The Snowflake Collector – 12: There Was Nothing Now But the Snow

When Yanosh found him, lying in the snow, he was as cold as the earth and as grey as the sky and as still as the heart that stopped beating. For many years, Yanosh had been coming to visit him, up at the end of the valley, even though he had long ceased to live in the hamlet outside the village, an hour or so’s walk from the hut; and for many days The Snowflake Collector had been lying on the ground in the snow, on his back, his eyes facing up to the sky whence the snowflakes kept on descending.

These eyes, these cheeks, now sunken-in, these bristles of his beard, had long been covered by a blanket of white, and no birds were up here, this time of year, to pluck at the eyeballs, no vermin or hungry beast to tear at his flesh: he was already at rest. When Yanosh wiped the snow off his face, he saw that he’d closed his eyes and fallen asleep, there was no stare, there was no anguish in his features, there was nothing now but the snow.

He had long since grown at one with the universe, The Snowflake Collector, and nothing else mattered now. He had his meaning. He had his hut and his priceless collection of snowflakes which grew every day that the sky brought him snow, he had a friend in Yanosh who came to see him every so often when he was in the country, and a friendly face in Yanosh’s mother Yolanda whom he saw at the inn on the few and fewer occasions he went down there for an ale, and he had the occasional visitor who had seen Yanosh’s pictures of his snowflakes online or read about his collection in an article or heard about it from a local or an acquaintance, or learnt of it from a book.

Very rarely, hardly ever, had he accepted an invitation to go down from the valley and undertake a journey, by bus and by train and sometimes by plane, to one of the cities to address a conference or a symposium or a convention and talk about his understanding of snowflakes.

He knew that he could not communicate his understanding of snowflakes to the world by talking about them, and he couldn’t by writing about them—which he never attempted—and he couldn’t by showing them to Yanosh who photographed them and posted his pictures of them online. But he felt he could perhaps give something back to a universe that had, in the end, and on balance, treated him fairly and with care, by humouring these people who now, now that he no longer craved their attention, clamoured for him and professed that they longed to know of his mind.

He knew, The Snowflake Collector, that snowflakes had many dimensions—seven at least he could think of, but probably more—and he could see these dimensions clearly and distinctly in his mind’s eye even though he knew he would never be able to see them with his physical eye, nor represent them visually, nor show them to Yanosh, or anyone else. He would not be able to explain them, nor would he ever be able to convince anyone in the world that these snowflakes had many dimensions, seven at least, but probably more, because he knew enough of the world and its violent rejection of anything it couldn’t see with its eyes and measure with its instruments and comprehend in the context of its current science, to realise that any attempt of his to do so would remain futile; he knew of the world’s irrational fear of anyone and anything it deemed irrational, and he felt not foolish enough, any more, to argue or make a case.

What he could do, and did do, was to collect these snowflakes in their physical three dimensions as one who knows of their further dimensions and as one who knows that what he was able to show Yanosh, and what Yanosh was able to show the world, was not just less than half of what a snowflake was, but only the tiniest fraction, because he also knew, The Snowflake Collector, that each additional dimension does not add to a thing as much as the previous one, but each additional dimension increases the complexity of the thing exponentially.

He would never, he knew, be able to explain this or convince anyone that this was so, but the thought of it alone made The Snowflake Collector extraordinarily happy; and elated by this happiness, he felt, for the rest of his days on this earth, in his valley, in love. He was in love with George, the first snowflake he had successfully collected by his own particular method, and he was in love with Yanosh whose loyal friendship sustained him, and he was in love with the valley and the mountains that made the valley, and with the stream that ran through it, and with the trees that he planted on the plot of land that he kept by the stream, two young trees for each old tree he cut down, and with the old trees he cut down just as much, and he was in love with Yolanda who served him his dependable ale when he went to the inn on few and fewer occasions, and he was in love with the universe, and he sensed, because of this, the universe, in equal measure, love him.

And he knew, then, The Snowflake Collector, that he would be able to communicate to the world his understanding of snowflakes and their dimensions not through words, not through the snowflakes he collected in the glass cubes that he cut, one inch by one inch by one, not through the pictures that Yanosh took of these snowflakes in their glass cubes, floating in the mysterious, but not magical, gel that he had developed, not through drawing, describing or dancing them, but through love.

