(Chapter 6 is the previous post. Chapter 7 appears tomorrow. Chapters 1 and 2 are on the January archive, see right below)
Ups And Downs And All Things Toxic
Although in the supernatural world Time was inevitably regarded as a species of inferior hallucination, Wilfred Lawless was quick to assure me that in the time-bound world, Patience was of the very essence, and especially when it came to Lovebirds.com. He advised me that within a few months I would encounter women who showed an initial great interest and excitement when I wrote to them, then after perhaps half a dozen exhilarating messages, and for no detectable reason, they would go completely dead, all replies would immediately cease, and I would have no inkling why on earth that was. Most likely they had found another man close to home, hence given up on the alluring mirage of a Hellenic idyll with a journalist whose mug had once regularly been on the telly and in all the papers and magazines. In the end, he added, and rather like art gallery owners and record labels and publishers and literary agents and the like, it was always considered far safer to reject: in this case safer for a woman to reject a man who was a far-flung expatriate, than take a risk when seeking a source of enduring romantic joy. More reassuring was easy proximity with the smiling feller down the road, who though assuredly nothing to write passionately home about, was at least within convenient whistling distance.
He added matter of fact, “Be warned, you will find it is often a dizzy case of swings and roundabouts, of feasts and famines. Believe it or not, a fair number of likeable even admirable Loveballs gals will make their way to little Kalamos from all over the globe, over the next few months. There will initially be a fairy tale glut, and then for no fathomable reason, a temporary cessation. You should be advised that one super-keen lady, Helle, who imagines you as of towering world stature as a journalist and writer, will come all the way from Jarlsberg, Norway and she will book a three-week flight, but will only tell you as much once she’s bought the feckin ticket…”
I sat up, suddenly bolt awake. “Bloody hell, Uncle Wilf. That’s what I call committed…”
“Committed is an appropriate word. For just possibly she is crackers. Or maybe just half crackers. You will find out once Helle arrives. Suffice to say she is the last word in fin de siècle Romanticism, meaning of a febrile, vehement and unstable constitution. After she goes back, and because she is very wealthy, she will offer to buy you a beautiful and palatial if very remotely situated villa on Kalamos. You will inform Helle that someone lives there in contentment already, and she will reply that that is just a detail and she will pay twice its value to get them out. Her plan is that the pair of you live there in passionately romantic seclusion, you knocking out your angry book about the lethal situations in present day Syria, Iraq and the like, she ministering to the iconoclastic genius and making coffee and making love and making hay. You will of course be seriously tempted by her stupendous offer. But you will need to decide if Helle is a nutcase or only half a nutcase, especially as you stand to be ensconced with her for your earthly notion of eternity. Soon after, another woman will visit you from distant San Francisco. She is sixty-seven and has never been married, has no children and has never been in a relationship longer than four years. As a child she had a bully of a Dad, a bombast and a fatuous five-star gobshite, but that was the worst he ever was. He was not violent nor abusive in any way, but she pension-age Tamsin Winckelmann who is a yoga teacher in SF believes she has been seriously scarred nonetheless. He died last year when she was sixty-six, and she will tell you in all seriousness that only after he was dead and she was at his funeral, did she feel she was free to have a serious and mature relationship. At which point privately you Joe Soap will think to yourself, there are parts of the world where people don’t even live to be sixty-six, and she is saying she can only really get stuck into life and love, when she is in her late sixties and her insufferable pop has kicked the bucket.”
But I couldn’t restrain myself. “What does she look like, this Tamsin?”
He blinked and gently murmured, “Indescribably beautiful. Ditto Helle the Norwegian from Jarlsberg. That’s part of the problem. They look like the purest and most perfect golden lodestars but on close inspection prove to be rather more like dimly reflecting alloys, or shall we say human all too human. Tamsin when she comes to Kalamos wiil be wonderful in every aspect for the whole week, but both before and after her visit, she will often be weirdly irritable and fractious in her messages. It will seem to you almost as if she is indignant at being drawn all that way across the Atlantic, even though she is adamant that there are no eligible men in the whole of SF, nor indeed the whole of the USA, for they are all either married or what nowadays you folk call gay, but which I myself always used to call inverts and with no offence intended…”
I said, “This Tamsin sounds a bit dogmatic. A bit sweeping. A bit of an absolutist rather than a temporising relativist. I imagine her wearing billowing magenta scarves, massive dangling earrings, high black boots, and sporting a jutting and forthright and extremely alluring bosom. In fact, I rather like the sound of Ms Winckelmann, Uncle Wilf.”
