Helvetia

From Milan I take the train to Chur. Chur has never been my favourite place in the world, and it’s not difficult for me to say why: it feels dour. It is, apparently, the oldest city in Switzerland, and it has, I believe, several things going for it, none of which is entirely evident to me. Mainly because it sits hemmed in by big mountains that deprive it of light, almost completely, in winter, while not being splendid enough in summer to offer any gorgeousness of a view. My sister at this time lives in Chur and I am heading towards her to spend a couple of days with her, The Tape tells me. My memory of this is, again, hazy, but I’m clearly delighted: “it is wonderful,” I narrate, “to spend time together and talk,” for the first time in years. And I have no reason to doubt this was so. To this day, I enjoy spending time with my sister, though to this day I don’t do so often enough, and on this occasion, we must have had a lot to say to each other: I was back in the country where I grew up, but which I had always struggled and never found it either necessary or entirely possible to call home, for the first time since, almost exactly three years earlier, I had left with two suitcases, both made of leather, one black and one red, neither of them with castors, and a friend’s address in my pocket, in Enfield, from thence to make London my home.

Helvetia. I like thinking of Switzerland as Helvetia. It has something sturdy, celtic, dependable to it. Unique. Firm and reassuring. ‘Switzerland’ sounds – maybe because it so much has become – like a brand, a theme park, a place you go for your holiday. Helvetia is a place you were rooted in, once. Whether you then uprooted yourself, and for whatever reasons, fades into the background, into the fabric: it does not become insignificant (nothing of that kind ever is) but it’s just there, part of the character, part of the being, part of the history, part of the substance, the core. And so is Helvetia.

The train from Milan to Chur, I relate to The Tape, “took absolutely ages,” but also “provided the most admirable views.” It’s one of these instances where I betray the fact that I’m still not on top of the subtleties of the English language. I hear myself do that a lot on this recording: I nearly get the word right, but not quite. I still, from the back of my mind, translate traces from German, maybe not so much words, as concepts, perhaps. I’m just not quite there, yet.

In Treviso I change trains and board “this incredible little red train, consisting of about three carriages, all the way up, over the San Bernardino Pass.” Here my memory suddenly kicks in again, vivid and strong. I remember this journey, this train. And with awe. I remember the windows being open and the warm summer air wafting in, I remember the noise, intermittently suddenly so much louder going through tunnels; I remember the green and red covered seats: red for smoking, green for non. I was a smoker then, I may have been travelling red. Then again, I may already have done what I did for a while, park myself in the non-smoking section and nip to the red part of the carriage for the occasional fag. The train wasn’t full, I remember it being almost empty. It’s a glorious trip, and you can do it, still. Now, they have state-of-the-art rolling stock with huge panorama windows, and smoking is a definite no-no, but the trains are no faster and the views no less stunning than they were thirty years ago.

I seem to also recall that I met up here with an old school friend whose brother, in fact, I would shortly be linking up with in Paris, but The Tape makes no mention of this, so perhaps I am wrong. Come the following Saturday, I take the train to Basel. This is where I went to school, this is where I grew up: the first twenty-one years of my life. I spend eight or nine hours talking to Peggy, my best friend then and my best friend now from our high school days, and today as then, when we meet, we find ourselves talking for hours. Eight or nine are nothing unusual: if you pitch up at six, have dinner, sit out on the balcony, keep on talking, before you know it, it’s three in the morning…

On Sunday Peggy, my mum and I go to see an exhibition (I don’t tell myself which one, and I can’t recall) and then my brother comes round with his two sons, one of whom is my godson. There is a photograph of this occasion, which takes place in my parents’ garden, with me sitting between the two boys, looking at a picture book, maybe reading them the story. My mother, a little while later, sent me this picture in a card with a quote from George Bernard Shaw, translated into German: Es ist ein ungeheures Glück wenn man fähig ist, sich freuen zu können. I try to find the English original, and so far I fail. ‘It is a tremendous fortune to be able to find joy in things,’ is more or less how I would translate it back, but it still sounds far more clumsy than it should. If it’s Shaw. Maybe it’s been misattributed, that’s possible: many things are.

“Then we went to see Ironweed at the cinema.” I don’t remember anything about this, the film or who ‘we’ is in this instance, but my 24-year-old self puts on record that “it was like no time had passed at all.” Maybe because hardly any time had passed, a mere three years…

Tuesday I spent in Zürich, “meeting, luckily, Benjamin for the first time in absolutely years,” and also Beatrice. Benjamin. Beatrice. These two people: they are lodged in my mind, in my soul. Benjamin more than Beatrice, and in a much different way, but both register, both matter, both shaped who I was and therefore who I am today. The meeting with Benjamin I remember clearly, he was his usual, laconic self. He was the boy I most loved, for a very long time. We were in no relationship, he never, as far as I know, reciprocated my feelings, he was not even gay, he was just the boy I most loved. By this time, he would have been about twenty-two and he’d either just been released or was on day-release from prison. He’d been sentenced to prison for no crime: he was a conscientious objector, and had refused to do military service, which then carried a prison term, and a criminal record, in Switzerland. He was unfazed by his time in prison: he took this, as he seemed to take everything, in his stride. Granted, it also sounded like prison for conscientious objectors was in Switzerland by now a gentle affair. He was beautiful, as I had always seen him, and unruffled. Unexcitable, but good humoured. I’d carried him around in my heart for the entire duration I’d been living in London, and for many years later. It was only really when one day, on a Sunday afternoon, he phoned me, out of the blue, to tell me he’d received a letter I had sent him many months earlier, care of his mother, and we talked for maybe five hours or so on the phone, both getting increasingly woozy on our respective drinks, that I was able to put that love where it belonged: in the past, in my youth. In a time before even our reunion here now in Zürich. I have memories of us sitting at my parents’ home next to each other on the sofa all night long, drinking coffee, almost getting high on it, so much of it we drank; of us walking in the fields near his parents’ home on Lake Zürich on a wintry afternoon; of us first meeting at a school fete… I have everything with me still, as if it were yesterday. But only since maybe ten years ago, slightly less, am I able to think of it really as yesterday. I believe I once kissed him, I’m not even sure. I’m sure that I wanted to, always. Always.

How deeply that boy seeped into the folds of my brain. How strongly he clasped my heart; how warmly, how tenderly I longed for him, for how long. I still have his letters, of course. I no longer have this desire: I’m glad it has gone, I was able to bid it farewell. Not the memory though, not the fondness. I am over him now, but I cannot, and nor do I need to, get over how much I loved him.

Beatrice, I also remember, also fondly, but not on that day. I certainly kissed her, and she me. She was, I’m quite certain, keener on me than I was on her, but I liked her and for a short while it was as if we were together. How strange, to think of it now. But that alone, having been there, the girl with whom I was once almost together, secures her a place in my self. She, too, is part of me, was then, is now.

Wednesday a lunch with a friend. “In all,” I recount to The Tape, I “had a chance to see lots of people.” Also my grandfather. I was “very worried about grandfather, he looked very ill and weak; he was very nice, but I have an impression that any time we meet might be the last time.” So, I think, it proved, on this occasion.

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