Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Winter's coming. And I love winter, just for its mornings. The feel of waking up tucked under a quilt from chin to toe, curled up like a satisfied hedgehog, reaching for the kolbalish. Almora bhanga. That moment when you hug yourself tight and feel the heat breaking through pinnacles of ice and the alarm isn't ringing because there isn't any school. I can't have enough of such mornings.

I went to Sandakphu when I was a littler child than I am now. And we waited outside the car on a frozen road while a Nepali driver fiddled with the jack to mend a punctured tyre. I remember I had been absolutely determined to see snow, touch it, taste it. And now, across a stream, the snow lay thick under a copse of threadbare trees. Mounds of it, empty and white and without a shadow of a footprint. I squinted at it through red, watering eyes, picturebook winterland that it was, and begged to be let back in the car, to be taken back to the hotel. And so we went.

I still love all the typical Hallmark-card signs of winter. The snowflakes that never grace Calcutta, the leaping light of the hearth fire, the perfect cutouts of Christmas trees little children make in art class. But I love it from a distance, from the other side of the windowpane. Yes, I love the red and green that never looked so good, the smell of plum cake, and the veneer of genteel comfort that's there one second and vanishes when the frost sets in. And perhaps that's the best way to love what you don't know.

Thursday, 11 September 2008

See that shack there, perched on tiptoe on the white rocks? The one with large uncurtained windows and the sea at its feet, no paint on the walls and creepers on the roof? That's where I live now. If you come visit early in the morning you'll be in time for breakfast, always my favourite part of the day. I eat in my bedroom, off the only table in the house. Stewed mussels and sweet white fish caught fresh out of the tidewaters. Every morning there are new shallow pools left by the high tide outside my doorstep. I eat and watch the sunrise paint a different watercolour in each for my special benefit.

It's a barren part of the small seaside town, not the most popular with tourists either. The strongest colours you see here are grey-blue and white- the white of the rocks, the white of the harsh gritty sand, the white of the sun at noon, the white scream of the gulls as they dip and rise over the dipping and rising waves. A dismal line of green clings to the cliff face some distance away, and a thin track winds steeply up this cliff- over the lip and on to the town market some miles away, on to a different world altogether.

Sometimes I ride my bicycle down the rocky borderline, racing licking tongues of salt water, chased by dashes of foam. Sometimes I walk till my calves ache and my feet are blistered in their blue rubber chappals. Shells crunch under the chappals and mark a trail in glittering fragments. By next morning they are always wiped clean again.

Later in the day I climb on to some rocks just yards from the shack and lie still for hours at a time. The waves hit the shore in punishing lashes and shimmering lines of heat rise into the air. Some fifteen feet below me the sea rumbles into clean-cut grottoes and shoals of silver fish find room to mate. I possessed an umbrella long ago, but the water tore it and the sun bleached it and now it stands like an absurd scarecrow in the patch of sand behind the house. I lie still, browning quietly, and when the moment is right the sea is waiting below. Cold water hits burned skin like a brick wall; it makes me gasp every time. You breathe in salt and it stings in your blood. The waves bruise you and let you fly.

I have a few treasures in this house. One is a typewriter, battered and with the keys nearly indistinguishable. I use this almost every day, pounding away in staccato, covering pages and pages that I keep stacked under my bed in shoeboxes. I also have a special lighter bought many years ago along with my first pack of cigarettes. It's a mysterious marble green with a smoothly spinning copper wheel, and you can hold it up to the light and see bubbles of pale green oil blossoming inside. I wanted it very badly when I first saw it, and only bought the cigarettes to match. I smoked two, and the rest of the packet waits patiently on the shelf to be offered to any guests who may drop by. I use the lighter to light a fire every evening out of driftwood collected during the day. The fire burns throughout the night, and it's the last light I see before going to sleep. By morning it's collapsed into ashes.

I have one pair of decent shoes. High heeled sneakers. They're what I wear when I go to town some nights, putting aside shorts and wearing a proper shirt. With buttons. There's a particular pub I've found where you get light whiskey till the early hours of morning and interesting enough conversation to chew over for several weeks. There are sailors who talk loudly to no one in particular and shawl-draped old ladies gossiping over glasses of gin. The bartender tells stories in seven languages. Every surface smells of sweet paraffin and the lamps flicker crazily over your head when the sea breeze comes in through the open doors. The jukebox plays ragtime over the crash of the waves, and my feet in the sneakers come to life. When I walk back home through the darkness they're stepping light all the way.

Finally, there's one brass telescope that sits on my table among the tottering piles of books and the typewriter. Like Alice, it can fold itself into a pocket-sized thing, perfect for carrying down to the beach or taking along on an excursion. But most often it stays on my table pointing a long finger towards the faint smudge where, far far away, sky meets sea. On cloudless evenings I can spot through it Orion and Andromeda, lions and scorpions and swans, all wedged into the patch of black sky outside my window. And when I lie in bed, it always stands sentinel, watching for any ships that may sail towards us out of the darkness, searching the horizon for any lights from known watchtowers. A single glassy eye, reflecting dancing firelight, always looks out of the front window of the tilted wooden hut that you see there on the white rocks. It's searching and watching and waiting, and when you come calling you can be sure I'll know.


"What do you want to be when you grow up, sweetheart?"
"I don't know." Twisting feet. Clutching on to the sweat-stained sofa.
"No no... Come on, tell Aunty what you told me that day."
"Oh. I can.. um.. be a teacher. Or write. Stories and things."
Proud smiles all around. "I told you, she's got her head buried in books, scribbles away all the time..."
"Yes, how wonderful. Such an ambitious child..."

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Forty-Five Days

After forty-five days of silence and storms,
Anthems and angst,
Off-colour blues,
After forty-five days of walking in spirals
I'm loving

Monday, 8 September 2008

Instant Algebra

The book lies open but you've forgotten the page,
The carefully tangled web's come undone.
Sitting still, plotting points of rage-
The pencil breaks at root minus one.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Do you think that when the morning sun's about to rise above the skyline, it takes just a minute to consider? Is there a moment when it hangs there, suspended, touching the limits of both worlds, and decides which way to go? One day will it skim the clouds and sink back beneath the horizon again, so that suddenly it won't be day anymore?

Being pulled by the reins of inevitability, and too hesitant to let them fall, that moment of reckoning is the one I keep bottled up, in a tiny cologne vial, and look at every day, assured in the simple knowledge that it is mine.