hills and promising sheets of rain in the afternoon, maybe sooner. The sun is undecided, casting bursts of intense heat and then retreating.

Longer blades of grass cow down in the breeze, forming a network of sacred arches under which spiders hurry themselves to supplication, forelegs fussing at the disturbance in the air, their dew-laced webs like lacy lingerie rumours set to entrap unthinking flies.

Before the rain comes in force, its scent is driven ahead, a petrichor spirit summoned from the soil itself in some mystical vacuum. It’s a promise all on its own.

Up in the sky, a single leaf spirals – if you could see such details, you’d note a ladybird that has stowed away on it, bright red carapace and jet-black dots like the eyes of a demon. It’s heading out there into the storm without any understanding of where it’ll land.

Perhaps, it won’t land at all.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

A kid, napping

“Terrible about that tanker fire in Nigeria”, I say to no one in particular. “Worse, still, there’s that story about the bird flu hitting ostrich farms in the Karoo”. It’s today. I can see that by the date on the top right-hand side of the newspaper. Your face is next to it, eyes squinting as if unused to the light. I notice that your hair needs a trim; there are curls like spring tide waves over your ears and eyebrows. You’re holding up the Times. Proof of life, I guess.

It’s been a decade since you vanished on the way to the shop where I presumed you’d wanted to get a packet of chips or chewing gum. Some small treat to ease the passage of the day. It took a couple of hours to notice you were gone. I mean, how do you notice the absence of a person? There have been times when I barely noticed when you were in the room, fiddling with your phone or adjusting the volume on the Hi-Fi when a favourite song came on.

Then I remember how it was to watch you sleep, with your chest rising and falling with each breath, an exhalation of carbon dioxide that smelled a bit like a hamster would if it rolled in jam. Earthy and sweet. Years of childhood pass by with parents grading themselves on basic milestones: child can brush own teeth – does so without asking, child can actually notice a used tissue on a countertop and help it migrate to a bin. Small, meaningful steps towards adulthood.

In sleep, the face of a child glows like a peach in the warmth of the summer sun, pink cheeks, soft fuzz. A soft toy, misshapen by years of being held through fevers and accidents with the necessary washing those call for is tucked under your chin like a telephone, listening to the confessions of nightmares and dreams.

There’s no newspaper, of course. No proof of life required.

You didn’t disappear at all.

You just grew up.

One moment, an infant with hopeful requests for snacks, the next, an adult, closing the front door with glee at the freedom it represented.

I remember how I let my guard down a few months back. At a low ebb, I was standing crying in the kitchen. Sobbing, really.

You came to me and hugged me, comforted me, told me it will be alright.

My son. My grownup son.

It’s getting better every day, as The Beatles said. And we’ll get through this life together, kid, you and me – ridiculous in our adult suits in this fancy-dress party of a life.

Love you, son.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

The Lasts

Firsts are remarkable. The first time you walk into a new city from a strange airport, the first time you explore a new kind of food. So many firsts still to do, but the lasts are often forgotten about.

Do you remember the last time you used crayons as a child, making those infernal wax sticks skid across a page without snapping in two?

Or that time your mum cut your toast into soldiers for your boiled egg while you fussed about bits of shell getting in the way until you crunched them like broken bird-glass in your mouth?

That favourite toy you had: for me, those Star Wars action figures whose forays onto homemade ziplines into forts made from shoeboxes and bits of foil helped ease my years until suddenly, they were… gone.

The blurry recollection of the last time you had a conversation with someone before they died and the gift of sharing a chat was gone.

The exact moment my last baby tooth exited my mouth?
The final installment on pocket money?
The time my teddy bear stopped speaking to me – and who knows what was said?
The day I sloshed my way through melting snow with my fingertips red and burning from the cold.

The end of a romance with a childhood sweetheart or a best-friend friendship that petered out.

The day I stopped using a microfiche or a landline.
The time a song that moved me dropped from my playlist.
The final time my child wore a nappy or I blew a raspberry on their tummy.

We actively choose the firsts we get to enjoy, but the lasts can sneak past you like a toddler dressed in a ghost sheet, with holes cut for eyes. Stumble, stumble… gone.

On the razor edge of time, reality is sliced suddenly into memory segments – samples on a slide we occasionally put under a defective microscope that can’t capture the entire moment.

Not often deliberate, more likely unacknowledged.

The last time.