Chromatography

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The lowest arms of the almond tree
hang scrawny, leafless, dark:
a reminder of winter.

I take off my paper sun hat
sweating (why did I wear black?)
sun bleached by a thin cloud veil
pushing the sleeping baby uphill,
4.30pm, July.

He’s poured water over a scarf that
I’ve arranged to shade him
and my red wool bag strap
bleeds pink into the blue.

His muscular eyebrows furrow
beneath dirty blond curls, the boy who was
dreamt of being welcomed by the arms of his
long-departed grandmother
in a Persian aunt’s sleeping head.

“Let us see your hair,” they had urged me;
“Is it real, the colour? Can we touch it?”

I grinned painfully, was their doll for a while,
let them thread my puny brows,
ruthlessly devoid forehead and top lip
of hairs only Iranian women can see.

We European women have been liberated of
facial hair!
I cried inwardly, eyes watering
with each every rip.

(She did do an excellent job.
My eyebrows, in dye, came alive.)

In the women’ section of the bus in Tehran
girls in school uniform laughed
still too pubescent to be allowed
the monthly ritual of a trip to the salon
their black brows luscious and combed
combined with blood red lips.

We got off a speeding fine
en route to Isfahan
because of the “khariji” guests
in the car: the free pass
that Europe grants
and who would rather pay?

“Pesar-e-khariji-e-man!”
“He’s so cute and blond,
he looks just like you!”

My husband says I’m his amulet,
lucky charm in official places,
a signal that he’s a
Middle Eastern Man Done Good.

But there is a ruefulness to his good fortune:
they glare at him like a shopkeeper at a thief.
He asks me not to wear a headscarf
lest they think he’s forced me.

Greedily, I seek out our son’s Asian features
glowing to think he’s struck out from
pork scratching pink
the pasty British skin on
a nose they’ve chosen to
sever from the face of the continent
forgetting the Viking, Saxon, Norman,
Roman and yet more exotic genes.

“¡Qué blanquito!”
How they praise him
for his pallour
to his caramel father’s ears.

A talisman. Not powerful enough to
stop the waiter snubbing his order
sneering at his polite reminder
or when, at the police commissary,
trying to fix my residency
after six years as an illegal American
always treated as though I belong
the Spanish official barked at him
for his papers – in order since a decade ago –
checked them on the system, tossed
the card back without meeting his eye.

(If they only knew
what a nightmare I am to live with
they would see he is my talisman, his patience
my salvation.)

We need to raise colour blind kids!
I rant silently on insomniac nights.
Those of us at the top of this
pyramid of privilege
didn’t rise here because of the
buoyancy of our merit:
our forebears clawed their way up
trampling millions of black and brown backs
and no-one else can rise until we step down because
we are taking up space!

Wash your feet honey:
they’re black with dirt.

Malaga is easy to fly through, I say.
Not for me, says she – they always make me
show under my skirt, my hijab.
Oh! Really? That’s outrageous!
But, you know, she says, drawing a circle
with one finger around her face,
wry Somali smile.

I don’t wear hijab through airports.
Am I being practical, or cowardly?
Would I beat out every last bandit
every ugly, self-congratulating thought
expose their emptiness as
phantom confidences
if I put myself in the same
rocking, overcrowded boat
with the flimsy life jackets
and the leaking hold?

We reach my parents’ house
forbidding black gates,
cornflower blue door.

Beside is a bougainvillea
bursting alternately with
deep fuchsia and
palest green lanterns.

Inside the summerhouse
the dark wood stain has bled through knots
forming irrevocable pools on the blond wood.

“Make me a new sandwich!”
“I took out the avocado…”
“But there’s still a stain
on the bread!”

My daughter is fuming, tearful;
a veil of reddish clay lies over her face
wiped unthinkingly at craft time earlier
and two tears have dried
leaving pale tracks with brown outlines.

Clean your face, honey,
your tears have run brown.

Every story is edited at bedtime,
the blackness accidental, not evil
the lily white princess made ruddy and tanned
her long golden hair darkened
water babies not just cherubic because they’ve been
washed of all that terrible oafish soot but
pure of heart and soul.

At the Jumu’ah meal she asks,
Are angels white?
With exquisite Senegalese women on all sides
I answer, no, they’re made of pure light:
light is all of the colors put together.

But science won’t stop her from thinking it.

Our heads need cleaning! I declaim silently
All these messages upon messages
that make us look down on others!

Black is beautiful. Brown is gorgeous.
Look at her style.

Sweetie, I can’t explain I why,
walls just look better white.

The kids splash my notebook
and the turqouise ink splits
inexplicably to vivid pink

I write my second draft
in indelible black.

