HELLO AGAIN, UK
John Murray offers Bargain Online Fiction Tuition. Founder-editor of acclaimed Panurge fiction magazine (1984-1996, and co-edited by David Almond) he has published 10 works of fiction and taught prose writing for almost 30 years. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
In 3 weeks time I visit the UK for the first time in 2 years, and it definitely feels momentous. I am going to see lovely Monica in London, where I haven’t been since 2008, which to my amazement is a full 7 years ago, a biblical period no less (see the mesmerising Genesis story of Joseph the Patriarch, where heartless jealousy is portrayed as nowhere else). Ione will come down to meet us from Leeds for a few days, and it will be 6 months since my daughter and I were together. In terms of mundane practical matters I am doing things fascinatingly arseways about, as I am a UK citizen living full time in Greece, who will be drawing cash from a UK ATM for the first time in 2 years. That means I had to use telephone banking recently, and ask them not to block the London transactions, but alas the guy at the other end did not inspire much confidence. He sounded as if he was 12 (maybe he was) and had a kind of snazzy bouncy US accent, but the phone line was whistling so much he was obviously far away in Asia. I also asked him to email me a certain form to do with a second account, and he promised he would, and guess what, he did not. I don’t fancy ringing that whistling, hissing short wave line again, and no doubt will have to go into a London branch and do it all in person (an irresistible digression here. Re radio short waves, there is an ingenious and rather rude gag in a Lawrence Durrell (1911-1990) novel, Mountolive (1958). Writer Pursewarden mocks French diplomat Pombal for a wooden mistranslation of ‘[a night broadcast on] des ondes courtes’, as ‘a nocturnal emission on the short hairs’).
Monica lives in a very nice part of North London which I do not know, and which I briefly suspected she might have invented. When I looked in my ‘London A-Z’ that I brought to Greece, I could not find her street anywhere until after a couple of incredulous hours it clicked that this was a ‘Mini A-Z’ and didn’t have the whole of London in it. What a useless and pointless little publishing swindle, eh? I thought ‘Mini A-Z’ meant a reduced typesize, not a reduced metropolis. I must devise a new tourist sensation of a ‘Mini Kythnos A-Z’ with only half of the tiny island on it…the half without any ATMs that is, after the fashion of an Asian call centre having a good joke at all those UK buggers who all have too much money, and don’t know what real hassle and real worry and real poverty are anyway, even if it were all to bite them in the face.
The last time I was in London I was with Annie, those 7 short years ago. We had gone down to see student Ione off to South Africa, where she was about to work as a volunteer for a fortnight on a Vervet monkey refuge in the Limpopo area. We had flown from Newcastle to Heathrow, and seen her off on her plane, and then taken the tube to the city centre. The tube stopped half way through a tunnel, and stayed there a bloody long time. It didn’t bother fearless Annie, but I went into painfully sweating claustrophobia mode, and wondered how feasible it was for us to get out and walk with a white hanky flapping the rest of the way. We were staying in a nice little hotel in Russell Square, handy for the British Museum and even more alluring, 2 smart looking Indian restaurants. One, a Bengali one, was excellent and the adjacent South Indian one was comme si, comme ca, or in Greek etsi ketsi. The waiter came round asking on autopilot how everything was, and for once, I decided to be honest rather than stay the insincere, and far too polite Brit. I told him dishes A, B and C were good and dishes D, E and F were average, and in fact D was downright bad. The man of about 30, unused to any sort of considered candour in this very posh eatery, simply couldn’t believe his ears, and spent the next 5 minutes assuring me that my opinion was wrong, and that D, E and F were exactly as they were meant to be, and had been cooked to precise and authentic recipes. He was far too snooty and unctuous, and as I had after all praised what was indeed good, I told him I had been eating in Indian restaurants both here and in Ireland and Portugal (the Goa connection) and India and Nepal for 38 years, and I knew what was good, and what was not. D, the vegetable jalfrezi, tasted like it was out of a tin, and I invited him to taste it himself if he thought it was so delectable. He declined the invitation and left the matter unsolved. I left him a tip, but a far smaller one than he would have had, if he had admitted that his vegetable chef was a lazy bugger who knocked up any old garbage if he was the wrong way out.
Annie joined in the truth department as well, though more gently than I, and both of us had good reason to be honest with the world at the time. 2 months earlier she had been diagnosed with secondary cancer, large metastases in the liver and scattered tumours in the bones, from an original primary breast cancer. They had taken 10 years to manifest themselves after the 1998 mastectomy and chemotherapy, and after a decade of course, you naturally enough think that you are in the clear. Surgery or more chemo were not options, the tumours could only be controlled by anti-hormonal drugs and bone strengtheners. So far all was going brilliantly, and she wasn’t even taking painkillers and we hoped against hope, as does everyone else in such circumstances, that she would go on forever.
I nearly lost her in London though. We had gone to the Tate Modern to see an exhibition of some fine US artists of the 40s, including the very gifted Edward Hopper (1882-1967), who had painted moody noirish pictures of things like melancholy young couples gazing dourly into space in cramped NY apartments. In passing we ended up in the Tracy Emin room, or at least the one where there was a lot of her work. Exactly as in the South Indian restaurant, I thought the American artists A, B and C were very good and Tracy Emin (born 1963) and her pals, D E and F, were authors of irredeemable rubbish. If that sounds dyed-in-the-wool redneck reaction, I ask you to go and look at any drawing by Leonardo and immediately afterwards at anything executed by Tracy, including her very choicest worth-a-ransom masterworks. Those US artists show graphic zeal and accumulated skill, and thus are fit to stand in suitable shaded homage beside Leonardo, whereas Emin and her mates show nothing but a Far Too Comfortably Nihilist Abyss and an Anodyne Yet Remarkably Lucrative Affective Absence and are only fit to stand beside each other.
Then some wholly unexpected drama happened. After about an hour, Annie and I became separated, and it was no doubt my fault for wandering so impulsively from room to room. I sought for her first amused, then increasingly and instinctively worried, in the immediate vicinity, and afterwards the whole of the ground floor. But nowhere, absolutely nowhere, was her familiar tall, very fair profile to be seen. Like an eejit, I had left my mobile back at the hotel, as I had only had one for 6 months, and in any case I only used it when apart from her and Ione, not when with them. What’s more, in those days it took me half an hour to text a single sentence, and if someone rang me I could never remember which fucking button it was I was supposed to press, and thus was always cutting them dead.
After a while I started to panic like an abandoned child…
My logical mind knew we would find each other one way or the other, even if I were to risk seeming little boy lost and had a message sent round on the tannoy system. But the cruel and unfaceable truth was that Annie had a horrible secondary cancer, and unquenchable optimist that I always was in my conscious self, somehow, and for the first time since April, my very deepest self was panicking at that.