Saturday, April 4, 2015

. . . NOT FOR SISSIES

     You may have read this piece before, but bear with me. I published it a few years ago but, I’m 84th this month, and somehow that makes it even more poignant.        

I’m an average-looking old guy of medium height, with all my own hair and pretty well all my teeth. You wouldn’t look at me twice at me in the street, and if you needed to ask a passer-by for directions, you surely wouldn’t pick me. No, you’d pick someone who looked more approachable and genial, or more user-friendly, as they say these days.
     It’s not that I look menacing or anything. It’s just that, with my face in repose, advancing age – okay, let’s be honest, advanced age -- has given me a decidedly stern and somber look. In fact, you might take me for a curmudgeon. My mouth turns down and, with the lines on my face, you might reasonably suppose me to be bad-tempered and humorless, even sour.
     Of course, the exact opposite is true, I’m kind to babies and small children, I brake for squirrels, and feel guilty when I have to kill even a moth or an ant. I certainly wouldn’t harm a mouse or a muskrat, so you might well say I’m a have-a-heart kind of person. And when it comes to humor I can be almost funny on occasions. Well, at least amusing.
     They say that growing old’s not for sissies. They’re right. This gruff exterior makes me sad and wistful. I know you only have my word for it but once, as a soldier, a bridegroom, a soccer dad, and even on the first rungs up the corporate ladder (something by which we foolishly tend to measure success and failure) I was – I blush to say this – pretty good looking. What happened to that dashing young captain who sits in a silver photo-frame on my wife’s writing desk?
     Time happened, that’s what. Okay, we all change with age, but in varying degrees. A lot of friends who are older than I (yes, there are still some) have nice, open faces and pleasant smiles. So why don’t I?
     My wonderful wife, Lynn, normally a paragon of kindness, jokes about my glum appearance. She laughs aloud at the pictures in my passport and driver’s license.
     “Why didn’t you smile?” she says. “I was smiling,” I tell her.
     I really was. Inside me, I could feel that cheery upturned mouth and the warm twinkle in the eye but, somehow, when the pictures came out, all that was missing was a prison uniform, or a string of numbers hanging on a board around my neck.
My late mother-in-law, a lovely old lady with a Giaconda smile and handsome dark eyes, was a fountain of wise saws and sayings. One of these was that the living’s on the inside. By that she meant that many plain pug-ugly or unprepossessing people, and inanimate things, too, are often beautiful on the inside. She applied this especially to homes in mean, run-down streets, and to homely people, but the message was clear: never take anything at face value; instead, search for the beauty within.
     She was right, wasn’t she? All the same, we still go on making judgments based on external appearances. More than in most countries, we Americans put an impossibly high premium on good looks. Not so elsewhere. In my native Britain, and elsewhere in Europe, many relatively plain men and women have made it right to the top on stage and screen. They wouldn’t even have landed a walk-on part on Broadway, or in Hollywood.
Don’t laugh, but behind my fossil-like façade I still believe that, physically and mentally, I’m that young man in the silver picture frame. My wife and I  published a novel a few years ago, a thriller set in exotic South East Asia. Mark Gregson, the hero (they call heroes protagonists these days), is a young ex-Army officer. In my head and heart I’m still thirty-two year old Gregson, chasing heroin traffickers through the jungle; racing up three hundred steps in pursuit of thugs; saving his lovely girlfriend from drowning and, in the nick of time, disarming a booby trap under the hood of his hired car. The flesh may well be a little weaker, but the spirit’s still willing and, yes, the living really is on the inside.
     King Duncan, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth knew just what he was on about when he said: “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.”
So if you’re in your thirties, or even much older than that, kindly remember this when you pass some old geezer in the street.
Go on, smile at him, it might be me.

oo0oo






Saturday, March 14, 2015

BANANA SPLIT

There was something almost ritual and ceremonial about it all, and even though there were fewer than two hundred of us, it seemed like some kind of re-enactment of the biblical Feeding of the Five Thousand.


But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's start at the beginning. The year was 1942, and Britain was in the third year of World War II. The place was Cranbrook School in Southeast England, and I was eleven years old.


