Trivia

The world, I realise with a pang of melancholy and nostalgia, has become a slightly more prosaic, pragmatic, perfunctory place while I was away.

I was away in Brazil for two months (and stories entirely of their own kind and wonder were lived and experienced there, which to regale you with is for another place and another time, for certain), and since I had set off to São Paulo from Zürich, I flew back to Zürich for a few more days in Switzerland with my family before taking a plane home to London, only to find on that particular flight that the world had, in these few weeks, been impoverished and made just that bit more mundane. 

I knew this was going to happen, yet it still came as a shock to the system. A trivial, first-world-problem kind of shock, no doubt, but still: British Airways had ditched the ‘free’ drinks—the drinks were never really ‘free’, they were included and obviously accounted for in the airfare—and now sent its little trolley down the aisle, charging you for every last peanut off it.

In theory, that is. In practice, this newly utilitarian procedure, which now involved taking card payments from everybody for every coffee and every water, let alone every little bottle of wine, every can of beer, and every snack, took so long that by the time they got to me in row 21, the announcement came through that we now needed to fold up our tables and put our seat backs in the upright position, because we were just about to touch down in Heathrow.

There may well be a commercial argument for not including drinks on short haul routes that other providers offer at rock bottom prices, and the ‘free snacks’ had long dwindled to such minuscule sampler sachets of some desolatory crackers or crisps that in fact the idea of suddenly now being able to choose from a whole range of sandwiches, wraps, and porridges seemed like a genuine improvement. In theory, once again, that is. In practice, any hope of obtaining any actual food was foiled by the fact that by the time they got to me in row 21, they were not only out of time, they also had sold out of everything edible on their trolley, and so, even if there had been enough of a flight left to eat something (which there wasn’t), there was nothing now on offer to buy.

But whether any of this makes sense commercially, or simply reflects the harsh reality of a fiercely competitive market, racing itself to the unforgiving bottom of absolute discomfort in a fight for dubiously worthwhile survival amidst the ruthless cannibalism of ‘no-frills’, ‘no-standards’, ‘no-pleasure’ operators run by crude Irishmen, what pains the heart and saddens the soul is the realisation that the poetry of flying, such as it, barely, still was and had, even at this most basic level, been cultivated, still, a little at least, by BA, has now been wiped out by brute rationality.

I so fondly remember a flight to Nice—not that long ago—where I found myself sitting next to an improbably well spoken and strikingly beautiful woman who was also on her way to the film festival in Cannes, and who, witnessing me order a Bloody Mary and realising that that was just part of the service provided by British Airways, decided with enthusiasm that that was exactly what she wanted too.

We naturally got talking, and roughly a quarter into our conversation we were nearly out of Marys. This looming crisis was noted by the attentive cabin crew, who immediately offered us each another. Halfway through our conversation we obviously needed a third one, which, in truth, we this time had to ask for, but which we were served with unflinching, even indulgent, patience and a smile by our delightful flight attendant. And whether or not, for the last quarter of our conversation, we required, requested and were given our fourth Bloody Mary, I can’t now with certainty recall, mostly because we were really quite jolly by then (in the most agreeable way), and it was, after all, still mid-morning, but I certainly like to think so.

And the beauty of it: that was all there ever was to it. We never kept in touch, we never met up, and, although she was bound to have told me, I have no idea what she was doing in Cannes. We didn’t even exchange details. Once, on another flight back from Nice to London I actually ended up involved in some potentially useful networking; on this occasion, though, no purpose whatever was served: we just had ourselves a wonderful flight and positioned ourselves in a perfect frame of mind for the festival, thanks entirely to BA.

But now, when you fly with BA to Nice to attend the film festival in Cannes, it will feel just like any other airline, and not much different to a National Express coach or an East Coast Line train to Leeds. You can buy yourself a vodka and a tomato juice, of course, and if you’re extremely lucky, they may even find you a slice of lemon. They won’t have the Worcester sauce for you though, and although it will taste bland but still cost you nearly as much as a legendary Bloody Mary at the Century Club, it is possible, just, that economically you actually fare better with one or two like this that you pay for, than you would if their potential cost had been factored into the price of your ticket.

