12 Tales From an Alternative Universe

At Nice airport I give a young man the eye, because he looks just like Peter, whom I know from a short shoot a while back and who happened to be in Cannes with his girlfriend about two years ago.

In my multiverse of all possible universes there is one in which I go up to him and say: ‘Hello Peter, how are you?’

He doesn’t know me, but by coincidence his name is actually Peter (he has that Peter glint in his eye), and he too thinks there’s something familiar about me, something he recognises, and so, so as not to seem rude, he gamely says: ‘hey, I’m very well, thanks, and you? – Are you here for the festival?’ I say, ‘yes.’

‘Well, do you want a lift into Cannes, I’m here with my girlfriend?’

Ah, girlfriend here too, I think, but, why not? and I gladly accept. As we talk on the ride while his girlfriend is conversing in fluent French with the driver, we get along swimmingly, and by the time we reach Cannes, we sort of realise that we don’t really know each other, but we both of us don’t mind and if anything feel we should get to know each other better, and we both pretend to of course already have each other’s numbers but let’s exchange them anyway, just in case; and we hook up for dinner and then have drinks and arrange to meet up again the following night.

As it happens, his girlfriend is going to some do or other with some of her friends, so we’ll probably just be the two of us, and after another dinner, a few more drinks and then just one or two more, we realise that we do have a lot more in common than one might at fist glance imagine, and even what we don’t have in common we complement each other on perfectly, and so we probably have a bit of a kiss, maybe a cuddle. Perhaps even a bit of a snog. But then he thinks of his girlfriend and that he’s supposed to be straight, which doesn’t bother me too much (it happens to the best of people), but we go to see a couple of screenings the day after, and then his girlfriend and a few friends have invitations to a really quite excellent party on Monday, and we’re tagging along there as well.

At some point we conspire to lose them or they us, and we suddenly find ourselves alone again and peacefully zonked, on the beach, with the still mild air drifting in softly, and us drifting off equally softly, together, and by Tuesday, my last day, I wake up next to him, and he’s actually there and I realise: no, this wasn’t a dream and the wedding will probably be some time next summer…

I’m reminded of the incident with the handbag. The incident with the handbag happened with a man I could have imagined marrying, could perhaps still imagine, if not marrying then being together with, easily, comfortably, steadily. Uncomplicated. It happened before he married someone else.

We were out drinking, as on occasion we were, and after doing so to quite some extent we took a cab home, as on occasion we did. We got into my bed to curl up with each other, as on occasion we would, to literally just sleep with each other, when he reached down his side of the bed and lifted up a nondescript brown leather bag and said: ‘and here’s the handbag.’

That made no more sense to me then than it does now, but I was categorically drunk, and so was he, and I had my arm around him and I could not expect of myself—nor was I able to think that the world could expect of me—to compute the significance of such a statement and gesture at this particular juncture. He dropped the bag back down on the floor and leant into my chest and fell asleep, as did I, almost immediately.

In the hungover morning I held on to him for as long as I could, which was never quite long enough, but he had to go to work, and I said I would deal with the bag. The bag, it turned out, was an ordinary woman’s handbag with the ordinary things you’d find in a bag: not that I looked through the bag in any detail, that would have felt intrusive. I fished out the mobile and called the number labelled ‘mum’. I told a bemused lady that by circumstances which I couldn’t strictly explain but that involved a friend and too much alcohol, I found myself, somewhat involuntarily, in custody of, most likely, her daughter’s handbag, and was keen to restore it to her forthwith. There must have been a follow-up conversation with the daughter herself (presumably on her home phone?) and it transpired that the daughter in question was an actress currently performing at a West End theatre, and that she had been out with a friend after the show and ended up for a drink at the same bar as we did. She was gracious if a little taken aback, but then who can blame her. We arranged that I would bring her her bag to the stage door. I picked up a bunch of flowers and a bottle of wine and brought her the bag, apologising profusely on behalf of my friend. My friend never mentioned the matter again. Nor did I. The actress may well have thought that my friend was imaginary and that I just hadn’t been brave enough to come clean entirely, but what did it matter.

Which is perhaps why I am reminded of this incident in the first place: it just didn’t matter. And I thought: this is what it would be like, would it not, to have a partner, an ‘other half,’ when they did something inexplicable, and it really just didn’t matter. I know him well enough to know he wasn’t stealing a woman’s handbag. There was never any chance of him, or me, taking anything out of it and keeping it. And it obviously fell to me to return the bag to its owner, because I was capable of doing so and I had the time to do so, while he had a job to go to, in Pentonville prison of all places. Plus I had sufficient distance from the incident itself to just handle it factually. It made no sense at all, but it made perfect sense. And so to this day I don’t know why it even happened. But then what do we ever know?