The most frequent topic of conversation at the school during those dark days -- and especially during our dull school meals -- was food. We were, well , consumed by it! Later on, of course, the subject changed to girls, but we hadn’t discovered them yet in our non-co-ed school. We talked wistfully about food because it was severely rationed. Nazi U-boats and battleships were attacking and sinking our merchant ships bringing food from countries in the British Empire. They destroyed an incredible 3000 cargo ships during the war. Besides this, during the enemy occupation of Europe, we were deprived of food or anything else from other countries.


What we missed most were commonplace things that we'd blithely taken for granted before the War, but were now in short supply, such as cheese, sugar, eggs and chocolate. Then there were all the fruits that don’t grow in Britain’s sun-deprived climate: oranges, lemons, tangerines, pineapples, dates, figs and, missed most of all, bananas. We hadn't seen or tasted a banana for nearly three years. We yearned for banana fritters, sherry trifle with bananas on top, bananas and cream, banana sandwiches in the carefree days when you could simply pick up a banana, peel it and chomp on it.


Then, out of nowhere, a boy called Lou Taylor came into our lives and, just once during the six years of the War, enabled us to savor the taste of bananas – and in the oddest circumstances.


Lou Taylor was a shy, gangling, floppy-haired beanpole of a kid in my class, the son of an American diplomat. We took to him at once, but mimicked him mercilessly, and nicknamed him Long Island Lou. Unlike the rest of us, he often received parcels from his grandparents, aunts and uncles in America, and I have to admit that he owed a part of his popularity to the fact that he always shared these goodies with us. For the first time we discovered such trans-Atlantic wonders as Twinkies, Hershey bars, Oreos, bubble gum, Pepsi and Coke.


One morning, a Studebaker with Diplomatic Corps insignia drew up outside the headmaster's elegant Queen Anne house, into which a chauffeur carried a big cardboard box. Lunch was nearly over a few hours later in the big dining-hall, when two kitchen maids brought in an armful of bananas, and set them on the table in front of Dr. C. Russell Scott, the headmaster and his wife. Immediately, Mrs.Scott – known to us all because of her bird-like appearance as The Crow – began to peel them and heap them around a chopping board that was by now on the table in front of her husband.


What was going on here? Scott rose to his feet and, grasping his coat lapels with both hands (a habit that had always made him easy to imitate) announced that the bananas had been sent by Lou Taylor's parents, who’d suggested they be shared with all the boys in Lou’s house. However, the headmaster told us, Lou had generously suggested that this rare, unobtainable fruit be divided not only among the sixty or so boys in his house, but with all of the school's nearly two hundred boarders.


While everyone watched, intrigued, Scott and The Crow began slicing up the bananas into pieces about one inch thick and, in a few minutes, bowls of these were passed around the tables. The headmaster, his wife and the staff at the top table seemed to have made a generous and selfless gesture, because none of them partook of this divine dessert.


It's surprising how long you can take to eat a one-inch slice of banana when you put your mind to it. Some of the boys sliced each little portion into four or five smaller slivers, while others chopped off tiny pieces with a teaspoon. A few less impressionable boys gobbled down their share in a single mouthful.


When we'd all finished, the headmaster led a round of applause for Lou, who shrank, blushing in his seat.


Anyone hearing this story about 70 years later must think it weird that so many people of any age would share so small a collection of bananas in such an earnest and solemn way, as though receiving some sacrament. But in wartime even the most everyday thing becomes a luxury. We’d all grown a little obsessive and fixated about our long lost pleasures.


Look at it this way – what little daily luxuries do you enjoy most? Coffee, perhaps, or cognac, chocolate chip cookies, champagne, caviar or Camembert? Now, whatever it is, imagine you’ve been deprived of it for three whole years, and have absolutely no idea when or whether you’ll ever see it again. Then you’ll begin to fathom what that nostalgic ritual was all about.






