Les Grands Amours

I arrive back in Paris, and see it “properly” now “for the first time.” These mark the “last few days of a fantastic holiday,” and “those few days were wonderful.”

I feel that glow now, it expands beneath my ribs and makes my breath seem warmer. “I think my favourite building in the world for its originality is the Centre Pompidou,” I tell myself on The Tape, and for a long time, I remember, that was the case. I embraced modernity, pre-, post- and present. I was into things, such as cool architecture; they excited me then, they excite me today. I record and recall seeing La vie de Brian, as The Life of Brian was called there, and us laughing our heads off, the way we only could then. There was an evening, not long after I’d moved to London, when my friend Peggy and, I believe, beautiful Stefan and maybe one or two other people were assembled in my shared living room, lounging on the grubby sofa and draped over a stained but strangely comfortable armchair, watching Airplane! on TV. We laughed so hard at this, we literally ended up on the floor. That capacity for joy, so unalloyed: we had it then, we had it in Paris – that was exactly the era – and I don’t know when or where it went. That freshness, even with an open mind as I try to keep it, has simply gone: hardly anything ever makes me laugh now anywhere near as hard. Perhaps I’ve seen it, heard it, if not all then just too much of it, to tickle me so with surprise?

I remember loving the Pompidou, I remember loving and laughing at La vie, I remember little if anything else, apart from Christian, Judith’s brother, whom I thought “great” and “quite eccentric, in his own way,” and probably fancied, if not was in love with, just a bit. Judith, whom I loved then and still love today, though I haven’t seen her in a decade (and then under sad, troubled, circumstances, of which to speak now would not seem right), was my school pal whom we were visiting in Paris, where she was staying with her boyfriend, Alain. For reasons I don’t recall I spent quite some time with her brother, liking him immensely. (Maybe because Judith was with her boyfriend, Alain?) At one point Christian and I got on a metro train together. As it arrived, we noticed that it had first and second class compartments, and he said we should ride in second class since we didn’t have first class tickets. I, having never been to Paris properly before, convinced him that this must be a remnant of the olden days and that by now the metro surely only had one class for all. So we boarded the less crowded first class carriage. Within minutes we were surrounded by about five ticket inspectors, demanding a surcharge and a fine. I was outraged: I told them they were being completely unreasonable, since it was impossible for me, a Londoner, to know that a metropolitan underground could have two classes. They pointed at the big 1 that was painted on the interior of the carriage, and mentioned the same on the outside. I was having none of it: I live in London, I said, I use the tube all the time and we don’t have any of this nonsense. They let us off. We were made to move to second class, but no money changed hands. I can be stubborn when I need to be, that hasn’t changed…

My forever enduring memory though of these last few days of my Europe tour in 1988, and one of the best and most cherished of all my years of going to the cinema anywhere in the world, was Le grand bleu. I had seen it before, in Grenoble, and fallen in love with it and with Jean-Marc Barr then, but this now was in a league of its own. The film was immensely successful in France, and so Le Grand Rex, one of the largest cinemas in Paris, had put up an extra large screen in front of its existing one. It was, I tell the tape, “a 25 metre screen”, which would make it either nearly the size, or even slightly bigger than, the screen on the Piazza Grande at the Locarno Film Festival (which today is still the largest in Europe), depending on whether that was a horizontal width measure or a diagonal, which I can’t remember. In any case, it was huge. (They may even have ‘renamed’ the cinema for that run. It’s entirely possible, but once again I am no longer certain, that the cinema was really normally called Le Rex, and they labelled it Le grand Rex just for Le grand bleu, with the big screen.)

Because the screen was so large, there were now, in the auditorium, new restricted sight lines. The stalls were fine, as was the upper balcony, but from all but the front row, the view in the dress circle was severely restricted, because you would not see the top of the screen (which was blocked off by the balcony above you) or the bottom (which was obscured by the circle in front of you), for which reason the cinema had cordoned off the dress circle altogether. We were not young people to be told where to sit in a cinema with unreserved seating, so while people raced, as the doors opened, to the best seats up on the balcony and down in the stalls, we opened the door to the dress circle behind the red cord and saw it empty with a vast screen beckoning. We snuck in, closed the door behind us and took up the few seats in the centre of the front row of the dress circle, the ones directly in the middle of the screen: your entire field of vision was taken up with The Big Blue: it was magnificent. I to this day can’t get over how beautiful and real the sea and how close-enough-to-touch Jean-Marc Barr were. Other good actors appeared in the film, there was other fine scenery, but I remember him and the sea and the dolphins. And the party on Taormina, I believe, where Jean-Marc Barr turns up dressed in a dinner suit, wearing trainers, looking sheepish and unbearably cute. I could have married him there and then.