(I once spent about an hour or so, incidentally, on the phone to someone who didn’t know me, nor I him. I’d recently arrived in London, I was living in my first flatshare in Gloucester Terrace and we had a plastic payphone in the hall. It rang. I answered. He said, hello can I speak to George, I said, this is George speaking, and we talked. About all manner of things. For quite a while. A long while. I had no idea who he was, but he sounded nice and I was new to town so I assumed that sooner or later the universe would reveal to me whom I was having a conversation with, probably somebody I recently met and hadn’t quite filed anywhere in my brain yet. Then he asked me how my new job was going and I said, what new job? I’d been in my job for six months now, it was my first permanent job since I moved here. And then we realised we didn’t actually know each other. We laughed and told each other it was nice talking and wished each other a good life and hung up. I wonder does he still tell the story as I do?)

What do we ever really know…


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Insomnia [2]

Five o’clock in the morning: I lie awake, worrying about Edgar. Not about Edgar himself, obviously, Edgar is the last person I need to worry about: I worry about the fact that Edgar of all people can’t sleep, and what that means for someone like me, who normally sleeps without a hint of a problem, when I thought Edgar was the kind of person who did so too; does that mean I have to worry about not being able to sleep, all of a sudden, just like Edgar?

It’s the kind of worry I least appreciate and am least able to see any sense in: it’s worrying about worrying: it’s a meta-worry. It’s a preposterousness, and that is in itself a worry: I now worry about the fact that I worry. About worrying.

My lover doesn’t notice I’m lying awake next to him, worrying, he just rasps a contented snore. He’s an uncomplicated sleeper. Sometimes he has nightmares that wake him up briefly, but he goes back to sleep easily and quickly. I think it might just be my clamping onto him that occasionally sets off a nightmare in him, but I don’t ask for fear that he’ll confirm that, yes, that’s what it is, because I like snuggling up to him: I spend the whole night resting my head on his chest, holding him; he holding me.

I arrange to see Edgar for a drink and he seems very happy. Tired, but fulfilled. In the course of our conversation—it’s been a while since we last met, so we have some catching up to do—I realise he’s become an expert in about a half dozen subjects, and he does not seem the least bit worried, about any of them, or about getting enough sleep:

‘Oh no,’ he laughs: I nap.’

‘You nap?’

‘Yes.’

‘When do you nap?’

‘When I’m tired.’

‘And then you sleep?’

‘No I nap, there’s a difference…’

‘I realise there’s a difference, but then at night, do you sleep?’

‘Oh no, at night I lie awake, reading.’

‘What are you reading about?’

‘At the moment I’m learning Rumantsch.’

‘You’re learning Rumantsch by reading?’

‘I read it at night, and practise it during the day.’

‘Rumantsch?’

‘Yes.’

‘So you speak Rumantsch now?’

‘I read it quite well.’

I feel a little tired just listening to Edgar, as he tells me he has taken to translating a Rumantsch story into English.

‘Aren’t you tired?’

‘No, I’ve just had a nap.’

‘I mean generally: how much sleep do you get?’

‘It varies: between four and five hours a day, enough to survive.’

‘And you’re not tired? You look a bit tired.’

‘Oh that’s probably because I’ve just woken up from my nap: it takes me a while…’

‘What are you going to do with your Rumantsch story, once you’ve translated it into English?

‘I can read it to you.’

‘Yes you could: that might actually send me to sleep.’

The experiment is not a success. I am too weirded out by the fact that I have a man twice my size but effectively my age sitting in my living room, reading me a story. Also, the story is quite interesting. When I tell my lover, he suggests I read it to him: he dozes off straight away.

I sit awake, reading the rest of the story that Edgar has translated from Rumantsch into English, about an alp farmer and his three sons, who all become mercenaries, fighting wars for foreign lords in far flung countries, for remuneration. One dies, one is captured and spends a long time being held hostage because his family can’t afford the ransom, and one comes back, traumatised, but determined to bring home his brother. He sets off again on what turns into a riveting adventure of selfless bravery, Helvetian heroism and blockheaded stubbornness. He finds and liberates his brother, and his brother is grateful but also sad: he does not want to leave his fellow prisoner of war behind whom he has become close friends with: as close as brothers, closer even. Blood brothers. I think lovers, but the story doesn’t spell that out. It was written by a descendant of the older, stronger, rescuing brother in the early part of the 18th century, and they didn’t so much go in for the gay theme, at the time. To me it’s pretty obvious. My lover is fast asleep, so I can’t ask him.

I phone Edgar, sure to find him awake: he answers the phone straight away:

‘Of course, it’s obvious!’

‘Do you think the story would make a good film?’

‘Of course it would make a good film!’

‘Do you think I should write a treatment?’