He shrugged his old man’s shoulders, which I carefully took note did not possess any algae-coloured wings.
“On her return to San Francisco, Tamsin will become altogether very strange. In one of your He Males to her you will happen to mention your recent watching of two very good films on your hotpot. One is called Blood Simple, an excellent title as well as fine film by the Cohen Bros, and the other one is misspelt as Inglourious Basterds by a pugnacious and apparently controversial Italian director named Il Signor Tarantino…”
I interrupted, “It’s Coen not Cohen, Wilfred. And as for Tarantino, he is an Amer…”
He gave a doleful shake of the head. “Then all hell is let loose. It is scarcely to be credited, Tamsin’s dramatic accusation, and as a result one worries seriously for handsome Miss Winckelmann’s mental health. Given she is a decades long yoga teacher, surely she ought to be as relaxed as a pudding in her own skin, not to say humptytettick and not a hanging feckin mental judge. But is she shite, Joe Soap, you who she will accuse of a monstrous and actionable crime…”
I flinched violently. “What crime would that be exactly?”
“Tamsin’s highly idiosyncratic version of what is a crime. She will assert that you went and gravely disrespected her!”
I blurted angrily, “Did I fuck. I mean will I fuck. Why I never even…”
“But you will do so Joe! You will disrespect her, at least you will in her eccentric books, if no one else’s. She will accuse you of gross and careless and very damaging verbal repetition! For she will claim that some months ago you had already mentioned both directors to her, Cohen and the Italian lad, whereupon she tersely told you she emphatically anathematised the pair of them and their putrid films! And now here you are in your safe Greek hideaway where she can’t get at you and shake you for slaveringly praising the pair of these cinematic reprobates to her inimical lugholes! Ergo you do not listen to what she Tamsin Winckelmann says, and in so doing you are grossly disrespecting her…”
I gasped. “You know, this might shock you a bit, Uncle Wilf, but I don’t really think I like the sound of this unusually volatile yoga instructress after all.”
My uncle was in full flow by this stage. “What’s more, you are sufficiently hipped to point out that though previously, right enough, you praised the Cohen Boyos, you have never once mentioned Tarantino to her in your puff. You tell her that you have a flawless memory and are widely noted for it, so it must have been some other despicable English knave had disrespected her for mentioning the celebrated Italian. You add that surely saying something twice cannot justly be deemed a hanging matter by anyone half sane, and moreover that on her profile Tamsin had assured the world she herself was Not Judge Mental…meaning not hypercritical nor carping nor irrationally prejudiced.”
I was considerably impressed to hear what I would say by way of acid retort, and I found myself making jabbing congratulatory swipes in the air around me.
“To which Tamsin responds in an unyogic rage, by saying you are one of those deplorable men who only skim the trivial surface of things, for you rarely choose to discuss or confront the profoundest human depths. Instead you prefer to swim in the puerile shallows….”
I quivered and shook, considerably outraged myself. “Bloody nerve! Winckelmann by name and Winckelmann by nature!”
“Don’t worry, Joe lad. You will give far better than you get from beautiful American Tamsin, and you will deftly quote from her Winckelmann’s Well Being webshite , a promotional adjunct related to the fact she is one of the principal and most respected of yoga teachers in California. You roundly deride her WWB webshite and declare it to be rather more like wet shite than a webshite. You say it is all hyperaqueous New Age, pseudo-theosophical adolescent guff, where everything is capitalised on the lines of Energy, Calm, Spirit, Balance, Mellowness, Mellowed Out, Chakras, Kundalini…and then of course the chasmic rift between you two erstwhile lovers is total, and from then on you hear no more from Tamsin Winckelmann nor her from you…”
Savouring his spectral Sweet Afton, Wilfred went on to say that bitter discord on Lovebirds.com would be relatively rare, and rather more common with the ones who came my way would be a solicitous if at times intrusive concern for my health and general welfare, and especially when it came to things like my diet. Instead of rendering my great-uncle’s meticulous account verbatim I shall assume instead the narrator’s voice myself, and put it in the past tense, given that I am writing this several years on from the year 2014, when my great-uncle came on his charitable pilgrimage to see me in Kalamos. For confidentiality’s sake, I shall in the main call these women by their Lovebirds’ user names, which needless to say I have invented.