And if only one other person—be it Yanosh, or be it Yolanda, or be it a random visitor to his hut, or be it someone who came across him or his snowflakes or his story somewhere—were to experience that love and through that love these dimensions and through these dimensions were to know of the soul of the snowflake, then his work, he was certain, was worthwhile and his communion complete.

He was now, he felt, as he took all the glass cubes from the cases he had carefully crafted, which, over the years, had needed their own formidable shed, and broke each one open and allowed the gel to evaporate and the snowflake he had collected in it to escape back into the universe and become what it needed to become next, and, having spent many hours so freeing his snowflakes, lying down on his back in the snow, welcoming down upon him new snowflakes that he no longer now would collect but simply become a part of, he was now, he knew, as he lay there, after another hour or so closing his eyes and holding his hands open to the sky and allowing the blood to drain from his brain and the pulse to ebb from his temples, he was, now that he had been and no longer needed to be The Snowflake Collector, he was now at one with it all.


< 11: He Was, Now More Than Ever, His Own Man


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The Snowflake Collector – 8: It Was, in Every Imaginable Sense, a Disaster

No matter how Yanosh tried, no matter where he looked and what he put in his search field, the world did not seem to possess for The Snowflake Collector an answer. Innumerable were the sites and video clips that explained how to preserve snowflakes on microscopic slides or small sheets of acetate, using either—as he had been doing—superglue, or hairspray, or an artist’s fixative; and they all arrived, going by the evidence Yanosh could find, at results similar to the ones that The Snowflake Collector so far had reached.

But this, Yanosh knew, for The Snowflake Collector had told him, would not suffice. He would need, The Snowflake Collector had said and determined, a way of collecting his snowflakes in the fullness of their dimensions. And while it may have been the case that in their majority these snowflakes seemed, at first glance, so flat as to fit neatly within a thin layer of superglue trapped between two small plates of glass, The Snowflake Collector knew that this was nothing but a deception. A deception and a crass simplification by the lazy mind.

In reality, all these snowflakes—even the flattest among them, but most certainly those that came in the shape of short studs or even, as often they did, in a formation of nearly flat hexagonal structures enjoined with, or indeed by, short column shaped ones—were miniature crystals of infinitesimal complexity. To squeeze them between two glass plates and store them flat in a wooden case, no matter how carefully crafted, was, to The Snowflake Collector, as looking at the world and declaring it a disk off the edge of which one might fall…

The Snowflake Collector knew, then, that he would have to develop his own substance. He would have to acquire some knowledge, and applying this knowledge he would, through a process of trial and error and elimination, have to come up with a liquid, a gel that would have just the right consistency, that would be clear as glass, and that would dry, at habitable temperatures, with untarnished translucence and would keep the shape and the intricacy and the character of the snowflake he would encase in it, in three dimensions, for the relative eternity he or any other human being could envisage; not an eternity, then, perhaps, but a lifespan of civilisations: the extent of a physically appreciative intelligent presence on this planet.

A deep crisis of confidence soon engulfed him, for Yanosh’s extended research online remained fruitless. The Snowflake Collector now even undertook his rare and adventurous journey two or three times, by yellow bus and little red train and larger green or white train along the lakes into the biggest of any of the cities in his country, and to the enormous library of the university there, to study the properties of chemical solutions at different temperatures and their reaction to coming in contact with ice.

But hours and days and nights and weeks and months of toil both in theory in the city and in practice at home in his valley did not yield up to him any liquid or gel or substance of any kind that would catch a snowflake and leave it intact and absolutely unharmed, suspended in a glass cube in three dimensions, one inch by one inch by one.

The Snowflake Collector sensed the end of the season draw near, and with it he felt this abyss of despair once more gape open before him, calling him to fall, drawing him close to surrender, willing him to give in. He did not feel, The Snowflake Collector, that if in this undertaking, as in so many others before, he failed, he would find the strength, the courage, the spirit to pursue it again the next winter. Or any other endeavour. He was now, he felt certain, exhausted, spent. He had given the universe his all, and the universe had, once more, rejected his offering. Yet again, crushed by defeat and destroyed by his own, maybe lofty, ambition, he had exerted himself, but he had not excelled. It was, in every imaginable sense, a disaster.

