12 August 2010 - Chiswick en route to Edinburgh
Written by Jaime, a 62 year old retired male living in Scotland.
I wake from a dream of having a deadline to send a poem to China. I cannot see the connection to what I do or where I am. From the front bedroom of Stefan and Ana’s house in Chiswick, I look out on a cloudy London morning. I kiss my partner Haber on the shoulder and go in search of tea. Stefan says it is almost ready and soon he brings it to us. Whenever we are not in a rush we have tea in bed, practically every morning back home in Scotland. Today we sit up in bed, drink mother-in-law’s tea (a herbal mixture from Ana’s mother) and talk about how the cat spent the night.
The cat is approaching 20 years of age. Three days ago his sister was put to sleep after a series of strokes. When we arrived the following afternoon our friends were so sad and Ana was in tears. They have lived with the cats for 15 years. The cats have been an integral part of their home, their family, a defining aspect of their lives in Chiswick. We were shocked and saddened to hear the news of this loss. The timing of our arrival (en route from Spain to Scotland) meant we could give our friends a bit of support. Ana mentioned often how our arrival was fortunate. Last night the remaining cat had slept most of the night with Ana and Stefan. They wanted to make sure he felt specially loved and secure, as he must have been confused by the loss.
I have known Stefan since 1967, my longest friendship. I had gone to meet my foreign penpal, his sister, who became a best friend and platonic love. While that friendship faded, my friendship with Stefan grew and continued over the years. In the early 1980s he introduced me to Ana, whom he later married. They came to live in London for his work.
Over porridge this morning we speak of our sense of exile. From Secondary School, and the first visit to the continent at the age of 12, I felt that England was not my home, though London itself was always different and special, a place that belongs to us all. I moved north and felt more at home, and eventually settled for work in Scotland, where I have lived more than half my life. In Scotland I feel at home, although I’ll probably always be regarded as an outsider. In Spain we are welcomed, encouraged to identify locally, to adopt the local words and customs, and I was even wrapped in the Spanish flag at the victory of the Spanish football team in the World Cup. Stefan and Ana didn’t feel at home in their homeland, but also feel they will never be fully accepted in England despite their official British nationality. However in a sense we all revel in our marginal status and wouldn’t want unquestioned belonging.
We go off to Ham House near Richmond and start walking towards Teddington Lock. The houses look lovely, but I think of how Virginia Woolf felt constrained here. We talk of Spanish books we are reading. We pick blackberries. I get some juice on my coat and go to the river’s edge to wash off the deep red stains. The Thames washes well, the stains come out and I feel like a dhobi. We try to identify the ducks. Apple and pear trees grow by the path. At Teddington we go off to the village at my suggestion. We find a lovely café with Mediterranean food but the others aren’t hungry, so I just take an espresso and Haber buys bananas to eat overlooking the river. Stefan and Ana are worried about leaving the cat longer on his own, so we walk back to Ham House. Back in Chiswick the cat greets us warmly, and Ana and Stefan begin making lunch. Haber and I go and lay on the sofa, my head on his lap, and have a siesta, which we normally reserve for after lunch.
While Haber advises Stefan on computer backups, I look through the papers on the bank account opened yesterday. Haber and I had sat for an hour going through the formalities. The bank official told us he was third generation Bangladeshi. He asked if I was married or civil partner or . . . I was pleased this could be asked and answered so simply, so matter-of-fact. Does he ask this of everyone, or is it because I brought my friend with me? Others have a different way of accounting for us, as brothers or even twins. Our bank representative was so open and warm, telling us how he loves his parents and will probably live with them until he gets married. We asked him where he would like to live, where he likes to go on holiday and what restaurants he would recommend in his part of London. We all spoke of where we feel we belong and where we feel accepted. He was positive and happy and we left feeling good.
Ana asked why I like such conversations with strangers. I said I always have. Even from my teens I have struck up conversations, for example with strangers on trains, and asked about their lives. I also like to hear snippets of conversation, like yesterday on a bench on the South Bank: ‘so finally I introduced myself to her,’ so that you speculate who, where, and why it took so long. A man with a violin meanwhile parks his bike and descends to the river, flings crumbs and attracts the black-headed gulls. I like to observe people and spin stories. A pretty girl on the tube is handed a note by a stranger as he gets off the train. She reads it, smiles to herself and puts in down on the seat beside her. For a few stations I speculate what it says. As she gets off, the note goes with her.
I check the time of our train to Edinburgh tomorrow. We are returning for the Edinburgh Festival as usual. A shower has passed over, so I suggest to Haber that we go out for a walk. We stroll round the grounds of Chiswick house. We see Henry the heron, a man deep in communication with himself, a man who looks self-consciously superior and posh (his walk and hair give him the air of one born to look down) and two fast rough bikers. In Spain we don’t get a sense of condescension and the threat of defensive masculinities. The atmosphere of class and exclusion will emerge again as we try to leave the park. We go round by the glass house and ignore a warning of a private function. An immaculately dressed steward gives a low negative wave to indicate we are prohibited. The guests are crowded together in their glass house. We skirt the area to get a glimpse of the flower gardens. The steward patrols to ensure we don’t forget our place, outside a private function in a public space. We revert to the river, always the river. Runners and cyclists pass us by. One runner stops to do some stretches, seems so happy, doesn’t do the English thing of avoiding eye contact. We say ‘hi’. The sun hits the other bank of the river and makes it stand out against the grey sky.
Back in the house, Ana and Stefan are making a bean stew. They know we love this, and it suits us perfectly as vegans. We have a glass of wine while waiting, and then talk of our travels while we eat. We follow with apfelstrudel and dessert wine.
The phone rings at 11pm. It is Jose. Ana thinks it is rude to ring so late, but recognises that for a Spanish lifestyle this is early. Jose has quickly become a close friend since we met her last year. She lives near us in Scotland and we shall meet up with her at the opening concert of the Edinburgh Festival tomorrow. She tells us she has been asked to look after the grandchildren in Glasgow on a day when she has evening tickets for the Edinburgh Festival. As usual we advise her to keep some time for herself.
We look at Stefan’s photos of his recent trip through a distant continent. I love the ones of people, but also the sparse and abstract views of wilderness and desert. It has pared down the profusion of the day, made us ready for bed. In the bathroom mirror I bare my teeth; the cat steps tentatively past me towards its bowl of water and looks down at its reflection.