I later met Jean-Marc Barr after a performance in the West End of a Tennessee Williams play, and he was gracious and polite; I a little timid and shy, but happy to be face-to-face with him in person, and now getting him ‘out of my system’: he was a lovely, good-looking man, and a very decent actor, and I no longer now had to pine…

“Unfortunately, on the last night” of our stay in Paris, I tell my tape, “Judith split up with her boyfriend, Alain,” and so “went back with her brother Christian,” to Basel, I presume. I, on Sunday, which therefore must have been the next day, took the train back to London and arrived there in the evening, “about 9 o’clock.”

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.

{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 greener 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’ pony, 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 (but 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 would do with a pony – maybe sell it on?…), 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 the 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 on occasion, 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 I ever had to see or think of or hear about ponies. Everybody called a pony a ‘Pony’, pronouncing it with a 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 gone away, 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, evaporates…

52 The Silk Route

How did I get here? To this point where, Sedartis by my side, I find myself gazing out of moving trains, over picturesque lakes, wondering ‘how did I get here?’ This is a change of mode, this pondering. Is it my midlife? Is this my crisis?

If so it is mild in the extreme. Contradiction in terms. My overall state is snug, within myself. My friends, my family. I live to love not to loathe, so I tell myself and so I feel and so I largely, modestly, believe, I do. I anger slowly, forgive fast. I sense the present, now much more than I used to; I used to ache for the future, and be in it too. I may just have caught up with myself and that is the keenest source of surprise: hello, here I am. How did I get here. . .

The route my father took. From Thalwil where he was working for a textile company making specialist threads and yarns, I believe (not silk, as such, it’s more of a metaphor, this…), to Manchester where I was born to Goldach where I have my first faint memories of a long balcony and Aldo our dog, to Arlesheim where I went to Kindergarten and Basel where, from Arlesheim, I commuted to school, then Münchenstein where I finished school and made friends I love to this day, to London where I’m at home.

(Or does it start with Berlin, whence my grandmother left at the age of eighteen, crossing into Switzerland and to Zürich, where she met my grandfather. That may be the preamble: there’s a separate story and it’s beautiful, but it needs to be told elsewhere.)

The question perhaps is not ‘how did I get here’, the question perhaps is simply, what next: whither wilt thou, now thou art here? Not geographically speaking, geography matters less and less, I am at home in London, but I can be and be happy almost anywhere, as long as I have my laptop and a decent WiFi connection.

I find myself sitting next to a beautiful woman called Karmen, spelt with a K, at a film festival in northern Italy, and she asks me what my next project is. I list four that I consider ‘current’. It strikes me that this is maybe a lot. Then again, I have always conducted my journey along multiple tracks. Even when I decide to just concentrate on the one, my curious mind and my eagerness to experience tend to open up another soon. I am fine with that too.

It may be that the journey that follows many roads is bound to go on many detours and therefore takes longer to reach any kind of destination, but then: what is the destination? Is there one? Ought there to be one, even, or is it not much more, as many say and know, the trip alone that truly matters.

As I talk to Karmen and tell her what I’m up to right now and in the very foreseeable future, I realise that everything I have done and written and directed and made and learnt so far has been, most likely, not much more than the apprenticeship, because I sense, so I tell her, because I do, that the real task, the real challenge, the real mountain to climb and the real work to do, lies just ahead.

We’re in the chink of an exponential curve that is about to go virtually vertical, and this means we’ll not only have new stories to tell, we’ll want, we’ll need, whole new ways of telling these stories and to make sense of them. Serious Story Telling, that counts.

I never get bored, I tell Karmen, because if you watch a wall of paint dry close up enough, it’s actually riveting. But what I’m really most excited, most thrilled most ecstatic about is that we’re on the verge of understanding ourselves and how we’re connected completely afresh. That the dimensions that hitherto have been considered effectively spiritual and esoteric are coming in touch with the principles of quantum mechanics and we’ll find, so I’m sure, that we can explain things that until less than a generation ago we thought either unfathomable or simply hokum. They will turn out to be neither.

‘Look at me now and here I am’, I say to myself, in the words of Gertrude, and I take a sip of the wine that fills me with a glow of happiness. These people, these good souls, this world that we live in, these paths that we choose or think we choose, these connections we make and that make us.