The snow melted. The stream, where he had a small plot of land on which he planted two young fir trees for each mature one he cut down, had already swollen with the water from the fast disappearing masses of white that had covered the meadows and the sharp inclines of the mountainside, and The Snowflake Collector was no more. He had ceased to exist, his purpose evaporated like the miserable puddle of water left on the window sill from the erstwhile snow, with the warm morning sun. The devastation was drawn into the furrows of his troubled forehead, and when Yanosh now came to sit with him outside his hut, their silence was one of sadness and loss.

The stale stench of failure now clung about him, The Snowflake Collector knew, and he felt despair not just for himself but also for Yanosh. This friend. This loyal lad, still growing up, still becoming a person. Had he not let him down terribly too. Had he not drawn him into his project and made him a part of it, and did the ruins of it now not lie scattered before his innocent eyes, his young heart cut and bleeding; for what? A delusion? A whim? A fantasy? For a false and forever frustrated illusion that there could be such a thing as meaning, as purpose, as friendship and love?

Tears ran down The Snowflake Collector’s face and fell on the cold folded hands in his lap and he felt he was already dead. Yanosh could not bear to look at him. But he sat still by his side and bore with him his pain. And thus they remained, awaiting in silence the dread bounce of spring.


< 7: Every Day Brought New Gifts Now

9: So as Not to Chase Away its Wonder >


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{Displacement}

As I sit watching George sip his mojito, slowly, deliberately, the memories of the past and the memories of the future congeal to form a slush into which my brain slowly dissolves. I feel it already trickling out of my ear. The right one, as my head is somewhat rightward inclined.

I was, I was beautiful. I never once thought so then, and I most certainly don’t think me so now, but looking at myself then I cannot escape this devastating realisation: I was really beautiful.

My best friend in London, Michael, once asked, when looking at a picture of me from my teens, ‘how did this’—he points at the picture—‘turn into this’: he gestures at me. Between me and George lie three decades of the unknown.

Must it, though, must it be so unknown. If I’d known then what I know now would I not have avoided so many mistakes? Would these regrets, three or four only, maybe, but two or three of them profound, not simply have turned into gorgeous memories of ever fulfilling wistfully relivable ecstasy? Unaided?

Soon, I want to say to my young self, you’ll meet, quite by chance, a boy who is so roundly adorable, so sunny, so sweet, so entirely lovely, that you’ll feel in a trance for six days around him. He will call you, on your answerphone, and say: ‘Hello, it’s Stefan here, I’m a friend of Soandso who’s a friend of Beatrice. She said I could give you a call and maybe stay with you for a few days in London?’ Once you live in London, George, you will have friends and friends of friends, and of course family and friends of family come to visit: you will not want for guests!

On this particular occasion though you may not be so keen, you may only just have arrived in your first flatshare and not know the others too well, but in particular also your best friend from school, Peggy, may be staying with you, for six weeks as it happens. How you ever got that past your still new flatmates whom you don’t really know yet will be beyond you once you get to the stage where you are me. But be that as it may, you will think—and Peggy will agree—and you both will be pretty much of a mind, that the last thing you need, or even want for that matter, is some strange boy who happens to be the friend of really in all seriousness an ex-girlfriend of yours to come and spoil your quality time together for you. You’ve never been one to say no, though, so you say yes, but you don’t want to change your plans, and your plans for the night he arrives are to go to the theatre with Peggy, and so you say to him, just ring the buzzer, there’ll be somebody around to let you in while we’re out; you can sleep on the sofa, make yourself at home.