The expat called ALWAYSENCHANTING…
‘Alwaysenchanting’ was a red-cheeked, fair-haired and full-figured English teacher originally from Belfast, and aged fifty-eight. She was now the deputy head of a TEFL school in Athens and was appealingly vivacious and high-spirited over the phone, as also when we Skyped a couple of times. She liked her ouzo very much and when she visited me that weekend in Kalamos she also loved the meals I cooked, guzzling them down at speed and with snorting noises of appreciation, something which I found very endearing. One evening I made her Lebanese stuffed potatoes in a saffon and cinnamon sauce, and any neutral spectator would have agreed that the scented Middle Eastern food had a suggestion of the ancient harem and the modern day souk, and most likely would occasion a marked aphrodisiac effect at some felicitous stage. This proved to be exactly the case, but just before we retired, Alwaysenchanting who had been sipping a half bottle of ouzo with her food, looked wonderingly at the delicious red wine I was quaffing and which I’d bought for a bargain three euros per massive bumper bottle. She evidently concluded that such startling economy was related to the fact it was in a plastic bottle adorned with minimal calligraphy, being called in plain and simple Greek ksiros oinos erythros , ‘Dry Red Wine’, no more no less.
“Toxic!” she declared with an abrupt and judicial severity.
I said with a start, “Who is? Me?”
She chuckled first, and hiccupped second. “No, no, darling, not you, you are altogether lovely. But that wine inside the plastic bottle over time reacts with the plastic and produces noxious and harmful toxic chemicals. Believe me, it won’t be doing your system any good at all such stuff. Hic. What I’m saying is darling, pay a euro or so more, and get yourself a nice bottle, then you’ll not be risking your health at all. Hic.”
I protested, “But I’ve been knocking it back for at least two years without any ill effect…”
She frowned then unleashed a tetanic hiccup. “Hic. Fuck. Hic. It’s your choice of course. But if I were you I wouldn’t risk my precious liver or my dear old guts. Damn, this fucking ouzaki of mine didn’t last very long did it. I’ll just bash off to the mini market, and be back in a trice.”
While she was away I poured myself an extra large glass of my hazardous plastic red, and as if to prove the indisputable, it tasted even better than it had at the start of dinner. A few weeks later I met up with Alwaysenchanting in Athens, and we walked round sunny and handsome Thiseio and had lunch and she consumed at speed a couple of ouzakis and a triple Metaxas for good measure. She became gloriously drunk and fell asleep in the film we went to see, and later I put her carefully on the metro back to Metaksourgeio where she lived. A month or two passed, and then and after a few emails and without any rancour, we amiably forgot about each other.
‘Downinnorfolk’ and I skyped each other half a dozen times, but we never met in the flesh. She worked for a children’s charity based in Norwich, and was in her mid-sixties, had never been married, but had had two very long relationships, both of which had come adrift when she had always hoped for a tender permanence. She was full of freckles, brown haired, slim, looked exactly like a larger version of how she must have looked at ten, was fleetingly melancholy, yet warm-hearted, and infinitely hard working, in fact a seasoned workaholic. To dispose of her health advice first, after we had spoken of our mutual fondness for coffee, she advised me that the expensive decaf I had started to drink because I consumed so much of the caffeinated kind, had been given special chemical treatment in the refining process, which sadly had introduced innumerable toxic compounds.
At the dietetic déjà vu, I said. “Toxic? Is that a fact?”
“Google it and you’ll see. The truly ludicrous irony is that say caffeinated Lavazza is safer than its decaffeinated brother and all other decafs. Meaning that you’re seriously risking your health if you keep on bebbing the decaf…”
I muttered, “But I’ve been drinking it for at least two years. And with nil ill effects.”