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Empty Chairs

The empty chairs are not empty
they are fuller than before
when her husband
the father of her four children
did not yet have seaweed in his hair
eyes salted shut
no: he is still there
her heart ripped open is a
window through which to see him
his absence full colour
every time she goes to ask
where she left her keys
if he could chop an onion for her
hold the baby while she goes to the bathroom
he is there, ever-present
she starts each sentence forgetting
and chokes when he remembers he won’t hear
but he does, clearer than before
not distorted by the sea
the distance between his sandy bed
and hers
he hears her weep into the
end of her scarf
into her child’s hair
into nothing, for nothing
could absorb so many tears
and not weep itself
he hears and replies
I wait for you
as death waits for all that live
borrowing time they cannot pay for
It does not seize you
with a cold, skeletal grip
like cartoon deaths do:
death is a hand beneath
cupped to catch us
the ground that followed us
all through our living days
the hand we fall exhaustedly into
when we cannot walk any further
holding without suffocating
only accepting with quiet love
I will wait for you for as long as you need
time means nothing when
there’s nothing left to do but
wait

The empty chairs are not empty
but the hands are
hands that want to be held
to stroke the rough face
encircle the strong chest
those hands are empty
and will never be full again
not for all the gold in Europe

Twisters

Women, we do not need
to be tornados
in order to be known.
Causing chaos, being in it
wrecks good roofs and
delays good living.
We don’t need to be
lipsticked hurricanes
sucking at the attentions
of the sighing world.
There is no calm at the centre
only tears and broken plates.

When the silt settles
on a calm shore
life can get back to work.
Seaweed and shark egg pods
freshly left in jungly
salt-streaked lines
leap at the silence hungrily
palms stretch cloudwards
fish bask in sleepy shallows
and the water can release
the breath it held when we
stormed in.

Maybe it’s the ‘man’.
He throws the rope and pulls
one end and sets us spinning.
No – we held the other end
too tightly too, tried
to whirl him in,
thinking one was not
a good enough number
to be. We
assumed we must be huge
and terrifying if we were to be
respected – aren’t the big shots,
the skyscrapers, the
powers that be?
So are the skunks.

This whirling would make
any plant strangle its own stem
and drip out all its juice.
Stop spinning.
There is no disaster that
hasn’t already happened
and been forgotten.
Don’t be the drama;
you’re too big, too good,
too beautiful for that.

Be the ocean
that feels the tug
of a twister
like a kitten
at a mother cat’s
teat.

The Elephant Sisterhood

A strange erosion seems to be happening in the togetherness of humankind. I cannot tell you how many women I know who, over the last few years, have seen their relationships with their children’s fathers disintegrate between their hands, like some decrepit sacred document worried to shreds by damp and worms.

The circumstances are almost identical; she, horrified at the idea of mothering alone, relinquishes almost all sense of self, does baby night shifts with the devotion of Florence Nightingale, changes nappies, mops floors, makes meals, cleans dishes, shops for food (oh, that endless circular mill of work!), and barely has the time or energy to comb her hair. He, confronted with this ratty-haired woman, whose clothes smell faintly of breastmilk and whose youth seems to have been extracted from her by the chubby creatures her body has painstakingly produced, this woman who was previously so attractive (for which read, used to have so much time for him), suddenly loses faith in the relationship. In her.

But despite being spurned, these women sacrifice what it is that makes them them in an attempt to win back that love. Smiled are rigid, unbalanced by grieving eyes. They believe in healing the rift by offering unconditional love, or by complying with his demands, and abandoning all hope of whatever might fulfil her . And as the spark of who she is sputters beneath this wet canopy of longing, he turns ever further away.

Sometimes the rejection takes an absurdly cruel twist. One friend of mine, unable to support herself with her two small children, is obliged to continue living with her ex (and doing all the wifely things he expects of her), because he does not believe that men should have to finanically support the mothers of their children. (He’s a lawyer.)

Another friend, who had arranged to get married to the man whose child she was carrying, even gave him money to buy a suit for the wedding; he didn’t show up. Yet another has to endure her son’s father sending him incessant abusive text messages about her. And now that I am thinking about it, another friend told me that the father of her son (the son has Asperger’s) is so hopeless she has to send him money.

One close friend has recently separated from a husband (and father of her two kids) who had constantly criticised, nitpicked, and told her how unattractive he found her – whilst pointing out to her women that he did find attractive. Apparently he was not the marriage type; it made me wonder if this was some prehistoric nomad gene in him spurring his heels out of domestic life, or if, perhaps, it was just a very stupid, immature, self-centred gene leaping out of his DNA.