So you go out with your best friend from your school days, Peggy, and you have a lovely time, and then you get back home, and on the sofa there is this unbearably cute little face, tucked into a sleeping bag, happy as peaches in lala-land, and you know you’re already a little in love. And you both look at him in unabashed wonder and you decide to let him sleep and when you all wake up in the morning you all feel like you’ve always been friends, and from then on you do practically everything together, you go out together, you drink together, you dance together; and at one point, and you don’t quite know how, probably because Peggy happens to be at school, she is, after all, here to learn English, you find yourselves sitting next to each other on your slim single bed and he’s wearing his funky skintight jeans and no top and you are wearing whatever it is you are wearing at the time, probably black, and you will nearly but not quite put your hand on his thigh or his hand and you bask in his presence and you cannot get over how beautiful is his torso, and how charming his smile and how big his blond hair, and you don’t know how you do it but somehow you let the moment pass and nothing happens at all and you won’t ever quite understand how you let that happen, because soon after he leaves and you write to each other once or twice only and he says something along the lines of he liked you and how wonderful a time you had together and that maybe it was better that nothing happened that day, it would only have spoilt things. This you will never be quite able to believe, you will forever know, deep at heart, that kissing him, holding him, caressing him, touching him, being with him would not have spoilt anything, it would simply have made those six days complete.

There’ll be that, I want to tell my young self: don’t let it happen like that, don’t let that moment pass. Live it, grab it, make a fool of yourself, risk him saying you’re overstepping a mark. It may be embarrassing, it may feel painful and cruel if he rejects you, but so is this, so is knowing you didn’t seize that day, that half day even, so is knowing you lived one afternoon less than you could have, as it turns out should have done. One afternoon? An early lifetime. Precious, precious days, while you are young. I want to extend my arm and put my tan and since late slightly freckled hand upon George’s. When do you stop thinking ‘what will he think?’ At what point will you simply not care? But then, should you not care? Is not the other person as far away from you as you are from them? Could not they make the first move, or say the first word; be first to break the glass that divides you?

And then it hits you, out of the blue: they don’t see the glass! They send all the signals, they make all the moves, they simply wonder why you don’t respond, and you wonder how can they not know that you’re surrounded by a bell made of glass: the sounds are muffled, the scent is dead, the gestures distorted, the temperature inside is always too high. The effort it takes you to break through to them is gargantuan. They just smile and think it strange that you barely smile back; the way that you read them would to them be entirely unintelligible. Suddenly it strikes you: you’re under a bell, George, and you don’t even know it.

I reach out to myself, but not to my hand, I put my hand on my shoulder instead. That seems to be more in tune with the overall situation. Oddly, this doesn’t surprise young me. George looks back at me, half-knowing, half expectant; a look that, as a youth, you might give your grandparent who’s about to say something really obvious, like: you’re an intelligent boy.

Being thus indavertently cast in the role of my dad’s father or my mum’s mother startles me and I withdraw my hand, almost too quickly. I need to think of a reason for having put it on my shoulder in the first place and so I say: ‘If you ever come to London, you must get in touch.’ It sounds like a disingenuous offer, saying this to my younger self, but with anyone else in a comparable case it would be perfectly genuine, and pure of intent, too.

He nods gravely. It hasn’t quite done the trick, I’m convinced, but George here seems to be un-further-perturbed. ‘This is nice,’ he says, in the involuntary generic understatement of the youth who hasn’t yet mastered the language, about his mojito. It’s oddly appropriate. This is nice, I agree without saying it, and instead I ask him if he wants another. Knowing now who I’m with, it doesn’t surprise me that he says ‘sure?’ with an upward inflexion that suggests question where there ought to be assertion. The young. If only I could make it lighter for you, thinner, the bell, more penetrable, the fortress of isolation around you. You will find a way. You will find a way: I have found a way, so will you.

Advice time. I’m about to say something along the lines of: just do what you want to do your way, or, it’s not going to be so easy, you know, but you’ll somehow muddle through, or, deep in your heart you know that no matter what the ups and the downs, you’re on a fairly stable track, like a roller coaster. And then it strikes me how ludicrous that is.

You’re not on a track at all, you’re in free flow. You have no way of knowing what’s right or wrong for you, you have to find out step by perilous step. Sometimes it will feel ridiculously easy and other times it will feel impossible. They will not understand you. Seriously. They will smile, but they will think: what the fuck? You have the right to be whoever, whatever you want to be, everybody else has the right to think what the fuck. At times you will feel: nobody gets me. At all. You will be so alone in the world that you will want to sit in a corner and cry, and you will sit in the corner and cry. You will need to be stronger than you ever thought you could be, because sometimes they will not just think what the fuck, they will hate you and say so. And you will wonder what have I ever done to you that you hate me, I have written some words. I have thought some thoughts. I have put them out there. Ah, I have trodden on your reality by putting them out there. And then you have to say to yourself: I have the right to write words and think thoughts and to put them out there, they have the right to hate me for it. It is not wise nor generous, nor really humane, but sadly it’s only human of them if they do so. Forgive them for being human.

