Three Fishes and a Melancholic Expat

ThreeFishes.jpgDespite being renamed ‘The Royal Charter’, it continued to be known by all as ‘The Three Fishes.’ The pub was originally a gathering place for Forces during the 50’s, eventually becoming infamous for its underage drinkers, hippies, Martin’s
booming speakers and edgy imports, but most significantly as the unofficial marijuana dispensary of Kingston through the 60’s and 70’s, right up to its convenient demolishment in 1986. Not far away, in Hampton Wick, stood a boarded up house that once produced most of London’s LSD that would filter through there, and also much of the world’s before being raided under Operation Julie in the 70’s. Later, Howard Marks would saturate the 80’s market with pressed hashish blocks being cut and quartered in bedsits on cheap bronze scales, using small change as weights. Meanwhile aging hippies on buses lived as a reminder of how you may end up if you dabble in heroin as the Stranglers strummed. back then, strung out addicts and jokers left over from Lou Reed’s heyday lived in the occasional squat, and on in a few hippy buses hidden between the pub and Richmond park, damaged and crazy.

As Kingston’s future was envisioned by the civic planners of the 80’s, it appeared to me to be a response to the excitable street presence that broke out in response to local businesses bordering up their windows expecting a repeat of Brixton, the diverse youth cultures of 1979 in Kingston centre, and regular street mayhem with Mods on the tail end of Quadrophenia being shown at Odeon 7, Punks, and Skinheads haunting the local Wimpy and chip shop opposite the station as they spilled out of pubs and picked fights with each other. This would be a full make over, a clean up, and reinvention of Kingston from the bottom up.

The closures of what seemed to me to be all the pubs and clubs in the city centre that I considered my own, stealthily replaced with riverside cocktail restaurants, and wine bars to sound of Boy George and Duran Duran, I felt as if I was being pushed out of my home town. The real hubs of the established Kingstonians and emergent youth, The Seven Saxons, The Dolphin, The Crown, The Jesters, and numerous others lost to history, even the Kaleidoscope bowed to make way for a gentrified, and pedestrianized Kingston-Upon-Thames. Only the calm saloons, and the haunts of the local constabulary, and firm, such as the Apple Market and the Druid, remained as pubs to survive the 80’s in central Kingston as it grew into a new age, open air shopping mall with The Bentalls Centre as its hub. The ambitious road revamp, and huge Bentalls remodel, not only seemed to push the cars out of the city centre, but it also felt as if someone else’s vision were shutting down all the watering holes perceived as subversive and troublesome, among which the Three Fishes was top of the list.

Often raided by the police, sometimes comically as their young recruits posed unconvincingly in Kaftans and wigs as scouts, while the burley Irish landlord Tom stood glaring outside the gents as a signal that the police were present and a threat not to be stupid, hard rock and Pink Floyd pumping out of the stack of giant speakers over sticky carpets. Meanwhile Road Rats and a few veteran Hells Angels who held a menacing hold and check over the drug trade, were safe across the road in the South Western, their bikes rowed up outside the Three Fishes.

By the mid 80’s The Three Fishers was no more, rubble at the feet of future Kingston. A new wave of snakebite drinking stoners, UB40 holders and fans, rude boys, skins and young Falkland vets became fellow refugees from their strangely octagonal, Seven Saxons once that was also demolished, adding to what felt like a youth clean up and rejection from the city centre. The police in Kingston, and particularly the SPG, really did target us youth, and anyone of color at that time of which there probably only one, a kid called Dwight who had a penchant for hitting people with an extendable umbrella. The Southampton then evolved to fill the gap as the new alternative den pumping music across Surbiton Station before it’s own closure, milder aging hippies having retreated to The Royal Oak, or The Greyhound.

Looking back, 1979 was a pivotal point in both music, popular culture, and the new Kingston. Our grandparents already lamenting the loss of the theaters, bingo halls, and pubs they knew from their own past. Kingston evolved – reinvented, aptly following its roots as a market town into what is effectively now a huge open air shopping mall with an option to buy a copy of Big Issue from someone I probably drank with once. That is how it appeared to me last I came home.