My mind is drawn back to the moments after my own bombshell. We were on holiday in Portugal, a whole month, and in the last week my (then) husband announced that we had to end our relationship. Done. Over. Sounds so straightforward, doesn’t it? But there were still the trips to the beach with the kids – might as well make the most of the holiday time, eh – and the lunches with friends, so glib in their acceptance, and the afternoons spent lounging in the rental house, with the owner’s books to pore through to keep my head from spinning.

One of those books was about elephants. I did not know, before that holiday, that a herd of elephants is entirely composed of females, the head of the herd being the oldest (the matriarch). Males are born, and at about ten or eleven years of age they leave (or are thrown out?) of the herd to live as loners, only approaching another herd to mate before disappearing.

The young are raised happily by mothers, aunts, sisters and grannies, who never worry about when the child benefit will come in or if Daddy will turn up this weekend. Things are so different for us in the human world. I bet there are a few female invertebrates looking at us right now, saying, “Poor things. After mating we just eat our mate’s head.”

The trouble is – apart from the slavery of needing money and things to spend it on – that woman in industrialised societies cannot exist like a herd of elephants, without the necessity of a male figure to help with disciplining, making the odd dinner, helping out with the rent. We feel embarrassed asking a husband to pay for things, as though we’re spongeing. Time spent child-rearing clearly isn’t measured the same way as paid work when you are the child’s mother.

It seems impossible to imagine kids growing up in a community of women, without the nuclear family units that break humanity up into house-shaped blocks. And yet this is exactly how women have always lived all over the world, and even in Europe if we look far back enough. Even where segregation is not imposed, men and women will naturally drift into groups of their own gender; think of how stilted it feels to attend a formal dinner party with name tags on plates alternating chap and chick. Conversely, men who support sisterhoods are rewarded with cheerful, belly-laughing, radiant women who give back to their relationships the joy they nurture there.

Fortunately for everyone, sisterhoods are alive and growing. You find them in mother-and-child groups, in choirs, in yoga and bellydance and zumba classes and languages lessons and art workshops and crafting groups and writing groups and basketmaking courses and even doing karate. Then there are the events that do not find a slot in the local listings paper, the picnics and group missions up the mountains to get fresh goat’s milk, or pot lucks thrown together on the barest pretext. (“Kazoo workshop?” “Wicked!”)

I am feeling tremendously thankful right now to be living in a place where such a sisterhood does exist. We are united by our extraneousness, people of a mind-boggling number of nationalities united by this peculiar and beautiful place we live, by compost loos and organic veggie plots, by the desire to live without money (Orgiva has its own alternative currency, the Olivo), by a rejection of the crushing grip of consumerism. But we are not so different from women elsewhere. Whenever the urgency of needing to have a cup of tea and a natter whilst kids play together arises, gangs of women gravitate towards one another with a common interest: to know themselves through loving others. How do you love others? By knowing their stories and being a part of them.

We laugh. We shake our stretch-marked hips. We lay down our pretenses at the door, along with the all-weather wellies. And a wave is created between us, a spiral of storytelling and listening that encircles us subtly, bringing us close. We might be scattered between houses and towns and countries, but the herd exists, and it’s calling us home.

Cobenchiots

Wonder lust

What is the relationship one has with a person sitting nearby in a public place, on a train, say, or at a park? Someone you have noticed, perhaps exchanged glances with, averting your gaze and they theirs lest the proximity make both of you uncomfortable?

A ‘bench cohort’, one might call them; a ‘companion’ sounds too chummy, and ‘sharer’ implies you have something in common with them, other than a strip of manky carpet seating or a length of wood inscribed with teenagers’ names and who they fancy. I like ‘cobenchiot’, although it is, lamentably, a bit weird.

The unease felt by recognising that closeness must vary with different degrees of Englishness. Someone who is only partially English, perhaps a Spaniard who has spent ten years of their adult life working in the Home Counties among natives and has acquired some of the primness that accompanies most of our everyday encounters, might follow the protocol of ignorance that is unwittingly enforced by cobenchiots in their reasonably equidistant bottom placement.

As far as I can surmise, in places far removed from the drizzle and damp that makes us instinctively gather our gabardines around us to waterproof our backsides, the distance necessary to cause actual huffing and grave bodily squeamishness is far reduced. In India, the classic example we hear is that of women being shocked and horrified if a man touches their upper arm, and yet if you travel third (i.e. ordinary) class on a train there you are guaranteed an intimate knowledge of the person nextdoor’s body odour, and possibly also a souvenir of it to take home with you. Beats a postcard for realism, anyway.

I am intrigued by the strange, elastic quality of space that we humans like to toy with, desperate to stretch it when we feel claustrophobic, yearning to shrink it to nothing when our heart’s desire is at an unreachable, aloof distance. And the awareness of another being in our sphere of consciousness, their back, their sunburn, their perfume, their twitching as they turn a paperback page, their shoulders ebbing and flowing as they breathe – if we tune into it, without them ever cottoning on, could we know them? Know them better, even, than if we sat down at a table with a mutual friend and exchange pleasantries for half an hour over sushi?