Angular waitress is still nowhere to be seen, so once again I hold my hand up to Ahmed who takes my order for two more mojitos. ‘These are nice,’ I say to Ahmed, unnecessarily, ‘could we have two more, please.’ I wonder should I ask him at the same time if he knows a good place for me to stay, like a hotel he can recommend somewhere nearby, but then I realise what this might sound like to him, so instead I wait until Ahmed has gone, and I ask George here where he is staying. ‘Round the corner, at a hostel.’ To my utter relief George doesn’t ask me where I’m staying: I just realise what a potential trap I’ve set myself, when it occurs to me that I have a discontinuity here. At the time when I’m George, this place most likely doesn’t exist. It’s too now. So, past me is in my world, not I in the world of past me. But my world at this point ought to be Kingston-upon-fucking-Thames. Practical considerations and logic have both been rendered imponderable, by what I know not.

What do you want to be when you grow up? I ask myself and I notice I’m not saying this out loud and so I can’t tell whether this is Now Me asking Young Me or Young Me asking Now Me or Now Me asking Now Me or Young Me asking Young Me or all of Me at the same time.

Sundown. I shall wait until sundown. I shall hold out as long as George here holds out. I will I will just stay with me until sundown.


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7 The Space Boy

He is a quietly spoken wonder, a boy who has never grown up; a spacealien of the loveliest nature, a Zebedee who has bounced off his Magic Roundabout and somehow found himself in a world full of people: I adore him.

Where Laniakea’s fibrous filaments’ ends disentangle from her neighbour’s, to float, as jellyfish through water, amid dark matter in slow, rhythmic pulses, the Space Boy has sought out a moment of respite for comfort and warmth and sat down with me in a Camden pub with a pint each of ale, autumn time.

I love him, Space Boy, in a way I love few. He’s about to get married. He doesn’t mean to marry; every signal his subconscious mind emits says he doesn’t want to, and every action that his conscious mind commands says he must.

He doesn’t send out his invitations, he forgets arrangements, postpones, prevaricates. He talks, on the verge of getting drunk with me, about the revelation his sister-in-law-to-be gave him when she told him it was a continuum, not an either thing or an or, a this thing or that. Clearly he senses himself on that spectrum, somewhere towards the brighter colours, but, that light notwithstanding, he’s lost. Will no-one hie to his rescue?

I can’t. I once nearly did. We’d stood facing each other, our hands on each other’s arms; and our lips almost touched. Then his brother walked in and the moment had gone: the night was spent in separate corners of the universe; I in mine, he in his. With that moment gone, all moments like it were gone, but my affection for him hasn’t waxed or waned like the moon, nor shall it: steady as a star it remains even now that he doesn’t want to and knows he doesn’t want to but knows he is about to tie himself in a knot.

Laniakea drawing away from Perseus-Pisces. I have a feeling this isn’t slow. The more I look at the Space Boy and listen to him expound on the vibrations, on the music of the spheres, on how tuned we are into each other, the more I know that what to us seems imperceptibly slow and unfathomably deep and incomprehensibly vast and impenetrably dark is bursting with energy, is replete with substance, is contained in a thought, and is teeming, teeming with life; and with life comes death and with death comes disintegration and with disintegration comes decomposition and with decomposition come component particles and with component particles come clusters of mass that attract each other and with clusters of mass that attract each other come new constellations and with new constellations come configurations and with configurations come potentialities and with potentialities come energy fields and with energy fields comes communication and with communication comes connection and with connection comes communion and communion is love and love is energy and the Space Boy and I are that energy and our minds are a dance and dancing is joy and joy is the present and the present is now and now is forever and forever is what we want it to be…

The Space Boy and I are lying on our backs on the ground looking up at the sky. The sky is plastered with empty silvery foil sleeves into which he will pour his spirited being. ‘I never want to not hold you dear,’ I whisper and rest my head on his chest looking down into the endlessness that ends where another begins. We are at a synapse in god’s brain and god is our own idea of our meaning: no wonder we sense god’s grace when we feel the pulse of a heart and bathe in the brainwaves of our fellows, our friends.