And true: if you went for three or four drinks with mixers, as we did, it’s likely that a fellow passenger who was just drinking water was subsidising you, in those days. Yet, isn’t that the kind of thing that makes life worth living? That sometimes you find yourself in a situation where in all likelihood you’re indirectly buying a drink for someone you’ve never met, and other times you become the recipient, quite unexpectedly, of such similar munificence, because in a civilised society having a Bloody Mary is considered par for the course on an aeroplane? And on that rare and exquisite occasion when you sit next to a person so articulate and so beautiful that this one Bloody Mary just turns into four, well then so be it?

That way, surely, lies the generosity of gesture that makes it all bearable; and the moment, surely, will come—I daresay it has most certainly occurred many times before—when someone on a plane who paid just the same as I did has something to celebrate and gets bumped up and offered a glass of champagne, or when somebody somewhere in some context is inadvertently, involuntarily, yet graciously, still, my guest.

I welcome them to it and wish them well. And I wish BA would rethink their mean-spirited approach, and not just for my sake, or the sake of my fellow passengers. I recently had a long conversation with a man who works as cabin crew for BA. And oh how unhappy he did sound. How demoralised. How sad. About the state of affairs. About the cost-cutting culture. About the dwindling levels of service he is able, even encouraged, to provide. About the erosion of anything resembling an ethos. About the way in which being BA—just as flying BA—feels no longer special, but has become pedestrian, mercenary, banal. And there, precisely, lies the beginning of the end of civilisation: when what matters is no longer the sophistication of your experience, the excellence of who you are and what you stand for, and the pride and joy you take and make from and through what you do, but purely the profit, and nothing else. What a poor world we live in, where only the profit matters, and nothing else.

It may only be, on the surface, about a complimentary Bloody Mary. On reflection, it turns out to be far from trivial, after all…


< Success       {Irk} >


Encounters-Front-Cover-2.1-tn-OPT

Read Encounters in Paperback or as eBook

 

 

Success

The young man I’m on a date with is really unbearably cute. ‘You’re really unbearably cute,’ I tell him. ‘I know,’ he says, with the smile of someone who really does, and an involuntary shrug: ‘I try. I succeed.’

It’s happy hour at the Troubadour, my favourite haunt and quasi home from home, and so I look forward to an early evening mojito. This, here at the Troubadour, is contingent upon the other person also wanting a mojito. Or at any rate the same cocktail: you get two for one, but only as long as they’re the same drink. Why, is a mystery to me, but not one that has ever bothered me enough to prompt me to enquire about its reason: it’s rarely a problem, since I’ve come across few people in my life who don’t like a mojito, and for those who don’t, there’s always the option of a Bloody Mary. Or any other standard you’d expect on a short, traditional menu. I worry not.

Robert, the friendly and forever charming and helpful waiter, appears, and as I propose this to start the evening by way of an almost foregone conclusion, my young and very new friend throws an unexpected spanner in the works: ‘I don’t drink alcohol.’

‘What, not at all?’

‘No, I used to, but I didn’t really like it, and I got too drunk a couple of times, so I’ve stopped altogether, but you go ahead.’

‘Are you sure?’

This is dodgy territory. If I drink and he doesn’t, doesn’t this unbalance our universe—in which, at least for the next few hours, we are meant and agreed to proceed together—and not necessarily in anyone’s favour? I’m concerned now that this date may not go so well after all…

‘Yes absolutely, I really don’t mind. Seriously.’

His smile remains confident and sincere, and so I turn to Robert who is waiting on us, patient and knowing, while this short negotiation takes place, and I order the mojito nonetheless. Robert, bless him, reads the situation just fine and innocently asks if I want the happy hour anyway. I’m stumped once again, but before I can say anything more my young friend says, ‘sure, go ahead;’ and so it comes to pass that I’m on a date with an unbearably cute young man who doesn’t drink at all, while I’m being brought two mojitos by Robert, who does not bat an eyelid.

They look incongruous on the table in front of me, these mojitos, next to his elderflower cordial, but just for about the first five minutes or so. Soon I ease into the conversation, and I bask in the glow of a man who is so comfortable with everything and with himself that I feel this is perfectly all right, I can enjoy this, I can relax…


< Perfection       Trivia >


Encounters-Front-Cover-2.1-tn-OPT

Read Encounters in Paperback or as eBook

 

Perfection

That day the universe was on my side. Because for the first time ever it gave me not just a second chance, but a third; and that really had never happened before. I never even normally get the second chance, for the simple and obvious reason that it’s just very unlikely to come about, so to be given a third chance: imagine how lucky I felt, and how happy.