The thought makes me reel back, hoist the No Entry flag, withdraw hastily from the threat of humanity approaching. Who’d want to be touched – emotionally, I mean (oh aren’t we such prudes!) by a stranger? Isn’t there something rather exhilarating about the naked expression we can have with someone we will never see again? And I mean that without ever leaving the park bench, without removing a single item of clothing, without any of the sordid salivary exchanges that spring to mind (oh don’t be so pure…I know you thought it, too).

A benchmate, that is the closest word I can think of to express it. We share a bench, not knowing each other’s names, family histories, favourite telly programs, breed of pet cat, hidden ambitions, proximal dentist appointments, annoying ways of never quite finishing the washing up. But we share a bench, and that is a great, deep, marvellous, expansive thing, a relationship to wonder at, a closeness to savour in its silence, a fleetingness that can teach more than thousands of sutras or years spent in prayer.

Here we are, now we are gone, and the bench is still there. Complete with ‘Kelly Luvs Graham 4 Eva, IDST.’

Excuse Me (prod, prod), Am I Annoying You?

Insomnia ball, chilling in the moss

Not long ago, awake at midnight having conked out putting Caveboy to bed, and trying to use up my mistimed wakefulness with the self-hypnotic powers of crochet (see pic), I found myself churning over thoughts in my head, not unlike that machine most beloved to Shamsie, the humble concrete mixer.

What sprang out of the rumbling mortar mix of my subconscious was something Caveman and I had been talking about that evening; he thought he’d accidentally offended a mutual friend when he jumped into a misheard conversation with what was meant to be a witty comment, but which clearly left her stung.

I started thinking, as I added stitches to my lurid pink woolly pentagon: had I also offended her? That morning, leaving Shamsie at his kindergarten, all of the mothers had seemed a little off with me. Was I barging about like I owned the place, without realising the revoltingness of my behaviour? Was I making insensitive comments to sweet, stingable souls? Was I being (triple ugh) smug?

I was reminded of a story Caveman once told me about a man he’d met in India. Meditating peacefully under a tree one day, out of nowhere a slightly over-exuberant Indian man came up, prodded him in the shoulder, and said loudly, “Excuse me, sir! You like meditation?”

How do we know what effect we really has on other people? Short of them uniting in one voice and booing you out of the room, there is an infinity of possible reactions people might conceal beneath the veneer of common decency, cordiality, convivial spirit. Was I one of those people who others cringed at in secret? The idea made my crochet hook turn faster and, I fear, more haphazardly. Eventually I went back to sleep, but not without a sickening sense that I might be taking the world’s approval for granted.

Morning comes, and the other parents seem their usual chirpy selves once more. The friend Caveman thought he’d offended did not even recall the incident, let alone bear a grudge over it. Smiles once more felt genuine; perhaps they had all just had a better night’s sleep.

Annoyance, however, lingered on as a recurring theme for a number of days. The cave witnessed much aggro between cavespouses, largely due to my low-lying invisible tantrum rearing its head. I remembered that post on this blog a few weeks back, and reminded myself that when the toddler is throwing jars of peanut butter onto the floor it’s generally because he’s in need of some positive attention. That toddler in me has clearly not grown up, but needs the same wise treatment as I (sometimes) remember to give Caveboy.

But it is a far broader theme, annoyance. Spain is brimming with it. Whether it’s the rowdy drivers yelling abuse at roadhogs or poor parkers, or the fiery, passionate romances that drench the Mexican soap operas – and, by extension, the ordinary folk absorbing the melodrama – Spanish people seem to be quite happy to vent a bit of steam. It almost seems to be a national pastime. Petanque in France, yodelling in Austria, getting up each other’s noses in Spain.

The good thing is that the steam, once vented, quickly dissipates. Nobody stays ruffled for long. And for the things which really nettle us ex-pats, locals appear to have an immense elasticity and boundless patience.

So this morning, having dodged the herds of goats and sheep that so often block the rough tracks we live down, I found myself hunting for a parking space in the notoriously windy, steeply-sloped roads of the town, jammed to the hilt with traffic because the funfair has settled its vast, gaudily-lit wings on the main parking lot, and what do you know? The road is unexpectedly blocked by a cheery funeral cortege.

The grumpy man on the motorbike in front gives me a gesture indicating I hang back and be patient. The world slows to a dream pace for some minutes. Even the man on the motorbike putt-putts respectfully along behind the colourful, chatting mourners. Some things aren’t worth getting ruffled about, he is saying; don’t give the annoyance a home.