The Space Boy leaves me to think myself humble and rich. Has not he travelled lightyears to be here, to share one thought with me only? I treasure this thought and keep it inside my head where I know it won’t be contained: once thought, a thought is already encompassed in our common conscious, and he knows and I know and they know and you; we all know:

We all are one.


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5 Surrender

There are plenty of reasons to suppose that we should, and should be able to, learn. In every other sphere of life this seems to work just fine: you burn your hand on the hot handle of a saucepan on the hob, you know better next time. Maybe not next time, but the time after. You wobble on your bike a few yards as a boy with your older brother or your friends or your dad holding on to it and they shout ‘go!’ and ‘faster!’ and you go faster and they let go of the bike and you stay upright and you have the hang of it and you can now ride a bike. You may still fall off occasionally, but the principle is down and you can tick that off your list. You practise and practise and practise the piano and if you have a modicum of talent and a bit of a musicality in your ear you will become passably good at playing. If you have a lot of talent and a great deal of musicality and love what you’re doing you may become exceptionally good and turn into a professional musician, a concert pianist; if you are god’s gift to improvisational jazz, you may become Keith Jarrett. Languages. Mathematics. History. Even writing, people even teach writing, which suggests people learn it. Chemistry. Not love though. Not the chemistry of love. Not the mystery of love. Not the vexation of love. Not the love of love.

Lukas (who’s not really called Lukas either, I’m changing his name too, though I doubt he will read this, and if he does, I doubt he will recognise himself) does to me what dozens of men before him have done, never deliberately, hardly ever even aware, most certainly not with any ill intentions: he infatuates me. In him. Is infatuate a transitive verb? In a passive sense? If I am now infatuated, that would suggest I have been infatuated and since I can hardly infatuate myself—unless I sport a substantial streak in narcissism—the person who infatuates should, if logic had anything to do with it, by definition be the infatuator, with the person who’s infatuated the infatuatee. Logic has very little to with it. Lukas is a little taller than me and a little younger. I’ve always wanted to be a little taller than I am (though I am not, by averages, short) and while I spent the whole of my teens wanting to be older, and never really in that sense since have wanted to be substantially younger than I actually am, I relate well to people who are a little younger, partly because part of my brain has not really caught up yet with my actual age, and partly because another part of my brain has always been far ahead. Age doesn’t really matter to me. Or so I like to believe, though the seconds ticking away so implacably, two and a half billion of them, give or take a few: that troubles me.

Lukas (and I like the name Lukas, not least because I now associate it with the man I have off the top of my head given it to), is German, though you wouldn’t immediately think so: his accent makes him sound more like a Dutchman who’s spent a lot of time in the States, or a Europeanised American. He and his girlfriend have joined the choir together, and on the first evening of the new term he sits next to me, and I feel like a schoolboy. I feel like the schoolboy precisely who fell in love with Michael when he joined our class, he aged seven, most of us then aged eight. This is ridiculous. I know it is ridiculous, and my young brain infuriates at the idiocy of my heart, while my old brain manages a smile that sits halfway between condescending and indulgent. Of course you are now infatuated, it says, my old brain, to heart. Worry not. Like all previous infatuations this one shall pass, and you will laugh about it later. Soon, in fact, because I have so much experience now, so much insight—very nearly wisdom—to give you and to ease the imminent transition from infatuation to friendship imbued with love of the friendship kind, a love that is unentangled, appreciative, mutual, but free.

You idiot! says my younger brain, you child, you pubescent teenager: you, at the age of fifty are allowing yourself a crush on somebody who has just introduced you to his girlfriend and who is absolutely certain to fancy you about as much as his grandfather’s drinking pal Ralph. (I like the idea of Lukas having a grandfather with a drinking pal called Ralph, and I feel slightly flattered that I should remind him of him. That’s how absurd I am at this moment…)

There is nothing to be done. When he misses a couple of rehearsals, I miss him. When he returns, my heart leaps. In the break, when he’s standing, chatting to his girlfriend, I join them. I make a point of talking to her as much as to him, so she doesn’t feel left out, but I really only have eyes for him. It is ridiculous, even pathetic, but thoroughly enjoyable too.