I was on my way to the party; that was on Monday. I was in a good frame of mind, I had just arrived in town and seen two decent films, and I’d picked up my invitation and now was determined to go to this party even though I knew nobody there, and I thought I might therefore leave it again very soon. But in my good frame of mind I started chatting to a woman on the shuttle bus that the festival laid on from the last screening in the grand piazza to the lido by the lake where the party was happening, and after seeming a little distant at first she then, as we arrived there, almost grabbed my hand, and we went to the bar and had our first few drinks together, talking a lot about this, that, and the other, and I thought this is great: I’m already not alone at the party.

When she left, I spotted a good looking man with a beard who was on his own and, buoyed by my success so far, started talking to him, and for a while we had more drinks and chatted about this and that too (though not so much about the other), and he met some people he knew, and I talked to them as well, and I quite liked him, but I also realised he probably wasn’t that interested in me, and that was fine by me too.

We’d by now drifted back towards the bar, and then suddenly out of nowhere the handsomest, friendliest, loveliest of all the men at the party—and it was a fairly big party—stood next to me and looked me in the eyes, and we hugged, and we kissed, and I don’t know why that happened so quickly or how, I only know that I’d seen him before, when he was working, taking pictures, and he had pointed his camera at me and the woman from the shuttle bus, and I had raised my glass to him and said ‘cheers,’ and now here he was, and we were kissing and hugging, and I didn’t know how or why: we must have been into each other, I suppose.

It was now nearing the end of the party, coming up four in the morning, and people were already leaving, and he simply said, ‘so to Locarno?’ and I said, ‘yes;’ and on the way to the car he told me he was staying in a flat with ten people in it, and some of them needed a lift, so we may have to wait for them, and I said that was all right, but in the end nobody wanted a lift—those who were there at the party decided to go by other means, maybe walk, or by bicycle—so we took his car, a convertible, though he didn’t put the roof down, maybe because it was coming up four o’clock in the morning. He told me he didn’t have his licence at the moment, but that that was all right, and I thought, well, he’ll be driving carefully then, and he did, and we got there without problem, but with a little help from his phone.

As we entered the flat it was dark and already quiet, and in the darkness we walked through a room with nothing much and nobody in it (maybe it was a hall?), into another room, which had a large double bed with two people in it, a man and a woman, both young, maybe the same age as he, and there was a narrow mattress on the floor, and he said: ‘this is me, but it’s all right,’ and it was all right.

We lay down on his little bed, and within seconds we were undressed and were what used to be called making love, and it felt like that, it felt like we were just making some love, and the couple in the bed did not seem to notice or mind and then we both fell asleep in each other’s arms.

Now and then the man from the bed would call my young lover’s name because he was snoring, and that wouldn’t help, so I would hug him closer to me, and that would.

In the morning we woke up, and he said: ‘dormi – sleep,’ but he had to get up and go to work, and I got up too though I didn’t strictly have to go to work, but I did have to go to the flat where I was staying, and do some work there. He made me a coffee, and we kissed again and hugged and said goodbye, and he disappeared, I assumed into the shower.

I got dressed in the room with the big double bed and the little single mattress, and a young woman there was also getting dressed, and I left my card on the window sill and let myself out and walked home in the happy sunshine.

He didn’t phone me or text me, or send me an email, or friend me on Facebook, and I thought, well that’s fair enough, he’d told me how much work he’s got on during the festival here, and he was young, so maybe that was just that, and that’s fair enough. But a little part of me wished and hoped and believed I would see him again; I would bump into him, I reckoned, at some point during the festival, it’s not that big a town, after all.

Nothing happened till Friday, except I was happy all week, doing some work and watching some films, and then Friday I was out with some friends, and we’d just had something to eat and decided to get an ice cream before watching a late film together, and from the ice cream stand I could see him walk towards the Piazza Grande, and I thought there he is, but he didn’t spot me, and I was too far away to call him over, and I didn’t know whether he’d want me to call him over since he hadn’t called me, and he was gone, and I thought, ah well, that’s a pity, but maybe there will be a second chance (even though I don’t normally get a second chance, as most people don’t, most of the time: the probability of circumstances arranging themselves such that one could come about being just so incredibly small).