Today, I can return and not find one familiar face, barely a touch stone from my past. Priced out of the property market, I cannot afford to live where I was born, and in someways Kingston is unrecognizable to me. I liken it to the final scene in the original ‘Planet of the Apes’, when walking along the beach, he drops to his knees on seeing a half buried Statue of Liberty, realizing that he has been home all the time. That is how I feel returning to Kingston, having lived overseas since before the changes, when I see the James Walker clock that still hangs above the now pedestrianized street as a reminder, just ahead of what was once the entrance to The Silver Cafe, a mere facade of the original Bentalls only remaining around the corner overlooking a huge underpass that feels so shockingly out of place in my mind. I felt like dropping to my knees and crying. What have they done to my past? What was once a consolidated local community is now a commercial hub in my eyes. No school friends nor family remain for me to find, displaced by property prices and a virtual social realignment. Rich Northerners moved in, the poor moved out.

‘Everyone a capitalist through property ownership’ was Thatcher’s mantra of the day, as all council houses were sold off, not to be replaced. I don’t think my parents realized that the outcome of their property investment would contribute to a loss of ability to remain in our community as an extended family. The loss of identity that would trickle down to their own grandchildren leaves me still feeling displaced and without heritage. Even today, the money our parents abstractly made on the rising property values, will simply cover their own retirement and nursing homes at best. There were no kick backs, my generation merely having to realize that if we had missed out on home ownership before then, we would not be able to afford rent.

I can’t help seeing the demolishing of Three Fishes as a metaphor that in someways encapsulates the changes that unfolded across Kingston thereafter. This was the initial blow, the first to fall, before widespread deconstruction and complete traffic flow reinvention characterized the journey to reinvent post war Kingston, eventually displacing anyone not already on the property ladder. I have tried to return home several times only to find it impossible on a teacher’s salary, even a flat on the foreboding Cambridge Estate would feel like a luxury now. I found far more security and opportunity for my own family overseas as a perpetual expat and displaced Kingstonian. I have lived overseas ever since my last pint in the Three Fishes. Many of the faces I remember are now expats.

If you look closely, up on Kingston Hill, I think you can still see the high tide mark of a local populace that has since receded and given way to market forces and commercialism as a definition of a new community. When my grandmother died as our last surviving family foothold there, she no longer recognized the place in which she anxiously nurtured her family through WW2. She felt quietly cheated by society and Thatcher despite her humble compliance as a citizen, one who had already lost all the men from her own family to trenches, conscription, and sickness, stoic until the end. My family presence in Kingston now only occupies a few urns in cheap plots that themselves will eventually be dug up and resold.

Although I would love to fly home, sit and gaze at the river Thames, ‘lazing on a Sunday afternoon’ as Martin would encourage us to do as last orders rang out on a Sunday lunchtime, the end of a Three Fishes session that had lasted since Friday night, I do feel a loss recalling the essence of the the place I once called home.

 

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A Night in the Desert

(This was written in 1991, before Dubai became what it is today, and before 9/11)

The gun was cocked, I felt the click of the revolver’s mechanism through my skull. It was a feeling impossible to imagine until you find your own brain separated by only a thin wall of bone from a poised bullet, that at any moment can erupt through your very existence. The man stood over me in the dark, shouting in Arabic, spiting his words down at me as a flashlight danced about my now sweating face. You often hear that when you are about to die, your life flashes before your eyes. Well mine didn’t. What did happen though, is time seemed to slow down. And I felt this euphoric rush of calm as if opiates had seeped through my body from the feet-up.

At the movies, when someone is about to be executed, or they are walked into a field with a spade, and are told to kneel-down, I hear this voice in my head saying, “Run! Kick him! Escape before it’s too late! There’s nothing to lose, if you’re going to die – you may as well attempt to escape, eh?” But in reality, away from the bravado of a viewer, you freeze. Time slows down – but then, so do you. You stare up at your fate and accept death or cling to a notion that if you behave and do as you’re told – it’ll be okay, they may still let you go.

 

They wore no uniforms, just traditional muslim dress, one pointed a machine gun at my host who stood scared against the wall, the other leveled his at my chest – as if the pistol at my temple was not enough to pacify me. I closed my eyes and reached behind my head for my British passport. “This would either kill me or save me”, I thought.