Maybe that’s what this is about: maybe the reason the heart won’t learn is not just because it doesn’t really have to, and not so much because it can’t, but simply because it doesn’t actually want to: the pleasure of being a little in love, of being infatuated, of being just a tad drugged by endorphins is just too great to forego forever. And why should it: this kind of love doesn’t cause any harm. It’s not even causing pain, curiously. In the past it did. In the past, I would get over my infatuations through pain. That is no longer the case. Probably because while the heart steadfastly refuses to learn, the head is really quite capable now of putting it all in its place.

Also in the choir is another sweet man who is quite a bit younger and quite a bit shorter and maybe also a little bit rounder than me. And he’s roundly adorable too. I just want to hug him, every time I see him. He reminds me of Paddington Bear. How could you not cuddle Paddington Bear? And until not so long ago there was a young man who was just very beautiful. Or so I thought. I don’t think I ever spoke more than about three and half sentences with him. And of course there was Edward…

George looks at me puzzled. ‘I think you should go with the heart,’ he finally says in a calm measured tone, looking me straight in the eye. I’m momentarily stumped until—dragged out of my reverie—I remember my question: what does he make of the heart?

Really?’ I surprise myself with my surprise. I mean: I agree with him, but isn’t he the one who too often has precisely not done that, and now he’s telling me?… ‘Yes.’ He speaks with a slight accent and a tone that makes him sound a little aloof and a little bemused and a little detached and a little curious, too. I remember being all of these very well, but I don’t remember sounding them. ‘The only times I’ve ever been unhappy was when I did not follow my heart. You know: “you regret the things you haven’t done, never the things you did…”’ Yes, but: you’re telling me? If I knew this then, and he’s probably right, I knew this then, then how come I still make exactly the same mistakes?… hang on. Did I not just say they’re not, maybe, mistakes, at all, they’re maybe just: my modus operandi.

‘Assuming, George, you could find the ideal partner for yourself, who would that be?’

‘Oh I don’t think such a person exists.’ – He doesn’t even have to think about it.

‘Why don’t you think so?’ I’m beginning to feel a little inadequate, talking to myself, aged twenty-one.

‘Well, because there is no ideal person. For anyone. People just accommodate each other and get used to each other’s foibles, and when they find somebody who they can bear more than they can bear being alone, they settle with them, for as long as that’s true, and sometimes quite a bit longer, mainly because they can’t be bothered going through the hassle of separation. Or because they’re comfortable enough. Or because they’re afraid.’

‘And you?’

‘Oh I’m not afraid.’

I thought as much, but I need to be sure: ‘Can you bear being alone?’

‘I love being on my own. I love being with people, and I love being on my own. I need a lot of time and a lot of space for myself. I function exceptionally well on my own.’

That is so true. That was true then, that is true now. Thank you, George: I function exceptionally well, on my own. Thank you. But does that necessarily mean I couldn’t function even better with someone? Ah, here we go again…


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4 Maxl (Still Here)

I wake up to a horrible dream. It’s so horrible I don’t want to think about it, it could well be the second most horrible dream I’ve ever had, and I take issue with horribleness, so I go back to sleep once again and I don’t continue to dream, which I’m glad on.

Maxl knocks on the door and wakes me up; I’m already half awake but that means I’m also half asleep and I’m hugging a pillow for comfort. He asks if I’m all right; I am puzzled: he’s never been this concerned about me before. He says he’s concerned about me.

Maybe I made horrible noises in my horrible dream, it’s possible. I blink at him and say, ‘yes,’ and I’m about to go back to sleep once again; he says ‘it’s nearly half two,’ which in German means half one but means nothing to me at the moment because they’ve put the clocks forward last night and I don’t do mornings at the best of times.

Maxl rustles about in my room while I drift back off to sleep. He keeps much of his stuff in my room, so it’s a bit like having a live-in partner, without the partner, it’s a bit like a lose-lose situation: the worst of both worlds. The good thing I suppose: we don’t argue. Though he moans at me.