Once everyone had their ice cream, we realised we were running late for the film, so we started to make a move towards the cinema, and there he was again, coming my way now, with a plate of food in his hand and passing at just a couple of feet distance: again I didn’t call him or stop him or say hello, it happened too quickly, we were late for our film, he had his hands full with food, and he didn’t see me, again. And again I thought, ah what a pity, but maybe there will be a third chance, even though I had never had a third chance before, or heard of anybody who had.

We went to see the film, and then on the way back we passed a bar with a big garden where sometimes they play live music, and one of the group said let’s not go in here, there’s another one which is nicer, but the other place was already closed, so we returned to the one with the big garden, and it’s a huge garden with different sections separated by old stone walls on different levels, and it would be impossible to get a view of it all, especially at night when it isn’t that brightly lit, and usually very busy, and we were going to stand in the courtyard nearest the bar, but then the same member of the group said, let’s go up there, and we went up a flight of steps, past another bar, and into another little courtyard, and we sat down at a table, and no sooner had we sat down at the table than I saw the back of the head that I recognised.

He was on the phone, stroking his short bleached hair with his free hand, and I recognised his short bleached hair in an instant, as I had stroked it too and so much liked the feel of it against the palm of my hand, and I recognised the little wrist band that looked like it had come from another festival, probably music, and I thought I should get up now and say hello to him, but he was with a group of people and so was I, and I thought, ah well, he’s here and at one point I’ll get up and say hello or he’ll get up and turn around; and then he finished his conversation on the phone and got up and turned around and there he was.

I said his name, and he said: ‘Sebastian.’ And we hugged and gave each other a kiss, and he told me he had a problem with his flat which he needed to sort, but how long was I here for now and what had happened to me Tuesday morning, and I told him I’d left him a card and didn’t want to hang around as I knew he would have to go to work, and he said he hadn’t seen the card but now that he knew where it was he would find it, but I gave him another one ‘just in case’, and he looked glad to see me, and we held each other’s hands, and we hugged again and gave each other another kiss, and then he had to go and sort his problem with the flat; and I knew that the universe had been kind to me, because it had given me not just a second chance but a third, and I had taken not the first, not the second, but the third chance, and I don’t know if we will see each other ever again, but just knowing that he was glad to see me again now, and to see that spark in his eye and feel that hair and hear him say ‘Sebastian’ and smiling at me his broadest of smiles, that alone completely made me happy that day.


< {Mystery}       Success >


Encounters-Front-Cover-2.1-tn-OPT

Read Encounters in Paperback or as eBook

 

 

{Mystery}

I wake up wondering once again, as so often, how the little horse got on the boat in the first place, let alone why it voyaged so far: who let it on, was there no-one to lead it off, by its halter, for example, back onto dry land, to its own pastures, that were maybe not so green, but familiar, at least? Why was it by the pier, near the harbour even? I suppose horses do live by the seaside, it is not unheard of, but it vexes me. A horse belongs onshore, as far as I’m concerned, in my inexpertise.

I try to think this through and come up with several potential scenarios, none of which satisfies as an explanation. Perhaps the little horse accidentally strayed onto a cargo ship and was mistaken there for one of the ones that were actually being exported, by coincidence, just then. Maybe it wasn’t so much a coincidence, maybe the horse got friendly with, even enamoured of, one of the horses that—very possibly against their own will or better instinct—were being embarked right now, and just followed it, in equine loyalty and affection.

Perhaps it was being sold: it could simply be that it was ‘mine’—as in the person writing the song, thus narrating the story and lamenting the absence of ‘my’ little horse, wishing it back—only by extension, and really it belonged to the family or to my father, and he, for reasons best known to him (though there are many imaginable: economic hardship, disaffection with the beast, or having gambled it away to a foreign sailor, notwithstanding the riddle as to what a sailor, of all people, would do with a pony – perhaps sell it on?…), maybe he, my father, had exchanged it for goods or money, or forfeited it; and now, as I sit here on my own watching the waves roll in from afar, it has long since sailed away, right over the ocean, over the sea.

