Archive for August, 2007

Under the Copper Beech

I approach the garden with a certain amount of trepidation. The grass, which is usually trim, hasn’t been cut in a while. At the bottom of the garden there is a copper beech tree whose branches droop almost as far as the ground, creating a secluded canopied area underneath. 

“Through there”, she says pointing to the tree. I make my way in gingerly, pushing the branches aside with one hand and holding the spade with the other. The earth here is dry, unaffected it would seem by the recent diluvial weather. I examine the body: in surprisingly good condition considering it has probably been here for a week, when he was first reported missing. 

I half-heartedly begin to dig but this is not the kind of work that accommodates half-heartedness, and the arid ground refuses to yield. Why now, I think aggrieved by recent events. His stubbornness and refusal to respond to reason is quite exasperating. For someone who spent his entire life regularly exercising and eating healthily, why would he give up so easily? 

“I am my own doctor”, he had said, clearly irritated by our concerned badgering. People in their sixties, even their seventies, are not considered old anymore, and yet at the first sign of trouble he expects the worst. Confronted with the headlights of a potential death sentence delivered by a doctor decades his junior, he becomes paralysed by fear. 

“Doctors are young and would have no interest in treating someone my age. If I went into hospital, I probably wouldn’t come out alive”, he had said looking emaciated like a prisoner of war. His distrust of doctors seems to stem from his belief that they are directly responsible for his wife’s death nearly fourteen years ago, when she had slipped into a hepatic coma. The doctors, having given up on her, withheld food and water, which, although counterintuitive since the liver is an organ capable of regeneration, is apparently standard practice in England. 

I look up at her through the leaves. She is standing on the concrete path that surrounds the house, arms anxiously folded across her chest. I didn’t know her when her mother died. Despite her unflagging cheerfulness, I have often noticed a well concealed sadness in her eyes and an almost imperceptible quiver of the lips, disguised by a solemn look of remembrance, particularly whilst relating a recurring dream: in it her mother is still alive, having made a full recovery from her coma, and life has once again returned to normal. But her narrative ends there. She doesn’t speak of the pain that each time she awakes to realise it was only a dream must cause her. Now expecting her first child, our first child, this. I stab at the soil with renewed vigour, bitten again by the untimeliness of events. 

The hole looks deep enough (how deep is deep enough?) and I gently scoop the animal up. He is lying on his side in a languid stretch and disconcertingly has his eyes open, staring unseeingly ahead. It must have been one of those cases often told in cat-lore in which the poor animal, sensing his time was up, decided to make his way to a secluded spot to accept his fate. Apparently he was around fifteen years old. Had he shown signs of illness, I wonder? Even if he had, it is unlikely his owner would have taken him to a vet, no doubt worried that they might put the animal to sleep. 

My job here is done and I walk back across the long grass to where she is standing. In the distance the accusing whirr of a lawnmower is cranked into life as we leave the garden in a silent embrace.


The Grand Old Lady of the Adriatic

Full of tricks, this old girl. Even before you arrive, you are already bound by her demands and caprices. They shall only reach me by boat, she determined, evidently understanding the romantic appeal conveyed by this simple trick. She also insists that you approach her from a certain angle, the light catching her just so during what is a vulnerable moment in the traveller’s suggestible heart. There she sits, devastatingly beautiful, in a pose that is at once demure and provocative, the cityscape equivalent of the Mona Lisa.

She is dressed in the finery designed for her with the natural rhythms of daily life; style and colour coordination cunningly interwoven for maximum visual effect. As well as the long liquid emerald necklace carelessly draped over her body, she is adorned with the treasures created by her many artistic sons. And thus she bloomed like a flower ready for the bees, and after surveying her reflection on the green waters of the Venetian Lagoon and approving of what she saw, she declared: Let them come. And come they did in their droves.

Throughout the centuries, she has ensured that she mingled with the right sort of people: traders and noblemen, powerful families and the clergy. All those years spent in the company of illustrious patrons have given her a charismatic air of intrigue. But all that was a long time ago, in the days when the delicate flower of youth still coloured her soft cheeks. In more recent years, she has had to make do with a different brand of visitor, in unsightly shorts and baseball caps bearing sports logos charging through her streets in a manner which closely resembles a stampede of bulls, digital cameras dangling from their lanyards. But it doesn’t matter to this once high class lady of the night; perhaps not realising that, if anything, her appeal has only increased with age, she decided not to be too picky about the sort of people she receives into her arms – as long as they are capable of keeping her in the manner to which she is accustomed.

And I, who despite being able to see through her array of searing stares and studied gestures of seduction, am no less susceptible to her charms than any other punter. Of course, I fall for the old girl – we all do. I readily surrender my heart and my wallet, throwing money at her with the abandon of a sailor docking at some port after months at sea. But beware: in the morning, still heady with her scent and dishevelled from the previous night’s excesses, and with the insides of your pockets turned out, do not expect her to return your amorous advances – this flighty girl, having hollowed her pound of flesh out of your chest, will have moved on to her next conquest.

Exhausted from all the exertions and expense of getting to know this grand old lady better, I stop on the Rialto Bridge for a contemplative cigarette. I stare out over her liquid emerald necklace, at the tourists trundling back and forth and the bustling industriousness of the Canal, and the pathos of this beautiful old tart hits me. Yesterday I was ready to surrender all my worldly goods and move in with her without a thought for where my next meal would come from. Today I am just another washed-out shipwreck, thinking of a way to avoid the boat that is poised to whisk me away.

I peer behind me at a down-and-out who is sitting on the steps of the bridge. He sits with downcast eyes, smoothing his hair with the last bit of pride that is left in him. Propped up against him is a sign with a message in Italian: no home, no family. please help. Clearly another soul loved and rejected by this fickle lady, hollow-chested and unable to let go. The city is littered with them, and I am suddenly seized by a rush of empathy for the poor bastard. I know how you feel, old chap, I know how you feel