I’m in the right place, at the right time. I may not know it yet, but I  sense it, for sure.

 

 

 

 

 

Origin

I was born in Manchester in June 1964 into a Swiss family, and I have never been in any doubt that both these facts are of defining significance. Had I been born in Manchester into an English family, I would most likely have grown up either in Manchester or if not there then somewhere else in Britain, and if not that then at any rate in an English-speaking household. Had I been born in Switzerland or anywhere else, I might never have developed my powerful affinity to England, Britain and the English language.

As it was, I grew up as the ‘English Boy’ in a Swiss Family in Switzerland, because soon after my birth – a mere six weeks – I was carried aboard a plane in a red wicker basket and flown, together with my brother and two sisters, to Basel, where my arrival was greeted with jolly brass bands and a splendid fireworks display. It would please me to think that the good people of Basel were thus celebrating my homecoming, but it just happened to be Swiss National Day, 1st August; and also it wasn’t in that sense a homecoming.

Because although I was a fiercely patriotic child, my loyalties then were always almost evenly divided between Switzerland and England, with Switzerland slightly having the edge, and as I grew into my teenage years the balance began to tip in favour of England. But more important than that – and also perhaps more curious – although I had really done all my growing up (bar the first six weeks) in Arlesheim, a beautiful, picturesque and particularly peaceful and well cared-for village outside Basel, and in Basel itself, where I went to school, I never actually really felt ‘at home’ there.

I felt at home in London the moment I set foot in it when my parents took me and the younger of my two sisters, Christine, there, for the first time. This, I thought, is where I want to be. I was twelve. From then on I returned to London every year at least once, often twice, at first staying with a friend of the family, then with friends I made there over my visits, or at a hostel or a cheap hotel, and from as early as sixteen I started talking about moving to London.

I finished school, spent a year (two semesters) enrolled at Basel University, and then left. I took with me two suitcases, one black, one red, none with castors, then; and I’d wanted to buy a one-way ticket to London. The slightly bored – too bored, I thought: I’m moving to London! That’s exciting! – travel agent laconically told me she could sell me a one-way ticket, but that it would be more expensive than buying a return and simply not coming back. It irked me, but I was twenty-one and I had to make the money I’d earned as a security guard over the previous few months last a bit, so I opted for the more economical offer and bought a return, the outbound on the 1st August: Swiss National Day, precisely 21 years after I’d arrived in Switzerland. Of course, I didn’t use the return leg, I let it lapse: I did not go back. Not, it seems, until now, three years later, when my ‘Europe Tour 1988’ took me, after Edinburgh, from Grenoble to Vicenza back to Chur and then Basel, where I saw first my sister, then my parents, my brother Andreas and his two sons Alban and Benjamin (Benjamin my godson), my other sister, Katherine, and many friends from the then recent past. The way I talk about it all on the tape does not feel ‘recent’ though, I talk about having lived in London now for three years as a big chunk of my life, and it is a big chunk: it’s all of my adult life so far.

My delivery on the tape is measured, often very quiet (mostly out of consideration: I seem to be recording the majority of my entries very late at night; that’s one thing that hasn’t changed, my being a night owl…) and I choose my words carefully, though not always correctly. I refer, for example, to a part of the trip as being ‘exhaustive’ when I mean ‘exhausting’ and I keep calling things ‘well done’ when I mean they are either well made or simply good. I sound a bit bemused and a bit blasé, absolutely, and also a little in awe; I marvel but I don’t gush, I describe things as ‘fantastic’ but say the word as you would say the word ‘nice’, and often qualify things towards moderation. I sound to me now almost like someone who’s rediscovering his language, who’s searching hard, and sometimes finding, sometimes just missing, the right expression, who’s grappling, without really knowing it, for a lost code, but enjoying the process of slow rediscovery.

There is good evidence now that you pick up a great deal as an unborn child in your mother’s womb; you make out sounds and noises and you start recognising them and responding to them long before you are able to make any sense of them as a child. I always loved English as a child, and as a young teenager I became very ‘good’ at it. Though I also wildly overestimated my abilities. Perhaps – and I do mean this ‘perhaps’, it’s not here merely for a rhetorical purpose – the familiarity that nine months as a growing foetus and then six weeks as a newborn baby in an English-speaking environment provided had already firmly, irreversibly planted its seed. You have to, as an artist, aim higher than you can reach: that way you may in time extend your reach and eventually reach further than you thought you could aim. And you have to, as a young human, step into the world without fear; that way you may in time overcome your fear of becoming yourself.