Then suddenly it hits me, out of the blue. It has all been a misunderstanding. Where I went to school, in Basel, we had an annual ‘bazar’. I can’t be sure any more was it at this bazar, which everybody pronounced ‘bahtzar’, and which happened a few weeks before Christmas to raise funds for the school, or was it at the summer fete, which happened every year in the summer, probably just before the big holidays, to the same end, or both, but there was a little patch of wood in the school grounds where sometimes, not always, some generous soul would bring along a couple of ponies, so the children could go pony riding for a franc or two. This was almost the only occasion that ever presented itself for me to see, or think of, or hear about, ponies. Even though they spelt ‘Pony’ the same as in English, just with a capital for being a noun, everybody called a pony ‘es Bonny’, pronouncing it with an at best half committed P and without the prerequisite diphthong, making it sound exactly like ‘Bonnie’. For years—years!—I would stand in class amongst my gschpänlis and intone with devotion a plea for someone, anyone really, to bring back, bring back, oh bring back my little horse to me. And for years—years!—I could not fathom why the little horse had ever strayed so far, there just seemed to be no plausible explanation for this. And now—now!—it turns out there didn’t ever need to be.

At last, one of the great bewildering conundrums of my childhood simply, quietly, fades away…


< Whist       Perfection >


Encounters-Front-Cover-2.1-tn-OPT

Read Encounters in Paperback or as eBook

 

Whist

‘My girlfriend is getting texty,’ the man who ticks every box and makes me go aglow inside informs me. He’s a trombonist, and that alone should tell me everything I need to know. Except he’s also tall and blond and a bit Scandinavian looking and exceptionally friendly, and he has that borderline cute proportion of a long torso and comparatively short legs that make him just simply adorable.

I have nothing to say about this. Therein lies the ‘interesting’ realisation. It’s ‘interesting’ in so far as I normally have something to say about things. I pride myself—not ‘pride myself’ so much as find a certain degree of satisfaction that I try not to let seep into smugness if I can possibly help it, though sometimes I think in this I fail—in being able to find words. I like words, I love—nay, relish!—them. I use more words than necessary. What is necessary? I get admonished for being verbose. What, pray, is verbose? I say things for the sake of saying them. Thrice. I use language people don’t understand, but I get tasked with making things understandable, as a job. I like that. I like ironies, I like perplexities, I like conundrums and calling them conundra. I have said so before, but I like to say things again. I like repetition. Repetition. There you go: I like it. (I like brackets, and elliptical asides…)

In the Game of Love & Chance—I like ampersands! And I love interjections—I am particularly useless, but I have of late started to enjoy that fact, rather than despair over it. It used to trouble me. Astonishing men like my Trombonist Friend right here and right now used to send me down a spiral of remorse and regret, about what I knew not.

About not having loved. About not having lived. About not having taken the chance. Now that I’ve taken the chance once or twice and then thrice and several times more, and notwithstanding the fact that this has sometimes but certainly not always paid off, and now that I realise that a ‘girlfriend getting texty’ is just exactly the kind of thing that would drive me up the wall, even if it were a boyfriend as handsome and delectable as her boyfriend right now, I can smile at the man’s beauty and charm and listen to the resonance of his torso and admire the sounds he produces from his instrument and say to myself: that has nothing whatever to do with me. It’s wonderful, and wonderful for him too. And I wish him really, and genuinely, well.

I love that kind of love. It’s taken me maybe forty-nine years—seven heptades!—to get to this point, but I’m now at a point where I can absolutely love a man like that and know his life has absolutely nothing to do with me beyond the set of fortuitousnesses that brought us together in this context, at this moment, for this short period, and then let that be as it may. And should our paths cross again, then so much the better, but it would still not mean anything else or anything more or anything less. And should we become friends through our paths crossing further, that too would be just that, and it would be just fine. My Trombonist Friend shows me that I am all right. He is marvellous, in my mind; and let that forever be so: I am perfectly all right with that too.

We part and go our separate ways, and I think of it or of him no more, and I am where I once was and where for a long time I longed to be anew: unencumbered and free. I use these words a lot, I now find, it must mean they have become important to me.