‘Why not? I’m not going to!’

‘Who owns the rights?’

‘I don’t think anybody does, but I can find out for you!’

Now Edgar is full of exclamation marks, which wearies me, this time of night, but I’m glad that what keeps me awake now is no longer my meta-worry about worrying about being worried about Edgar, but thinking about how to frame this stupendous tale into a good, solid, rustic, heroic love story. Between a Helvetian mercenary and his lover in captivity. Over the next couple of weeks I write the treatment during my night time waking hours and show it to Edgar.

‘It’s quite good.’

‘Quite good.’

‘Yes, but you’re missing something.’

‘What am I missing?’

‘You’re missing the Rumantschness.’

‘The Rumantschness?’

‘Yes. You’ve got the Helvetianness all right, which is not surprising, seeing you’re Helvetian yourself, but you’re missing the Rumantschness.’

‘How do I get the Rumantschness?’

‘I don’t know: go there, talk to the clan, learn Rumantsch…’

‘You want me to learn Rumantsch?’

‘I don’t want you to learn it, I want you to get the Rumantschness of it: if you want someone to finance this project for you so you can turn it into a film that will be shown at the Locarno Film Festival, and be owned by the people you’re talking about at the same time, then you’ve got to get the Rumantschness of it all.’

I hadn’t thought anywhere near as far ahead as that, but of course he is right: this is exactly the kind of film that should be shown at the Locarno Film Festival, preferably on the Piazza Grande, and be both good enough to be able to win a jury award and have enough of a broad appeal—with its Helvetian 17th century prisoners-in-captivity-and-brothers-in-arms-but-beyond-that-love-story—to have a fair crack at the audience prize too. It has to be thoroughly Rumantsch.

‘What if we shoot it in Rumantsch?’

‘That would go a long way to getting the Rumantschness of it, yes.’

‘But?…’

‘But it would obviously entail you having at least a working knowledge of Rumantsch.’

The prospect seems daunting, but I speak fairly decent Italian, workalike French and a little Portuguese. I once studied Putonghua for a while. And, it occurs to me now, a little Latin, back at school, which I didn’t enjoy then, but that’s a long time ago, and I didn’t particularly see eye to eye with my teacher, except when we both agreed I should probably cease coming to his Latin class…

‘I think the film needs to be trilingual,’ Edgar offers into the silence that has briefly settled over my brow as I am contemplating my linguistic predisposition towards learning Rumantsch (I tried Spanish once too, but that didn’t get me very far: the Italian kept interfering).

‘What, Italian, French and Portuguese?’

‘No, of course not: English, Swiss German and Rumantsch.’

‘Why would anybody in this story speak English?’

‘Because it’s an English researcher or journalist or distant relative who happens upon it and tells it, from his perspective, today.’

‘Like a meta-story.’

‘A bit like a meta-story.’

‘It’s been done before.’

‘Everything has been done before.’

‘It’s probably less of a meta-story, this, than a straightforward framework device.’

‘It could work: you can write the English and the Swiss German dialogue, and I can translate the Rumantsch bits.’

‘Is your Rumantsch good enough for that?’

‘It will be by the time you’re done with your script.’

‘But you’re not a writer.’

‘No, you are.’

That’s true. I am. It’s a fascinating idea. I could write the script in English and Swiss German, and he could translate the parts of the dialogue that need to be in Rumantsch into Rumantsch, and then we’d obviously need somebody whose mother tongue is Rumantsch to check it for its overall Rumantschness, maybe one of the descendants: one of the clan.

I am beginning to imagine the kind of conversation I would be having with an alp farmer descendant of a Helvetian 17th century mercenary who goes to rescue his brother from captivity in a foreign land, only to find that his brother doesn’t really want to leave because he doesn’t want to abandon his lover, because he is concerned for his safety, and fears, quite reasonably, that he will never see him again if he now joins his brother and escapes back to his village high up in the mountains, across the St Gotthard Pass. It sounds like an intriguing story to me. Has it got legs, though?

I think I’d need to sleep on it. At the moment, that’s problematical…


< Insomnia [1]       Insomnia [3] >

 

{Irk}

The elderly lady with silver grey hair and a formidable bosom corners the festival’s Programming Director and demands that he explain himself.

Her hair is tied at the back in an elegant bow, and her glasses suggest literacy both cinematic and literary. Her lips are glossed red, but the upper lip is quite thin, and the lower lip is quite full, and at the corners these lips pull somewhat towards eighteen past eight, which gives her a permanent expression of ever so marginally lopsided vexation. She bears an uncanny resemblance to Mrs Richards who pitches up in Episode One of the second series of Fawlty Towers, but this lady is not unhappy with her view, nor is she hard of hearing; she hears all too well, and what she objects to is English.