My ending up in the middle of the desert, in a shack, with a gun to my head, when just hours before I had arrived back at the safety of my hotel, was the result of an innocent enough turn of events. I still occasionally re-walk my steps through these events in my mind. It seemed as if it was certain as soon as I stepped off the plane. It all unfolded so naturally. But now suddenly I was alone, in the desert and facing death.

I had been working as a Montessori teacher in Sweden for a year now. I was just about to finish my training. I needed to write three reports on three different Montessori schools, evaluating their programmes. When I was given the opportunity to fly to Dubai and visit a school there, it seemed like a great treat – an opportunity to see another country – the flight and hotel would be paid for. Apart from writing the report, my only obligation was to drive Olga Norqvist (my employer) to Stockholm airport and see that she reached her destination, an old friend of hers in Dubai.

Olga Nordvist was about 50-years old, a rounded Swede with large glasses and a nervous disposition. She looked like the type of woman that as child – would already have appeared to be an old maid. What became clear as the journey progressed, was that she was disturbed, very disturbed. Her father and estranged husband had died earlier that year and she was heading for a mental breakdown. This trip was supposed to be a new beginning for her. With no friends in Sweden after living a paranoid, lonely existence, she had decided to look-up an old school friend who was now living just outside of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

The trouble started as soon as we landed. Her eyes darted around suspecting every Arab of wanting to ravage her, or loot her belongings. She would nervously watch each twist of a doorknob with horror. Each phone call would make her jump. She was heading for a complete mental break-down and I didn’t want to get in the way. It was a relief to see her off on the final leg of her journey and be left alone in the hotel.

I spent the next day observing and taking notes in the Montessori school before exploring the city on foot. Wandering around the streets on the way back to the hotel cars would slow down and children would point at me. We were on the first tourist flights to Dubai and I must have looked out of place on the streets, a young Englishman in Bermuda shorts, in a dark red Lacoste, wearing Ray Ban Wayfarers to protect my eyes from the fine sand that a warm breeze blew into everyone’s faces. The Gulf War had finished months before, oil fields south of Kuwait could be seen still burning across the gulf, and the air was thick and oppressive.

The international community lived in village compounds, locked communities with their own supermarkets. There was a strange duality where a westerner can buy a drink at an international hotel, but a local could be arrested for possessing the same. Outside of the international hotels, the whole world would stop for prayers as loud hailers wailed across the city. I was the only Westerner walking around, on foot, lost and alone, with time to kill. When I got back to the hotel, I was shocked to find Olga in reception. She immediately started waving her arms about and complaining that the Arab in the corner was giving her funny looks. Suggestive looks. She was mad, starting to sound racist and I didn’t want any part of it.

I went up to my room with her as she explained how she had fallen out with her old friend as soon as she arrived at her house. Apparently this friend was neglecting a horse and they argued about animal welfare. Something Olga claimed to feel very strongly about. I suspected that her friend merely saw that she was a looney and wanted to get rid of her as much as I had the day before. But this turn of events was too much. It was starting to get dark by the time I insisted that she took my room, made my excuses, and slipped out of the hotel entrance with my suitcase, leaving her madness behind me as I walked into the warm evening breeze.

The night before I had met a few Americans in the hotel bar, they were in another hotel a few blocks away. I hailed a cab and was picked up by a kind looking, mustached Pakistani, one of the many guest workers that drive cabs, clean and work all kinds of unskilled jobs to send money home. With no rights – these workers would keep their noses clean and were good people. I felt I could trust any of them, the harsh punishments that would await the guilty prevented them from being anything but humble. He drove me to the American hotel but warned me that it was full, he waited while I went to check at reception. It was indeed full! The only rooms left were so expensive there was no way I could afford them, even on my credit card.

A few tours around the city provided the same story – too expensive or full. Also I hadn’t considered how weak my finances were. It was dark and I had no where to go but back to the madness of Olga’s paranoid racism. The driver looked at me and introduced himself as Rashid. He could barely speak English, but said, “You – me – no problem! You – me – sleep, s’okay.” His long eyelashes smiled and he seemed quite kind. I left home age-15 and having developed street smart early on, I had become quite intuitive to danger and there was none here. This man was tired and was just about to finish work – he was showing me a kindness that is as much a part of his culture – as it is suspicious to ours.