ooo0ooo


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

LAZY SAINT

Lazy Saint

1860 was a vintage year. Abraham Lincoln was elected president, and Annie Oakley was born. In Europe the year marked the birth of Chekhov and Mahler, and Britain’s launch of HMS Warrior, the first iron battleship. A far less celebrated person was also born that year in England. She was Mabel Harris, my grandmother who, though she may not have made it up there among those notables, would rate a few pages in anyone’s family history.
Besides being a devoted mother, Mabel – everyone called her May -- was a painter, author, musician and a bit of a mystic. She was deeply religious, with a devotion to which only converts to Catholicism can aspire. Many people said she was a saint but, when I was about eight, I looked her up in Volume I of Butler’s Lives of the Saints, and was disappointed not to find her there.
As a young woman, May was a startling beauty -- part Wagnerian diva and part Pre-Raphaelite artist’s model -- tall, with wavy, braided brown hair and an hourglass waist. So it wasn’t surprising that John Harris, a mustachioed realtor, fell deeply in love with her and, in her 30s -- late in life for those days – married her and presented her with seven children in just over ten years: Margaret, John, Eleanor, Isabel, Katherine, Andrew, and my mother, Peace.
But the marriage wasn’t to last for long. John Harris, who had a lifelong passion for port wine and pretty women, vanished one night around 1905, leaving May the house they lived in, but no money and no income. Shortly after her husband’s disappearance, Andrew, who had been born stone deaf, was killed in the street by a runaway horse. A year later, Eleanor was crippled by polio.
May was distraught with concern for her family. To feed them and pay the doctor’s bills, she sold the large house in a prosperous section of the beautiful city of Winchester, and the family moved to a smaller, less expensive one near the North Foreland lighthouse outside Broadstairs, a little seaside town overlooking the English Channel. This move realized enough money to cover the necessities of life, but there were seven children to feed and educate. May’s father-in-law, who was fond of her and the children, came to the rescue. Ashamed of what his son had done, he not only provided financial security for May for the rest of her long life, but also put his many grandchildren through private schools.
There’s an intriguing legend about May’s conversion to Catholicism. Late one winter afternoon, she was playing the organ, alone, at Minster Abbey, a remote, marshy place on the Thames Estuary, where a monastery was founded in the 7th Century. She looked up and saw a monk in a shadowy gallery overlooking the choir stalls. He was beckoning to her, but though she searched for a door or staircase, there seemed no way up to the gallery. A few days later she met Minster’s Abbot, and told him the story.  He shook his head. There was no way up to that gallery, he said, because it had been closed-up for more than three hundred years.
The result of this phantom summons was that May, an Anglican, very soon became a Catholic. Perhaps buoyed by her new faith, and by the unexpected generosity of her father-in-law, she experienced an upsurge of creativity in her middle age. She took up painting, producing pious Renaissance-style pictures, and sometimes huge flower-pieces as much as six feet wide. One of these, I remember had a none-too-well-disguised patch in one corner after her son, John, had poked some sharp-edged object through the canvas in a fit of temper.
In the 1920s, in her early sixties, May wrote and self-published a novella, First Line of Defence, a 17,000 word story about a woman widowed during World War I. The little book, dedicated to her parish priest, has vivid scenes of air raids by Zeppelins over the town of Broadstairs. Her scenes in the communal air raid shelters deep in the town’s chalk cliffs, are grippingly realistic and evocative, though the story is almost painfully devout.
May was 71 when I was born. I never remember her wearing anything other than black. A call on her was not so much a visit as an audience. When we met, she was nearly always propped up on pillows, dressed in her day clothes on her big bed upstairs. She spent a great deal of time there, and it would have to be said that, if she were indeed a saint, she was a somewhat lazy one. Outside, through the windows, lay the cliffs and, beyond them, the sea, and the room seemed to me like some holy reliquary. There was a large black crucifix over the bed, and statues were everywhere: the Blessed Virgin, Saint Francis of Assisi, Saint Anthony, Saint Theresa, and others. Rosaries dangled from both bedposts on hand for instant use.
Sometimes she’d descend and entertain us on the piano in her elegant Victorian drawing room. Her favorites were the Three B’s – Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, though sometimes she’d tackle short virtuoso pieces by Chopin and Lizst.
I never heard my grandmother raise her voice. My aunts told me that, when they were teenagers, and the Zeppelins came over the Channel in the First World War, they’d all run to her for comfort as the bombs fell and the shrapnel clattered on the roof of the house. Unflappable, and exuding calm, she’d smile and say soothingly “It’ll pass, dears. It’ll pass.”
The only occasion on which anyone recalled May losing her temper was when her children found hefty crates of Belgian chocolate washed onto the beach from a torpedoed tramp steamer. They arrived at her door, grinning with chocolate-smeared faces, proudly presenting their loads of foil-wrapped chocolate bars. But their mother, who feared the chocolate might have been deliberately poisoned and floated ashore by the Germans, flew into a rage and chided them for their lack of caution.  
May Harris died in her sleep in the spring of 1946. She was 86. Peace Birch -- née Harris -- my long-widowed widowed mother, died in Broadstairs forty years later at much the same age. I’ve never returned to the town, where Charles Dickens wrote David Copperfield, and where the mansion that inspired Bleak House broods on the cliff tops. Nor have I ever seen a ghost, but it would neither surprise nor frighten me if, along the narrow path near her house, I were to meet that lazy saint, rosary in hand, on her way to Mass.