As I listen to myself on the tape, I realise I’m listening to a young human who has fearlessly – much more fearlessly than I would ever have imagined I would dare – stepped into the world and is just beginning, just slowly beginning, to formulate in it a role for himself. And it fills me with a new sense of wonder…

3 Chaos

This makes me wonder what, in a multiverse of all possible universes, my life is like right now in the world where Benjamin and I are together.

So often have I tried to find him in others – repeatedly have I attempted to find him himself – that I’ve lost all concept of what the reality would be of us actually having done what other people do. Do other people do this? It’s certainly the impression I get: other people I know meet someone, fall in love, have some ups and downs, decide to give it a go, give it a go, stick together, or sometimes not, and if they don’t then most likely they have a  break and then either give it another go or do so with somebody else. I have good examples at close range of things working out well between people, all around me. My family, especially, are exemplary. So it shouldn’t be difficult.

Still, it mystifies me.

Benjamin has fallen out with his father, this much I know. I know this much because the last number I find in my old address book for him is his old home number, and at one point, while I’m in the country, I phone that number and I get his dad on the phone who tells me that he doesn’t know where his son is. Nor how to contact him. He says this quite categorically and I’m surprised, of course, and a bit stunned and about to end the conversation, but before I do I ask whether anybody else might know how to contact him, and he says, yes, his mother might know. Ah, I say, and would he happen to still have a number for his mother. I sense I need to tread carefully as I don’t want to upset or offend him, and I feel sorry that they’re no longer together, but at least that offers a plausible explanation as to why his father does not know where he is or how to contact him: his parents must have separated many years ago, maybe on bad terms. But: ‘this number here,’ he says; ‘she’ll be back later, she’s at work now.’

This makes me sad, more than it puzzles me, and it puzzles me a lot: clearly Benjamin’s mother and father are still together, still living in the same house where I once or twice came to see him, where I met both of them, once or twice; where in fact I interviewed his dad for my final school project, which I wrote on racism; but while his mother ‘may know’ how to get in touch with him, the father not only doesn’t know, he obviously doesn’t want to know either. His son is dead to him. Which fills me with an unfathomable sadness. He is, has always been, so alive to me.

Should it surprise that your first love is your strongest, your most intensely felt, most devastating and also most exulted? To this day I remember getting drunk on coffee with him on the sofa. That seems surreal now, but we drank so much coffee over so many hours all through the night until it was getting light outside, I started feeling high. Caffeine and adrenalin and serotonin. And that other thing. Is there that other thing, that indescribable thing, that thing we sing songs about and write poems over and feel we could die for?

I phoned up again a day or two later (or maybe it was later that day) and spoke to the mother who remembered me and may have remembered me fondly, she certainly sounded warm and kind and she said, yes, if I were to write him a letter she would forward it onto him, that might work.

I wrote him a letter and she forwarded it onto him and nothing happened for a very long time and I remembered, as I spoke to his mother and before I wrote the letter, the birthday for which I had sent him a flower. He lived outside Zürich, I outside Basel, his birthday was and still is six days before mine, and because I couldn’t see him on his birthday, I went out and bought him a flower – I can’t be sure now what kind of flower it was but I like to think and am fairly certain it was a yellow rose – and I asked the florist for one of these small vials that would keep the flower fresh for a while, and I sealed this around the stem of the flower and wrapped it in tissues in case it should leak and sealed that in foil, I believe, and then put the flower into a long box and I must have used some padding, and then I posted it to him, with my birthday wishes. I didn’t wonder then but I wondered now what his mother made of that at the time.

I wrote him a letter and sent it to his mother and she forwarded it to him and nothing happened for a very long time until one Sunday the phone rang and it was Benjamin. Out of the blue, except for the letter of course. He’d received it and now he was living in Guggisberg. He’d moved to Guggisberg because of the song, did I know it? I didn’t but I do now.

We talked for maybe four or five hours. I don’t remember what we talked about, but then that was that kind of connection: where you can talk for four or five hours and not remember what you talked about, nor really care. For those four or five hours it was as if he were there. 