The car bumped through the rocky desert. The headlights picking up flickers of insects and dust as the beams fell into the empty distance. We were no longer on a road and were getting farther away from anything that resembled civilization. On the plane I had been reading Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley stories. Perhaps that had influenced my reaction to Olga, suddenly it seemed like I was caught-up in a Hitchcock movie, events spiraling out of control. Where is this man taking me? Now I too was becoming paranoid!

We arrived at a small concrete compound with a rusted iron door. An internal shack was split into three, a toilet, a washroom, and a bunker in which we would sleep. Rashid was unconscious as soon as we lay down. He had offered to find me some black-market beer on the way. I had thanked him but refused. I was tired too and unable to rid my mind of Olga’s madness. I felt cut-off, wanted to phone a friend and tell them my story. This was a desert village, no electricity, no phones, not even a road.

 

My mind started wandering and I imagined how he could easily dispose of my body by burning it in that oil drum in the courtyard, Ripley style. No-one knew I was here. I would simply disappear. My suitcase suddenly seemed so stupid and out of place. A Samsonite standing on a desert floor, in a bunker lit only by shafts of moonlight from a few thin windows. If it wasn’t a full moon, it was close. Then I heard shuffles, and whispers coming from outside. My money belt was under my head, containing my passport and what little cash I had. A loud noise made my heart leap into my throat and skip a beat. A violent clang of twisted metal as the doors to the compound were broken open. Followed by urgent voices. I heard the doors to the washroom kicked-in. Then our room burst open and three men with guns stood silhouetted in the doorway. One pointed a torch at Rashid’s sleeping body.

They pulled him out of bed and pushed him up against the wall as they shouted at him. Two of the men had machine guns, and one (obviously the leader) held a pistol in one hand and a crop in the other which he used to whip Rashid who pointed quickly my way. Their attention and the torchlight immediately fell on me. Until then I had been temporarily concealed behind the shadow of the door.

The leader stood over me spitting in Arabic, shouting and demanding some answer. He pushed his gun to my head and pulled back the trigger. As I reached for my passport time had slowed down. I had accepted death. I knew that he would perhaps think I was pulling a weapon, that maybe his shouts meant, “Keep still, keep your hands still!” I drew my passport out carefully from behind my head. He was so agitated, it felt as if the trigger could slip at any moment as he held the gun to my forehead. He grabbed my passport, they shone the torch at it, then withdrew and gave it back politely. They slapped Rashid, reprimanded him him one final time and left.

“What.. what..”, I said. “Who, were they?” Although I didn’t understand at the time, I later understood them to be maybe Saudi religious police, or at least the leader was. Apparently the village I was in was on the border between Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. Someone must have seen me arrive from the shadows and decided I needed investigating. A strange westerner visiting in the night would not have been usual. I guess they just wanted to know what was going on. I was glad I didn’t agree to the offer of black-market beer – that would not have helped.

But at that moment, as I lay, knowing that I was so far from home, no road, no phone, no electricity nor running water. Just a cold hard desert floor and a gun to my head. I had let go, and it was okay.

The effects of some natural opiate rushing through my veins, preparing me for the inevitable – I accepted my death, I wasn’t even scared, it just was. I think I left something behind on that desert floor. Like a scared part of me jumped out of my body just before I would die. I no longer felt at all nervious or worried about anything.

The next day, on the way to the airport we passed huge glittering tower blocks. Like something straight out of Manhattan – planted firmly in the empty desert. A scrawny dog wandered along the dusty track leading up to the entrance. The fine sand in the wind had lightly sand-blasted my glasses, I took them off and polished them and wiped them on my shirt. Rashid smiled with his eyes. It was good to be alive.

 

 

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Bloody Music and Movement!

wheelchair_sideview-rigid-footrestThe name’s Nesbit, Henry Nesbit. I am short and fat, I know it. There was no way to avoid the fact and I hate it when people describe themselves as ‘robust’ or ‘big boned’. They are fat just like me. I don’t particularly like being fat, but I’m not the type to dwell on it. If anything, being short is more of a burden but being old is worse than both those bloody afflictions.

‘Come on Henry! Let’s get you ready mate! Swing your legs round and we’ll sit you up.’