She smiled protectively and even a mite possessively, “Perhaps not now. But in the years to come…”
The reason things fizzled out with Downinnorfolk was that though an admirable, animated and very attractive woman, she was also a spectacular doormat, and doormats whichever stereoscopic way you try to examine them and efface your first reductive impressions, are only meant for you to wipe your feet on. Her last long relationship had been with a man from Cromer called Daniel Peach, a sculptor and a very successful one, indeed a considerably affluent one. He had left her very abruptly and appallingly after fifteen long years, for a much younger woman called Grace who he’d soon married. Peach had urged her in her wretched grief, that despite all they must stay friends, and through her racking sobs she had promised to be a grown up about it, no matter what. In line with that, she had never once criticised him nor condemned the always smiling Grace. Dan then confirmed his mature and sage credentials by making his old flame Downinnorfolk the godmother of their first baby Benny. This had proved a magnetic and powerful bond for the childless charity worker, and she was always down in Cromer looking after Benny while Daniel Peach and Grace Peach were out partying or away for an ecstatic weekend break in Paris or Dublin or Rome. Downinnorfolk could sit in the enormous and for some reason always cold studio with her handsome godchild, feeling undeniably lonely, even sad, and still have her significant if thwarted stake in Daniel. I was quietly frozen to hear her account of this romantic tragedy cleverly averted by two people opting to be mature and not childish, and very much wished to point out that it was an overweening win-win for Daniel and Grace, and a dismal lose-lose for her, no matter what cheery and alienated construction she put upon it. Anyone in the outside world would decide she was genteelly prostituting herself for Dan who was clearly an expert if decorous pimp or ponce himself, with an expert line in hooking and exploiting former girlfriends…
The crunch came and our dialogue ceased when she told me she had decided to sell both of the houses she owned in Norwich. This was in order to buy herself a large attractive flat in Cromer, to live on her capital, and of course to help out more and more with the growing godchild little Benny. Peach’s renown as a sculptor was now such that he had to fly all round the world, exhibiting and giving interviews in Milan and NY and Paris and Frankfurt, and of course Grace as his wife always went with him, and acted as a kind of secretarial and glamorous factotum (she’s still only forty-three, superb figure, gorgeous shiny black hair, and she speaks Italian, German and French to boot). Grace and Daniel only really trusted Benny’s godmother as flawless carer, and so she’d decided it made sense for her to be there at their disposal now that she was planning her retirement. Words failed me as she explained what would have struck anyone sane as a voluntary decision to become a lifelong slave to the man who’d broken her heart and got away with it, and even made a hefty profit by his vandalism. I stopped emailing Downinnorfolk, and gave the excuse I was loaded down with work and seriously considering being a full time foreign correspondent again, and therefore in no imminent need of a partner. By now I expect she is settled in Cromer with a captious and bullying six-year-old godchild, but in ten years’ time I wonder what earthly reason she might have for staying there in Cromer, in arguably what will have turned into a melancholy nanny flat or a granny flat for one who is not a nanny nor a granny.
Lifeisanadventure was someone I talked to once only on Skype, and hers was one of the strangest and most surprising of Lovebirds encounters. She was a fifty-nine-year-old biochemistry lecturer at a Midlands university, albeit a native Londoner with a recognisably working-class accent, and she’d had a ten-year marriage to a joiner called Scott, who had left her two years earlier. Her real name, she revealed, was Mallie Scott and she had a pretty, decidedly old-fashioned face with wide liquid eyes and gently sculpted lips. But her eyes and mouth had a repetitive habit of subtly freezing, as if she had been dealt one blow too many, and had had to learn a kind of defensive petrifaction to keep on going with her lecturing and everything else. Mallie had no children but remarkably possessed a fifty-five-year-old parrot (four years her junior) called Jack who was obviously the light of her life. Jack, I could hear faintly in the background, and she told me he was perched in the kitchen talking eloquently to himself. She added that it had struck her as a warmly auspicious thing that her surname was the same as her husband’s Christian name, and she was still feeling roundly cheated that the augur hadn’t matched the reality.