Maxl moans at me about England. For England: every day he comes back from college or from the bank or from the tube or from the post office or from the supermarket or from the park or from the cafe or from the pub or from the pavement, moaning at me. Every day.

He is German, so he’s used to hyper-efficiency; he also lives in Berlin when he’s not here, so he’s used to an agreeable level of anarchic socialism. Objectively, I agree with most of what he complains about, but the complaining itself bugs me, every day, about everything.

That and the fact that he moans at me in German: he makes it sound as if I were responsible. Maybe I am responsible. Maybe my quiet acquiescence to all things British, to all things English, to all things London, has made me complicit in bringing about a college that charges an arm and a leg but that has embarrassingly poor facilities and a bunch of students who, instead of standing up for their ideas and their rights and their freedoms, do everything they’re told, as they’re told, and for a bank that charges an arm and a leg in fees and makes opening a bank account as much of a deal as if you were asking the Emperor of China for a slice of Tibet, and a tube that charges you an arm and a leg but shuts down for weekends at a time and that runs late because one of their drivers has a bout of the sniffles and that goes on strike at the whiff of a comma in a staff manual being changed and that stops running at midnight when half the population is still about town enjoying themselves, and for a post office that I can’t think of what they might be doing wrong off the top of my head but I can easily imagine that in Germany they run their post offices in a way that is altogether more, well, German, and for a supermarket that installs machines that talk at you instead of employing people who serve you, and for a park that is actually pretty much perfect if you ask me but that if you’re German you’ll probably nevertheless find something to moan about, and for the cafe that I can’t I’m losing my will to live…

The pubs close too early, I know, and the trains are a nightmare, get over it, it’s London, this, innit.

I can’t be doing with this much moaning, and I realise that much as I love him, if Maxl were my husband I would have to ask him for a divorce now. That would be terrible. Fortunately he’s only a very good friend, and I can love him even though he moans at me because I know I don’t have to own any of this beyond the level to which I just have to own my share of this culture that so irks him. Better still, much as I love Berlin—and I love Berlin, and I always, always still keep a metaphorical suitcase there—I don’t have to move to Berlin with him just because he doesn’t like London. I actually think he quite likes London, which also makes me think that maybe moaning is just a default state of his, and so he maybe also moans about Berlin! At his girlfriend! (Phew!)

I don’t know, and I don’t want to speculate because I’m troubled by my horrible dream, which I don’t want to think about, and I also don’t want to seem ungrateful or ungracious or ungenerous. I don’t want to seem or to feel un-anything. I love Maxl (I’ve changed his name here, by the way, because I don’t want to get him into trouble, nor do I want him to think that I don’t love him just because he moaned at me), and I am grateful to him for being a good, loyal friend, and I graciously accept the gift of insight that even someone you love can get on your nerves to the point where you are quite prepared to wrestle them to the ground and slap them with a very wet fish, and I want to retain and hold on to the generosity of spirit that says live and let live, love and let love, be and let be. And I realise I am actually moaning about somebody moaning at me. Which is a little ironic. And I like little ironies. Though I still don’t like moaning. Which I suppose makes it doubly ironic… And the whole experience reminds me acutely why I so much enjoy being single.

I feel tempted to tell George about this, but obviously I don’t because I don’t want to prejudice him against Maxl or against me. And I certainly don’t want to tell him about the horrible dream, which he’d be bound to want to know more about, the way I know George…


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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 now saddens 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. A wave of abject sadness washes over me. 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 adrenaline 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 then, 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 this 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 know it 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 Benjamin. He’s not had an easy ride. ‘I have a son,’ he says. ‘I have a tooth missing.’ He’s been through addiction and 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 said, 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 doing so, 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 has 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 cafe and spend a whole day talking, maybe getting drunk a little. On whatever.

I look at George looking at me, and I 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 now know everything I need to know 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 cafe, around then. The cafe is just a class room, converted for the day; or maybe it’s a small hall. I remember the feel of a converted class room. The room is full, there is a table with five or six people at it, in conversation. Two or three of them we already know. To the others, we introduce ourselves. One of them turns around: ‘Ich bi dr Benjamin.’ My world has never been the same again.

‘Tell me, George,’ I finally say, the mojito giving me licence to talk: ‘what do you make of the heart?’


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