To begin with, growing old had not worried me. The hair that started growing out of my ears and nose were annoying, as were the occasional wiry ones on my eyebrows that would poke out like ariels. I got used to it all eventually though. As my eyesight failed – I simply couldn’t see them in the mirror anymore. I did think the grey hair and specs gave me a sort of sophisticated look, all distinguished like. And there’s no doubt that I felt more respected as an elderly man, which sort of counteracted my being short. No, what really irks me about growing old is the pain in the knees, having to use this walking stick, feeling out of breath trying to bend down to put a sock on a foot, then losing the other bleeding sock in the process. I hated having to remember to inject the insulin twice a day – at least I don’t have to do that for myself anymore, meanwhile my balding head makes it uncomfortable to walk in the wind or rain without a hat. I also lose my glasses – a lot!

‘There you are! All clean, here you go – you can do the electric razor yourself, can’t you? I’ll just fetch you a fresh shirt.’

I hate this place place though, I’ve only been here a week or so and don’t intend to stay long. It’s a home for geriatrics I reckon. They called it ‘Fairweather Lodge’ but the name is as misleading as the fake antiques scattered about here. It’s all dressed up as a guest house, but it’s got hospital beds and nurses in it, I’ve been sent here to die quietly, I’m not stupid! Put here by my son Mark who sold our family home before running off to New Zealand with his wife. We should have stayed there, we had a decent home we did. They could have moved in with the kids. He never writes anymore neither, he used to be in contact with me every day leading up to the sale of the house. He would even bring presents I didn’t want, and would ask how I was. I did notice that each visit involved something I had to sign, and a lot rummaging about in cupboards for things he wanted to take with him. He never brought the grandchildren over though, I haven’t seen them since they were little.

‘Right, let’s get you in your chair. There, put hand on my shoulder, oops – an in!’

The nights and early mornings here are the worst though. Can’t sleep, I get all anxious but don’t know why, over nothing I suppose. Sometimes I can see faces in the pattern of the curtains. The other day I was sure I saw my dear late wife June in the corridor. I reckoned it was on account of the pills they had been giving me, but since I had stopped taking them it had got worse if anything. I also hated being helped to shower, and having my toes clipped. The diabetes meant that I can’t feel my feet when I walk now, all tingly and numb they are. I tell you though they hurt like buggery when someone touches them!

‘Ready? How was your breakfast Henry, doesn’t look like you touched it, mate.’

If there was one thing I would like to do the most, it would be to run out out of this place without a walking stick, leave the insulin behind, and jump on a plane to New Zealand to see the grandchildren – Jayden and Mia their names are. Lovely kids! They need an elder in their life mind. Mark isn’t responsible enough, he’s basically a stupid teenager in a suit, he thinks he knows everything. All pretense, he should get a proper job. His wife Marama is worse though, don’t like her at all and she’s got a bloody stupid laugh.

‘Here we are then, there’s your glasses on the side table mate. Angela’s here look, she’ll be starting in minute – you should join in, get your circulation going! Anyway, tick what you want for lunch and dinner. I’ll come back and grab it in a bit – here’s a pen.’

He’s alright that fella. Gets me ready in the morning. Foreigner he is, a good lad, think he’s an Arab of some sort. Lovely fella – I just don’t like to talk in the morning, and he don’t push it neither.

Fairweather Lodge, Brighton
Tuesday
10:00am Music and Movement with Angela
10:30am Tea, coffee and biscuits
12:30am Lunch: Macaroni cheese / Pizza. Choice of fruit.
2:30pm Visiting time / tea, coffee and biscuits
5:30pm Dinner: Irish stew w. soda bread / Nut loaf w. gravy and mash. Ice cream
6:30pm Movie Club: ‘Lawrence of Arabia’

Today it’s Music and Movement. Bloody awful it is! You get a couple of old, clapping ninnies come in and play these God awful tunes like, ‘Knees up Mother Brown’ and ‘My Old Man’s a Dustman’. Prancing about trying to get us to wave our arms and stomp our feet. Bloody stupid! Then they roll this big red ball about for people to kick back. The nurse types would make me sit in on this caper once a week, I never join in though. I mean, the music alone! What are they thinking? Even my own grandparents didn’t listen to that old music hall nonsense. Maybe if they put some real music on I might shake a leg. Nah, not for me this!

