Sunday, 5 March 2017

Lives apart


He sat on the opposite aisle, one row in front of me. The bald patch on his head had the same shape and shine as a ceramic plate fresh out of the dishwasher. Around circled patches of hair that seemed to have grown grey from the scalp, rather than whitened with age. As if he were a boy born with the wisdom of a man. And, though he can’t have been born with the earring (a silver disk in the lobe of his left ear), he wore it like it was second nature. A personality trait, not an accessory.

***

The earring didn’t look like it had been his mother’s idea. Perhaps it was a secret kept from her, a tired and wrinkled woman waiting for her son to come home, olive eyes a magnet to the kitchen window. She’d been baking all afternoon – warm wafts of bread lined the cracks in the walls and holes in the ceiling.

“What took you so long?” She asked with open arms. He came closer - her rosy cheeks paled as his white ears crimsoned. “What do you call that?” The silver disk was as much of a staple as her son’s smile: both gleamed with mischief.  

“A fashion statement,” he said.

Burnt bread has a very distinctive smell.

***

Perhaps it had been peer pressure - the cigarettes and vodka shots of forty years ago. In a group of three friends, one always feels like they have to prove themselves.

“Not afraid of a needle are you?”

“I’ll do it if you do it first.”

“We’ll be like the Three Musketeers.”

Teenage boys are all talk. Their words inflated like balloons, popped by the mere stab of a needle. Two friends unsure what to do with themselves. The third still didn’t belong.

“We didn’t think you’d actually agree to it.”

***

Perhaps he was trying to bond with his daughter, searching for his feminine side to disguise his disappointment in his first-born not being a son.

“Daddy, will you get one too?”

“I don’t think Daddy would suit an earring very well, darling.”

Little girls always get what they want. Twenty minutes later, daddy and daughter walked out with three piercings, her two silver stars centred, his slightly lower, somewhat crooked. He had an odd earlobe, he’d learnt.

***

There we both sat, hungry yet bloated from travelling, coffee-breathed but craving more caffeine. Not just a row but an entire lifetime apart. Passengers of the same low budget airline whose paths happened to coincide. His earring twinkled under the plane’s artificial lights. His smile, directed at his daughter, did too.


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Spotted: Central Park


A couple still discovering each other’s birthmarks and bad habits, sprawled over a plaid picnic mat dotted with breadcrumbs and chocolate stains. She smells of vanilla, he sprayed extra deodorant.

Fathers sprinting after their son’s baseballs, legs buckling and breath panting but smile static, constant, a homerun.

Fresh paint licking a canvas, the painter’s cheeks as textured as his picture, wrinkles sculpted into his skin.

A mutual smile between a dog and its owner, faces alike like they often become between those who live together.

Sweat droplets and the thick smell of sun cream. Shirtless men absorbing afternoon rays, proud of their sagging skin and beer-bellies.

Wafts of fried onions, plump white buns and sausages that sizzle.
“Ketchup or mustard?”
“Both.”

Breakups, private tears becoming public.

Scratched knees and bruised elbows, unstable kids on roller-skates, learning the art of balance.
“I won’t let go.”
They always let go.

Yoga poses, limbs bent and held in ways that seem unnatural. People, young and old, learning from each other.  

Coins sinking to the bottom of fountains, heavy with the weight of their wishes.

First kisses, slow and awkward. Tiptoes and sore necks, unsure where best to place palms.

The sharp crunch of leaves beneath tyres as bikes zig-zag through morning jogs and afternoon strolls.

Bare branches and white ice, rink dotted with couples and parents whose children remembered their promises. Cameras flash, memories captured, left to linger on mantelpieces and beneath fridge magnets.

Snippets of conversations condensing through frost-filled air, Chinese words wafting between Russian, Spanish, Arabic.

The rumbles of the surrounding city, millions of lives co-existing, sharing streets and sidewalks, injecting their own “new” into New York.

Horses clicking and clacking over pavements they know by memory, their hooves tattooed onto the cement.

Men in ironed suits, some with paper cups of black coffee, others with a cigarette hanging from their lips. One eye checks their watch, the other refreshes their email.

Coins being pulled out of the bottoms of fountains: children craving an extra penny out of greed, the homeless out of need.