I see on the social network that he’s doing something exciting with his trombone and his musician friends and the band somewhere, and I am deeply happy and unreasonably proud. I have no cause and no reason to be proud, I have nothing to do with his or any of his colleagues’ achievements, but I still feel a little proud of him and of them, as if it had something to do with me. And maybe it does have something to do with me, in as much as I know him, and we’ve once tangentially worked together (worked on the same piece, at least, for a very short while), and so at least in as much as everything is connected, and this therefore perhaps really also connects us a little, it may have a tiny little something to do with me, and that thought alone makes me happier still.

And now the words are there, and they are no better and no worse than any other, and that too is just fine and dandy. All words need not be weighty and grave. Some could do with being a bit more poetic probably than they are, but mostly they merely need to ring true. And this, to me, if nothing else, is true.


< {Loss}       {Mystery} >


Encounters-Front-Cover-2.1-tn-OPT

Read Encounters in Paperback or as eBook

 

{Loss}

How grown ups ruin things. 

The little boy on the District Line is giddy with insight, his eyes are aglow with love, his voice alive with excitement. Swinging round the pole he’s meant to just hold on to, he tells his friend, ‘sometimes I think that everything is just a dream.’ His friend, just slightly taller, but still little, exclaims: ‘so do I!’

It’s a moment of sheer wonder. A wonder dad has lost. Dad says: ‘That’s the question my dad likes to think about, how do you know that everything isn’t just a dream; that we’re not in someone’s brain…’

The boys try to ignore him, they’re not ready for his existential, inherited angst. But dad now has the upper hand: ‘How do you know,’ he insists, ‘how do you know you’re not dreaming right now?’ There’s a smile on his face, but it doesn’t look as benign as he possibly means it to be: there is power at play now, it’s a smirk.

Slightly older but still very young boy has no answer: ‘I just know,’ he says.

Dad—to the younger boy, they don’t look like brothers to me—is like a dog with his bone: ‘But how can you be sure? Have you ever had a dream?’

This strikes me as near-cruel a question. These boys are maybe seven, eight? Older, slightly taller, but still nine-years-old-I-imagine-at-the-most boy is now unsure: ‘Yes…?’ The uncertainty infuses a slight quiver in his voice.

My heart breaks; I want to hug him and say: ‘Everything is all right; and you’re quite right too, and your little friend. Sometimes everything is just a dream, but not in this cynical, clinical way your little friend’s dad now makes you think and worry about.’ Still dad won’t let go and instead pushes on with his inquisition, until: ‘You start freaking me out,’ the little boy says.

At last dad relents, sensing the fear he has just poured over his son and his son’s gschpänli, who were just a moment ago so excited that everything could still be a dream, and to whom until just a moment ago it probably was…

The tear I shed for these boys is as heavy as the joy was light that I felt for their innocence. If only dad had had a wiser father. The prism of your childhood paints the world in colours that but slowly fade, and if it is tainted, obscured or damaged, oh how long a shadow it casts…


< {Thoughts That Can’t Be Unthunk}       Whist >


Encounters-Front-Cover-2.1-tn-OPT

Read Encounters in Paperback or as eBook

 

 

{Thoughts That Can’t Be Unthunk}

My dad tells me the story of when he, back in 1951, aged eighteen, goes to the Lido on Lake Zürich—where he’s grown up and where he has turned himself into a Swiss Youth Champion swimmer—to try out nude bathing. 

Being Switzerland and Continental Europe, Zürich has no problem with nude bathing in 1951, and so there is a designated nudist section of the Lido where swimming naked in the Lake may be relished at nature-embracing liberty by anyone so inclined.

“I walked out of the changing rooms, a little shy and uncertain, holding my towel in front of me,” I’ve seen pictures of my dad at that age—not, I hasten to add, in the nude, but wearing his swimming trunks, and in one of them, I believe, his chest adorned with a medal, or so I seem to remember—and my dad as an eighteen year old is exceptionally handsome, he’s a youth champion swimmer, after all, “and there were all these saggy old men, with drooping bits everywhere.”

I laugh my head off at the thought of my adonis dad walking out into a world full of saggy old men and drooping bits everywhere. They put him right off, so he turned around straight away and never went back, unsurprisingly.

The image, though, lingers…


< Entreatment       {Loss} >


Encounters-Front-Cover-2.1-tn-OPT

Read Encounters in Paperback or as eBook