I Would have a laugh some days though, like that time Fred came a cropper. Fell off his chair he did, flat on his face trying to catch the ball. “You’re supposed to bloody kick it Fred!” I said. He’s a silly sod he is, big square glasses that magnify his eyes as he tries to look at you. Makes him look like a toad in a brown cardigan, big goggly eyes and a toothless grin. Ex-Army man apparently, probably why he likes it here – always being told what to do. Nah, none of this is for me! As soon as I get the tea and biscuits down me at the end I’m off back to my room before they put that bleeding TV back on. The stupid stuff they watch. It all makes me wish I did have an hearing aid half the time, so I can turn them all off! Silly buggers! Oh, they’ve finished now, here comes the tea trolly!

All those years I spent testing my blood sugar, I should have been clever. Pricking those fingers everyday! I would do it on both hands, see. I’d change the finger each time – spread it about. Now, what I should have done is stick to my left hand, then my right hand would be normal, see? What happens is, over the years your fingers toughen up from all the stabbing. I mean that and the nerves giving out in them. Like my feet, all numb and rough they are. Makes picking this tea cup up off the saucer a bit of a wobble. I often spill a bit then sip it out of the saucer. I do like a Custard Cream though. Gotta dunk them quick mind, or I get it all down my front if I’m not careful. Oh here it comes! Matron I call her. All first name basis here though, Helen she’s called. I stick to calling her Matron, call it what it is – that’s what I always say! She’s Matron, there’s a couple of nurses, and the rest of them are basically orderlies – wheeling people about and emptying bedpans. I could never do that as a job.
‘So how’s Henry today?’

Look at that, just parks itself on a chair opposite me. I hate these little chats, I know she means well, but doesn’t half make me feel patronized. Like a school boy.

‘I didn’t get the paper again today, Matron.’ I normally like a paper in the morning, so I can have a look at it over breakfast. They generally don’t like that at the table in the main room, but I’ve been getting my breakfast in bed lately. They’ve stuck me in this wheel chair for the past week or so, and those of us who need driving about, they tend to deal with last. The bonus is we get breakfast in bed and can read a paper while eating it. If the paper comes that is! Sometimes they just leave it on the counter in the hall and don’t bring it to the room.
‘Oh dear, I’ll ask what going on with that for you, meanwhile I understand you are having a visitor Henry! Exciting! You’ve been wanting to see your son. He’s just rung and is at the airport now, he says he’s checking into a hotel first and has a few errands in town today – so we are expecting him for visiting time tomorrow. You could take a stroll around the gardens with him if the weather is with us, there’s no rain forecasted. That’ll be nice won’t it Henry?’

‘Do you think I could get another cup of tea please, Matron?’ I wish they would serve it in a mug, these dainty cups and saucers don’t go far. They’ll only ever give me one biscuit though, on account of the sugar. Oh look, there’s Fred trying to turn the TV on with his walking stick, silly sod! He’ll fall out of his chair again. “Fred! Be careful, you’ll knock the TV over!”

‘I’ll help Fred and fetch you a fresh cup of tea, but you’re not getting another Custard Cream Henry!’

She was alright really that Helen, I suppose. Look she’s back now to fuss about with her needles, test the old blood sugar levels and inject the insulin in my belly. I used to do it myself, I had those modern pen things, but it all got a bit tricky. Couldn’t hold the thing still, and the plunger’s are pretty stiff.

‘There, all done! Here’s the only newspaper I could find, okay Henry?’

She’s brought me someone else’s paper. Not the one I read, I’ll give it look over though. Hard to concentrate now the bloody TV’s on again. It’s just an irritating noise, especially the adverts. What are they watching anyway? It looks like some show about bloody donkeys, or something. Is that a donkey? Where are my glasses?

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Jesus is Real

jesus-christ-intro-bible-660

My first school was Church of England – St. Andrew’s in Surbiton. My best friend there was Jesus. Seriously! My first friend was Jesus, I found Jesus there – he sat beside me when I was all scared and felt alone and gave me strength. I’d only been there a week and it was only when Jesus sat beside me, that I grew confident enough to be away from home.