Guitar strums and raspy voices, pencil sketches and notebook scribbles, self-taught jugglers and toned tap dancers. Doers and dreamers.

Another new couple, fingertips tickling each other’s cheeks, smiles crooked like the park’s daffodils, just beginning to bloom.

Monday, 23 January 2017

Public privacy


If you want to understand someone, ask them to empty their bag – be it their patent leather purse, briefcase or backpack. Or, on the likely chance that they refuse, wait until its unattended, when you’ve been trusted to keep an eye out while they nip to the toilet, and rummage around in secret. Turn it upside down so you can get to know them inside out.

Find ripped receipts, those lingering reminders of money that would be better left unspent. Lip balms that’d long been labelled lost, foreign coins, loose pieces of spearmint gum, wrappers stained with guilt and milk chocolate remains.

A grandmother’s ring, sachets of white sugar, a yellow crayon, a misshapen almond, a makeup wipe stained black with last week’s mascara, a broken cigarette, a pink highlighter missing its lid, a glasses case (with no glasses inside), an old cinema ticket, expired vouchers, a safety pin, more sachets of white sugar, a lighter with no fluid, a giant paperclip, another receipt, a pair of rusty tweezers, a tampon, a mini paperclip, bills that have yet to be paid, stained with coffee and dusted with cracker crumbs.

Search “What’s in my Bag?” on YouTube and you’ll be bombarded with about 20,700,000 results. Ten-minute long videos of the conventional wallet, water bottle, car keys, house keys, maybe an odd lipstick or hairclip. The spotless, censored version - an assortment that ceases to be embarrassing, but one that also isn’t true. Devoid of unwashed socks, one that shows the fresh pack of tissues but hides the loose used ones from view.   

Make sure to be done at least a minute or two before they’re back, enough time for you to be scrolling through your phone and for their mismatched items to settle back into those places they’ve chosen for themselves.

For each expired bus ticket and fridge magnet is part of their everyday (bag)gage. Private belongings that we dare to carry around in public.  

Friday, 23 December 2016

Home?


Six hours of taxi, train, plane and car rides and I came home for the holidays. To a house I’ve lived in for three years, to a family I know inside out. To a real Christmas tree (we’ve always had fake) with familiar ornaments looped around branches, intricate ballet shoes I remember Mum and I buying at our local garden centre about a decade ago.  This is the first year I wasn’t around to help decorate.

“It’s good to have you home.”

“It’s good to be home.”

And it is. Bathtub bubbles kiss my skin and my muscles loosen in the absence of dish-washing and hauling dirty clothes to and from the laundrette. But yet, my bedroom echoes that of a hotel: my candles aren’t in my bedside drawer and my hairbands aren’t on my bathroom counter. The living room sofas are still yellow leather and battered, but they’re not positioned like they were three months ago. Maybe it was na├»ve of me to believe nothing would’ve changed for, after all, I’m not the same either.

“How’s university?” attempted small talk from people I once knew – some with faces more familiar than others.

“Insane,” I say – a mediocre attempt to offer every answer that fits: incredible, blurry, challenging, sleepless, comfortable, uncomfortable, weird. Halls that you learn to love despite their purple carpets and dim lightbulbs. A kitchen you manoeuvre through perpetual crumbs and unidentified spillages and lack of counter space.

“Where are you from?” is a paradox of a question. Seems simple – a slip-off-the-tongue answer, until your birthplace clashes with your primary school and adolescence ships you across seas. Now, “where is home?” can be added to the list of unanswerable questions. For home is both there and here. Home is four walls and wide windows with transparent curtains, but it is also childhood photo albums and board game cupboards and a double bed. Home is Mum’s oven smells and four simultaneous saucepans of boiling pasta. Home is friends old and new. Home is Moscow’s hospital rooms and Bicester’s bike lanes and Barcelona’s sea skies and Norwich’s mist over cobbled lanes.

Home doesn’t have to be a bedroom or a family house, doesn’t need an arrivals lounge or a train station. Home is wherever feels like it. Wherever smile tattoos are free of charge and wherever laughs crimson your cheeks and make your stomach ache. Home is good food and even better company. Home isn’t tangible, nor does it have to be visible. Sometimes, it cannot be put into words.