What irks—so as not to say angers—her (‘anger’ seems too uncouth a term for her form of displeasure) is that here in Locarno, the picturesque lakeside town with the second oldest international film festival in the world after Venice, an announcement (or was it a speech? I am not entirely sure now) was made not in Italian (the language of the Canton Ticino, where we find ourselves), or any of the other official languages of Switzerland, German, French or Rumantsch, but in the language of the global village, English.

She had no problem understanding it—she probably has a Swiss education, and her English is likely to be better than that of two thirds of all native English speakers around the world—her objection is one of principle. One of culture, even. And a concern for how what is being cultivated—the unstoppable advance of the current lingua franca (obviously, and as the term itself reminds us, not the first one to sweep the globe, and it won’t be the last)—on the multilingual diversity of parochial Europe, specifically Switzerland.

This diversity has real charm, and, when witnessed in action, can be seriously impressive. It’s not just the trains here which routinely make all major announcements in three languages (one of which is always English, although English is not an official language in Switzerland), or the packaging of consumer goods, which mostly (but not always) eschews English but finds room, on such everyday produce as butter and milk, for all four national languages; it’s when you see and hear people actually using their languages seamlessly and matter-of-factly across their spectrum that you realise how capable we can be if we try.

Not long before this ‘incident’ in Locarno, I’d been to the other major film festival in Switzerland, Solothurn. This, unlike Locarno, is not an international affair but focuses entirely on Swiss film making; it is therefore not of global significance, but really important to Switzerland. A close friend of mine had directed the opening film. He’d also fallen out with his erstwhile best friend, who was the producer, over it, and so it was this not an entirely happy occasion. It was nonetheless memorable, not least for the opening speeches. I don’t remember their exact sequence, but: one was held by the then Artistic Director of the festival, who happened to be from the Ticino and therefore spoke in Italian. One was held by the then President of the Federal Council (this, in the egalitarian direct democracy that is Switzerland is a nominal role rotating on an annual basis through the Federal Council, which consists of seven members who are elected by parliament and who form the government of the country as a joint cabinet; the President of Switzerland therefore only ever is in office for one year as a primus inter pares), who happened to be French speaking and therefore gave her address in French. And a third was held by some dignitary from the Swiss film making community, who spoke German. There were no translations, no subtitles, no surtitles, no captions. The expectation was—as it is in the chambers of the national parliament—that everyone in the audience (which here, this being an open event, is the general public) speaks at least two, but preferably three, of the four national languages. And they do. Mostly. But you are talking about a film-festival-going audience with a particular interest in Swiss films. You are talking about Solothurn, not Locarno.

Locarno is one of the most important and quite possibly the most beautiful film festival for independent film in the world, and so obviously not everybody attending it speaks either Italian, or German, or French, or let alone Rumantsch. (Hardly anybody in Switzerland speaks Rumantsch: it has a native speaker base of some 36,000 individuals with about another 25,000 people speaking it ‘regularly’. It’s a lovely language, though, and not at all impossible to learn, especially if you have Latin.)

The irony for my Swiss Mrs Richards in particular, and for us all, is that the one language almost all Swiss people speak to at least basic level—many to near perfection—is English. Professors often lecture in English at universities, there are kindergartens and pre-school groups conducted in English (also in Putonghua, now, as it happens), and it is not unheard of for high school students to deliver their papers in English. And with so many people living and working and travelling in Switzerland from all over the world, the one language you know for certain you’ll get by in is, of course, English.

The festival’s Programming Director is patient and polite. He gives a somewhat resigned looking smile—resigned more, I think, to the fact that being accosted with these kinds of grievances is simply part of the job, even if he’s really just here tonight outside this cinema to see a film at his festival, than resigned to the realities of globalisation—and explains the situation to his questioner in her seventies not unlike you would to a child of about seven. I half fear me she may feel patronised. She doesn’t. Her eyes light up, and she feels taken seriously. Her lips, at first reluctantly, but then giving themselves over to reconciliation, flatten out into almost a smile of her own. I wonder has he just charmed her. He is very charming, in a slightly headmasterly way: the kind of person who daily has to deal with unruly students and their impossible parents alike, and who just takes it all in his steady, slow-paced, long-suffering stride.

My queue starts to move, and I lose track of them both and their conversation. I don’t think it was his perfectly reasonable argument that won her over, I think it was just that he managed to signal to her for three minutes or four that he cared for her irk. And I’m almost certain he did, for three or four minutes. Which is probably about as much as it merited, after all.

What the film was that I saw, or what language it was in, or how it was subtitled (all films at these festivals are always subtitled), I can’t recall, but the introduction, I’m almost certain, was given in English…


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12 Tales From an Alternative Universe

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