I am not ashamed to admit that my first friend was Jesus.

However, seeing Jesus beside me was not as a glowing, wise apparition – he appeared as a sobbing wreck. My own fears of being alone in these new surroundings were replaced with an empathy for Jesus as he sobbed uncontrollably beside me. I tried to say something to help him, but he couldn’t understand English. Eventually we learned to communicate and my looking after Jesus gave me a confidence greater than if Jesus was there to pacify my own fears.

Jesus was actually Spanish, he had recently moved to London from Madrid after his father had scored a job at the BBC as a cameraman. We became best friends at St. Andrew’s and it’s only recently I have reflected on the irony that, not only was he called Jesus, but a mutual friend we made was called Andrew. So I went to a Christian school in the sixties called St. Andrews, and my best friends were Jesus and Andrew. I’d say you can’t write this stuff but I am, it is never-the-less actually true!

Makes me wonder sometimes if my life is some Matrix dream, too many co-incidences sometimes, and weird twists. My actually dreams often make more sense, and as I try and fall back asleep to return to them, maybe I’m just trying to break out of a delusion.

I live in constant fear that one day I’ll wake up, an old man in an institution and realize life has passed me by. That the reality I glimpse in my dreams is something so traumatic that the life that seems so difficult is actually my cosy overlay of denial hiding something worse.

Anyway, I can hear the bell – time for my medication.

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I’m not being racist! I’m just having a laugh!

Mary_Poppins3

My wife is Chinese-American. I guess in England we may wonder why she uses that label for herself, and it’s true – we don’t have ‘Asian-Brits’, or ‘African-English’ or whatever as go to labels. In fact being Asian in the UK tends to refer to a completely different ethnicity. We would have these conversations together about how in the US this label is PC, while here it sounded wrong. In the States the label ‘Asian’ is considered owned by the South East Asian community. Trying to point out to her that Asia is a continent, and Russia and the Middle East are actually Asian too is a conversation that always ends up opened ended. For the Chinese in America this is a whole conversation you don’t want to get into.

Still used here innocently sometimes, the label ‘Oriental’ is considered in the US to be ‘very’ un-PC. really! – it’s like using the the ’N’ word here for anyone with African heritage, even though at best their great-grandfather came from Jamaica. You may as well do the slitty eye thing and ask my wife if she eats dog as call her Oriental. She would never get hurt by these racist comments that every Chinese kid in a Western country has heard so often that it is boring. This type of ignorant, and often well meaning rib-digging humour, just acts as a social filter for her. It’s like calling a Welshman a sheep shagger, or making a ginger joke – we’d never use the ’N’ word with a black friend, or today even joke about Allah or the Nazis with our Muslim or Jewish friends.

We put up with it as part of a culture here in the UK that really is only excused by the white Brits, those who repeat the humour of our grandparents and Les Dawson – it’s all just a laugh, no harm meant. Well that’s fine if you’re not on the receiving end. Ask any redhead or Welsh guy if they really find that 1970’s humour funny. They smile and let it slide, but it’s no different to the jokes that we dare not say today to other groups.

Jeremy Clarkson was a refreshing bloke who reminded us of our older relatives and a fabled time of white Britain. The ‘slope on a bridge joke’ was funny. It was – I laughed, but only on my side of the screen as a white Brit. If he called my wife a slope I would have been the one hitting him in the face while sticking his uncooked steak up his ass, and I liked Top Gear and his attitude!

In the USA I have had my fair share of rib-digging, people putting on dumb, Dick Van Dyke accents, “lovely cup of tea” comments and making fun of me as their preconceived idea of an Englishman. But being called a Brit is not the same as being called a Jap or a Frog. Making fun of ethnic groups and nations only become hurtful to those who have been enslaved or lost face as we the victors occupy or colonize their country.

They can call me a Brit, make fun of the fact that I probably like tea and crumpets (and yes I do!), and it would never hurt me. But if one day our country is invaded and occupied, or we are enslaved – with the word ‘Brit’ referring to the locals as under dogs, once emancipated it is likely we would find it as hurtful as words we use that actually evolved from latin words that only really mean ‘black’, or once accurately once referred to a specific region of South-East Asia.