                                 oo0oo






Saturday, January 3, 2015

Mr. SPARKS

In England in 1942, when I was eleven and my brother David was almost fifteen, we lived in a house on a hill in the county of Kent. The hill, Stockers Hill was a steep, woody,  curving road that led out of a valley of apple orchards and vegetable fields to Rodmersham, with its neatly mowed village green, its towering, white clapper-boarded windmill, and a circle of trim cottages with diamond-paned windows that seemed to peer out myopically from under thatched eaves.
Half way up the hill,  just before its steepest point, and across the road from our garden gate, there was an oak park bench in an alcove scooped out of a chalky bank, where pedestrians trudging up to the village could sit and recover their breath before laboring to the top.
A high hawthorn hedge, maybe seven or eight feet high, hid the bench from our house, so that any occupants could only be spied from one place, David’s bedroom window. They must have thought themselves invisible, for it was from that window, through slightly parted curtains, that my brother and I once stood speechless while we witnessed the true facts of life, athletically demonstrated on a hot August afternoon by a uniformed American airman and a local girl.
But there was another, more frequent occupant of that bench, an old man whose ancient hairy face is engraved even more vividly in my memory than those of passing lovers. We heard him before we ever saw him, and for a day of two knew him only by his high-pitched, phlegmy cough. My parents listened, sitting in deck-chairs on the lawn, and my mother, looking up from her book, murmured, “There’s a heavy smoker for you!”  But my father, who’d fought and been wounded in the trenches in World War I, said, “No, that’s a war gas victim if ever I heard one.”
On those first few days we listened to the stranger’s cough as he rose from the bench and struggled on up the hill, the sound fading into the trees as he rounded the bend. Then, one day, we heard him through the hawthorn hedge and, slipping upstairs, David and I stared out through the open bedroom window. Lounging on the bench, with his long legs stretched out, and his feet on the curb, a very old man in patched, ragged clothes leaned back with his bearded face turned up to the sun.
And then we saw my mother open the garden gate. What was she going to say to this old man? She walked across the road to where the stranger lolled in the sunshine. His eyes were shut; he might even have been asleep.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” my mother asked.
Evidently, he wasn’t asleep. His face lit up, and he eased himself painfully into an upright position.
“That’d be ever so nice, Mum,” he said. “Thank you kindly.”
It’s not unusual for British people to offer boiling hot tea on a summer’s day, even one as sweltering as that August afternoon. In, fact, there’s a widely held belief that it actually cools you down.  Back in the house, Mother put the kettle on the hob, and rummaged in the back of a closet to find a large, one-of-a-kind china teacup and saucer. On a plate that didn’t even closely match the cup she put several raisin cookies, a small jug of milk, and a few cubes of sugar.
My mother carried a tray to the old man on his bench who, rising, walked a pace or two to meet us.
“That’s proper kind of ya’, Mum,” he wheezed and, taking the tray, he put it on the ground in front of him.
She stood looking at him, which seemed not to disturb him at all.
“Where do you live?” my mother asked.
He didn’t answer her for a while, but leaned down to the tray at his feet with some difficulty, poured some milk into the tea, and stirred in four lumps of sugar. Then he leaned back on his bench, raised the cup to us as though making a silent toast, and took a sip.
The old man beamed. “Now that’s what I call a nice cup of tea.”
He put the cup down on the bench beside him. “I haven’t got no home, really, Mum,” he said. “I’m what they call ‘on the road,’ see? But in the summer time I ‘ave a place I go on the other side of Rodmersham.”