And all of a sudden I can feel it ease, the pain of not knowing what had become of him. He’s not had an easy ride. ‘I have a son,’ he says. ‘I have a tooth missing.’ He’s been through the addiction and the rehab and back and other things. He lives with his partner, who isn’t the mother of his son. ‘You’ve done a good thing here, he says, meaning my writing to him, and after the afternoon had passed with us talking, he said, ‘and now I’m going to get drunk.’ We were a bit drunk already, again, both of us, this time on the beers we each started to open, he in Guggisberg, I in Earl’s Court. ‘And I’m going to hear Jane Birkin in concert,’ I said, and it was true. He wasn’t online but he would write back to me now, he said; but I didn’t think he would, and he didn’t.

After a few months or so, maybe a year, I thought I’d just write to him one more time although I was myself no longer sure of the wisdom of that, and I sent another letter, this time directly to him, at the address he’d given me, on the Guggisberg. It came back as not delivered: the addressee had moved away. But now I don’t mind. My heart is light and free. I hope before either of us dies I’ll see him again, maybe when we’re quite old. Maybe when we’re quite old we can sit together on a bench or in a lakeside café and spend a whole day, talking, and getting drunk. On whatever.

I look at George looking at me and remember I’m not alone. I’ve never been alone, I’ve always had George, but George has been very much on his own at times, he has chosen a lone path, and I can’t blame him for that. ‘Tell me about Benjamin,’ I want to say, but I know everything I need to know now about him, and I know that George knows much less now than I.

I walk into a room full of people. It’s the Christmas Bazar at the Steiner School in Zürich. I’ve gone there with a friend from Basel, to visit a couple of people we’d met at a Whitsun Camp earlier in the year and stayed in touch with. I don’t remember anything else about the day, not how we arranged to meet or who else was there. Most likely we’d just arrived and most likely we’d said: in the café, around then. The café is just a class room, converted for the day; or maybe it’s a hall. The room is busy, there is a table with five or six people at it, in conversation. Two or three of them we already know. We introduce ourselves. One of them turns around: “ich bi dr Benjamin.” My world has never been the same again.

‘Tell me, George,’ the Mojito giving me licence to talk, ‘what do you make of the heart?’

{Petals}

I think I can count on one hand (plus maybe one finger, perhaps even two, three at a stretch) the number of people I have actually fallen in love with. This surprises me, because I think not all the hairs I now have on my head and in my beard combined would suffice to account for the number of people I think I have fallen in love with. There is, as always, a margin of error, but it is nowhere near as wide as one might imagine:

Benjamin (First and Most Deeply). Stefan. Janey (Somewhat, and More Than Seems Likely). The Man Whose Name I Can’t Remember Who Stage Managed One of the Tours I Was on (Though I’m Not Sure How That Even Happened Because The Moment I Fell Out of Love With Him I Wondered What Did I Ever See in Him and Wrote a Song to That Effect). Willow (Of Course, and Still Am a Bit and He Knows it). Probably JayJay. Certainly Dominic. A Little Bit Edward. And Indeed Moritz. Actually that brings me up to nine. But already I’d need to qualify. Was I really in love with Stefan? Or was I just blown away by how beautiful, charming and unimaginably cute he was?

There are many, many more I have at some point been a little in love with and still am, to a level where it nearly registers, sometimes a bit more, then back to a bit less. And there are many, many whom I simply love. Roundly, completely, for who they are. And there are borderline cases. Michael, at school. Was I in love with him, or did I ‘just’ love him, as I most certainly did. And before him the English boy who came to our school in Basel on some exchange programme. He is almost certainly the first person I ever had a genuine crush on. I was maybe eleven or twelve and he’d arrived into one year below or above, I believe, and I was so smitten that I bought him an ice cream. That was all: on our way to school there was a kiosk where everybody bought their sweets and although he wasn’t in my year and we hadn’t been introduced and I didn’t know his name, I felt simply compelled to let him know that I liked him and so I bought him an ice cream. I gave it to him and he smiled and said thank you, and I don’t remember ever saying another word to him, but to this day it makes me happy to remember the moment he smiled at me, a little surprised, but friendly and gracious in a way I had never seen anybody smile before and have rarely seen anyone since: the smile of innocence and recognition.

I realise this is something I should ask myself. Something that maybe could help me today. I could learn maybe something from George. That makes sense. Much more, in fact, than the idea that he could learn anything from me. I could perhaps learn from him how he did that. How he set up a pattern that to this day I haven’t got out of: he’s much closer to it, he’s in the process of doing it now: what is going on in his head, what, more to the point, in his heart? Obviously I can’t phrase my question that way, I obviously have to go about it smidgeonwise more dextrously.

But if I played this one right I might actually gain some insight…