Meanwhile, while my wife is eating dog – I’ll be dancing like a chimney sweep and having a “luvery cuppa tea mate”!

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No News is Good News

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There is nothing that should be more calming than knowing that our children as young adults are becoming independent. Beyond hugs, diaper changing, and the invisible hand that aimed to ensure they would have more opportunities than we ever did, inevitably they will become teenagers. Never remembering the sleepless nights we endured, nor even care why we worry about them still today – they begin to see our unwelcome influence as an intrusion once they are free from the ownership of our parenthood. Being able to stand back and disconnect as the parent of a young adult is more difficult than spending everyday caring for them as babies.

Being alone as parents in a home that once was alive with the annoying vitality and mess of children is like remaining overnight in a movie theater once the film is done. Waiting for a sequel, hoping for news, wondering what’s going to happen next for months with nothing but dried out popcorn below the seats to emotionally sustain us.

I not only left home as a teenager, I left the country. I know that I only phoned home, wrote, or visited when I was sad and needy. Seeking reassurance, hoping to consolidate my emotions, feel a part of something that I needed to know remained behind me always, or simply needing a hot meal and a loan as I slept on the sofa for a weekend being the only compulsion.

The cruel reality of being a parent is an emotional trail our children will never understand until they, themselves are. When our children are happy and confident out there in the world, when they feel safe and full of a zest for life – we won’t hear from them. As we anxiously try to reach out, and try to and help and protect them, we are simply being annoying. They may take our money, but not our influence on their decisions, nor advice.

It is actually hearing from them and being needed that is the most worrying. Letting go of them is our problem, their ability to leave is our success.

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Walmart Ice

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It was hot. I mean really hot, we were up on this volcanic plateau above Napa Valley. Living on the lake was refreshing, apart from the fact you wouldn’t want to swim in it. Blaming the contamination on the historical factory that once vomited it’s byproducts into it wasn’t quite fair. The lake, contained in the mouth of a dormant volcano, was already poisoned by geology, the fish were not for consumption. The holes in the banks of the water at the end of the garden also contained huge catfish that made even dipping my feet into the water feel less relaxing than it ought to.

It was a seriously hot today. Driving to Walmart between dry, scrubby Californian hills, I just wanted a bag of ice. A big bag of ice. I mean I wanted ice – but I had a list too. We’d need some milk and bread, Karen wanted Starbursts and Pepsi. I pulled into the parking lot, the sun blasting me as I stepped out of the car’s AC. When it’s this hot you can’t just wind down the windows, a summer breeze in your hair. You wanted to shut those damn windows and crank up the AC! Sunglasses on, sun visors down!

I don’t deal well with the heat, I feel like I am swelling and don’t make sense. In a cold climate you can put on warm clothes, a good pair of boots – regulate your body temperature. In the daunting sun, you can only take off so many layers of clothes before you are arrested for public indecency. Even then you are still hot. Cargo shorts replaced the coat pockets I was used to in Europe. I missed wearing a jacket, a cosy sweater, inside pockets. This damn heat was getting to me. Great for a vacation, a few weeks maybe, but now I could barely sleep. Kept awake all night by either the heat, or the noise of the fan on me, I simply wanted to be cold at night – snuggled up in an all consuming duvet. I couldn’t even open the windows for the mosquitoes.

Some locals would come to Walmart just for the AC, and just wander around. There wasn’t a lot to do in Lake County, most of the customers looked they just arrived straight from their bed. Pajama bottoms being the standard dress it seemed today.

Well, having got everything I stood in line at the check-out before paying for it all. Wait! No, I came for ice. This would always happen, Karen would ask me to pick up stuff and I would remember all that but forget what I came out for. Ice was the easiest to forget, they always had it in freezers beyond the check-out alongside the fishing bait. Basically you are supposed to pay for it and pick it up on the way out.

“Oh, I need some ice! I told the cashier.

“Do you want a big bag or a small bag?”

“What’s the difference?” I asked.

“Well, a small bag is ten pounds, and a big bag is twenty pounds.”

“WHAT! Twenty pounds for a bag of ice, that’s ridiculous!!!” I exclaimed.

“Remember what country you are in sir.” She smiled.

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