Later, we pondered on where he might take shelter in the winter time, when icy North Easters from Scandinavia swept over the flat, bare counties of Suffolk and Essex and across the wide River Medway a mile or two away. Nor did we know where he went down the hill every morning. And it was a while before we discovered where his ‘place’ was on the other side of the village.
One day soon after we met him, I asked the old man his name.
“Sparks, sonny,” he said, “Why don’t you just call me Mr. Sparks.”
“And how old are you, Mr. Sparks?” my brother asked, unaware that it was impolite to ask this of a perfect stranger.
The old man’s pale blue eyes twinkled. “Now that, young man,” he said with a little chuckle, “would be tellin’.”  
Mr. Sparks became a regular part of our lives. Every day, before he continued up the hill, he carried his tea tray back across the road and laid it on the ground by the garden gate, and we always heard his loud coughing through the hedge when he came back the next afternoon. My father, normally the kindest man, even wondered aloud one day whether some of Mr. Sparks’s coughing wasn’t a subtle way of saying, “Listen, here I am, ready for my cup of tea.”
August passed, and we slipped into a long Indian summer, with cool September mornings and sultry afternoons that lasted into early October. Every afternoon, Mr. Sparks passed by for his cup of tea, and we grew to know him a little better. David and I would sit on either side of him on his bench, listening to the old man’s adventures. We heard tales, in his high, piping voice, of the Zulus and pigmies in South Africa, and the giant Hausa warriors on the river Niger in West Africa. There were horrible accounts of maggots in sea biscuits aboard the troop ships to India, and the agonies of frost bite at the Battle of Balaklava, during the Crimean War. Once we asked him whether he had ever married, or had children, but about this he was vague and evasive.
The first frosts came in October and then, one chilly November afternoon, Mr. Sparks’s bench was empty. A week passed, and another, but still he didn’t come. Should we notify someone and, if so, whom? After all, he’d admitted he was ‘on the road,’ which was a kinder, more friendly way of saying he was a tramp, or vagrant.  Mother suggested he’d moved south to the Sussex or Hampshire coast, where the winters are a little milder.
It was nearly Christmas when we learned more about him. There was early snow in the garden outside, and my father was reading the local paper. At the bottom of a page there was an item that ran for no more than one inch,  telling how Ronald Sparks, aged about 80 years, a former corporal in the Royal Fusiliers, had been found dead after sleeping in the warmth of a lime kiln outside the village of Rodmersham. He was, the coroner said, asphyxiated by carbon dioxide gas that hung over the kilns on cold nights. The cause of death, the report said, was ‘not uncommon.’
Lately, now in the 80s myself, I’ve been thinking about Mr. Sparks and his stories about army life. Could he really have fought in the Crimean War? It took no time with an encyclopedia, many decades before Google,  to find that the war ended in 1856. Even if he’d been a drummer boy at that time, he’d have been more than a hundred years old on that cold December night in 1942. 
So it wasn’t true. It saddens me that I doubted that grand old soldier.
I wish I’d never looked it up.









Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Christmas To Forget

I didn't know it that night, but this was to be the last time I’d see my father.


We sat, my mother, my brother David and I, amid the over-the-top tinsel and decorations in the modest hotel restaurant. My father wore a dark gray suit, stiff white collar and the tie of the Durham Light Infantry, probably the only person among the forty or fifty others in the room to be wearing a tie.


This was his way. It was how he'd been brought up. I can remember him even on sultry August days at Whitstable, sitting with his knees drawn up on the crowded beach with a neatly folded copy of the Daily Telegraph, and wearing a wool serge suit and highly polished black shoes with sock suspenders. He may not have looked it, but he was comfortable.


But now it was Christmas Day, 1957. I was 26, and he'd turned 70 a few weeks before. Looking back, I find it hard to believe that this gaunt, burnt-out man was 13 years younger than I am today.


It was an odd, superficially festive little gathering. We went through the traditional courses of roast turkey with sage stuffing, Christmas pudding aflame in brandy, and mince pies. We pulled the crackers and blew the whistles and read and laughed at the bad jokes that spilled out of them, and we raised our glasses to the future. But the sad truth was that the four of us were strangers to one another, and also that the old man had barely any future left.


David and I never really knew our parents. We were both sent miles away to a boarding school when I was eight. I don't remember ever sharing a feeling or fear with my father or mother. It's not that they weren't kind to us, or even that they didn't love us. It was simply that neither knew how to show affection. The only time my father and I ever touched was to shake hands whenever we met or parted.


Nor have David and I ever known each other well, even though we were together for endless years at school. He was more than three years older than I, and while I had been outgoing, cheeky and garrulous, he was a quiet, solitary boy. My parents never seemed to notice that as a teenager, and later as a man, David had no women friends, and rarely brought home any of his many men friends, who seemed to have oddly diverse social and educational backgrounds.


The meal ended, as Christmas and Easter family dinners always did, with what my father called ‘a nice healthy walk.' When he’d paid the check, counting out the one-pound notes and half-crowns and shillings with care and attention like the bank clerk he’d once been, we faced into the cold sea air, heading for the beach.


It was dark on the steep slope down to the concrete walkway along the sea-front. The tide had turned, and now dragged on the coarse, flinty shingle below us. Out on the horizon the beam of a lightship pulsed. Ahead of my mother and me, David and the old man walked more briskly.


As we strolled along together my mother turned to me. "So how do like your new life, Johnny?"


After eight years in the British Army I was on leave, and in a few days would begin my first civilian job. In the service I'd had a roof over my head, three meals a day, excitement and the company of friends. It had been like living in an expensive gentlemen's club, with my own driver, even my own servant. But suddenly I was alone, friendless in an attic room in London, and about to start a new life. Though I didn't admit it, I felt lost, and a little scared of the future.


I lied in reply to my mother's question. "Fine, Mum. My new life's fine."


"But are you happy?" she asked.


"Happy enough," I said. "What about you?"


My mother took my arm as we walked. It was something she'd rarely done.


"No," she said. "I'm not happy. But then I haven't been for years. Not since I married your dad. Surely you must know that."


I didn't know. I was speechless. Had this happened today, were she still alive, I might have said "Do you want to talk about it?" But I didn't. We walked on.


"What are you thinking?" she asked.


By now we'd fallen back some way behind my father and brother.


"I was wondering . . . well, why you married him," I said, "were things so different then?"


"Not really," she said. "I escaped, you see. You know the story. Your grandfather had walked out years before. There we all were. Mother and five unmarried daughters in that beastly cramped little house at North Foreland. It was like a pressure cooker. Then I met your father at a friend's house. It seemed . . ."


"It seemed what?” I heard a sharp, involuntary edge in my voice.


She looked up. "You're angry, aren't you?" She released my arm. "I'm sorry, I've upset you. But, you see, marrying him just seemed to be the way out at the time."'


My mother changed the subject and we caught up with the others.


"What are you two chatting about?" my father asked, smiling.


My mother laughed. "Oh, you know. Shoes, ships, sealing wax . . .”


Two days later David and I took the train back to London. For weeks I turned my mother's words over and over in my mind, but I never told David.


My father died less than three months later. He went to sleep one night and never woke up. The circumstances were odd. In their final years together, the old man snored heavily, and my parents slept in separate rooms. At least, that was the reason they always gave for sleeping apart. And there was something else; he'd become almost miserly about money and had for years locked the bedroom door behind him, hiding his billfold under his pillow.


Every morning, at seven sharp, my mother would make a cup of tea and take it to his door. She'd knock and there was no answer. My mother climbed a ladder to the open bedroom window to find him dead.


Was it the wine on that Christmas evening that caused my mother's impulsive admission? Or did she need the release of this tragic secret to unburden herself, to share her load? She lived for another 30 years, and died in her 90th year, but she never mentioned it again.


And nor did I.