At one point I began talking of my passion for cooking, and as a specialist in dietetics and nutrition Mallie was interested to know what I had made the previous evening. I described with enthusiasm the Syrian bulgur pilaf I had prepared with fried courgettes, peppers and aubergines, plus fried hazelnuts and sultanas. Then I stirred in a teaspoon of tomato puree which coloured it handsomely red, before flavouring with cumin, lemon juice and optionally chili, finally dousing it with olive oil and garnishing with lemon slices. Normally this kind of recital impresses anyone male or female, young or old, but Lifeisandventure Mallie suddenly evidenced a minor rictus in her frozen lips, and the eyes seemed strained and rather as if those of someone who had been wound up in order to perform the role of a conscientious school monitor.
“Toxic,” she declared. “Yes indeed. Absolutely toxic.”
This was perhaps a deja vu too many. “What is?”
“Frying anything in olive oil is toxic! The oil breaks down into degraded meaning hazardous compounds and then of course with the lethal build-up over the years…”
I interrupted, “Lethal? But I’ve been frying things in olive oil for over forty years, ever since I learnt to cook in the Nineteen Seventies.”
She shook her stiff little, pretty little face, as if to say words don’t mean anything compared with the impregnable truths of verifiable science and especially of dietetics. With a glumly candid face she confessed: “People don’t like dieticians. It’s a fact that we’ve got no friends. People just don’t like hearing the truth.”
I wondered if Mallie had lectured errant husband Scott, when once starving hungry he’d made himself a delectable Chinese stir fry, and whether it had just been all too much for an unidealistic joiner from Poplar who as a bachelor had survived on greasy bacon sandwiches and those alone. I said: “The whole of Greece, the whole of the Mediterranean and the Middle East come to that, they all fry everything in olive oil, and have been doing so ever since the birth of time. They haven’t all keeled over with cardiac attacks as a result, though in recent years I suppose they might well have snuffed it from chronic smoking and obesity and taking no exercise and all their other dogged habits.”
She waved her thin and graceful hand. “The only safe way is to boil the vegetables, then add the oil afterwards. As for the nuts and sultanas, you must chuck them in at the end and mix them with the oil.”
I contemplated the preposterous obscenity of boiled aubergines and boiled courgettes, respectively the king and queen of cosmopolitan vegetables. Our debate might well have got very heated and then fractious had we suddenly not been distracted by the sound of Jack the parrot breaking into raw uproarious song in the kitchen.
Hit the road Jack
And don’t you come back no more no more, no more, no more…!
At once the two of us fell about, and Mallie’s rigid musculature instantly loosened, and she was alive, vital, amused, animated, and once again hearteningly attractive, even young looking.
Lifeisanadventure said eagerly, “Shall I bring him in to show you? Shall I?”
She warned that Jack who she’d owned for twenty years had had serious trouble with his right eye a few years back, and it had to be surgically removed. Hence, he was a one-eyed parrot rather than a one-eyed Long John Silver, who of course had kept a squawking polly on his shoulder. Also, Jack preferred to sing exclusively about himself and about no one else, though she had tried in vain to teach him ‘What’s it all about, Alfie?’ and ‘When will we get married, John?’
She carried him through triumphantly on her thin left hand. Her face had cast off its monotonous stiffness and she was aglow with enveloping tenderness for her noisy parrot, who was a vivid blue and a searing green. Jack looked impossibly beautiful, yet seemingly modest in his ocular depletion. I looked at his single eye and was moved to the core by Jack’s little tragedy. He looked the purest zoological innocence, but Jack had gone beyond innocence into a state of oblivious animal grace that managed also to be comic. I thought to myself, if there was a parrot section of the well-named Lovebirds, Jack the Lad here would be swept up and married to a blazing bright red Costa Rica diva, within less than twenty-four hours.
Hit the Road Jack, and don’t you come back no more, no more, no more, no more…
We were both convulsed, and Lifeisanadventure seemed effortlessly beautiful, as if her stifled heart had managed to fight against that unhappy and frozen face and win…
Later I established that though her marriage had broken up because of Scott’s adultery, it was she Mallie who had kicked her husband out. For although Scott fully intended to leave her in exactly two weeks’ time, he was hanging around the house like a gormless ghost in a trance, supposedly in order to let her gradually get over the cataclysmic shock. It was his idea of simple kindness and old-fashioned consideration, so he intended, looking offensively guilty and even a little tearful. But Lifeisanadventure had deafeningly screamed at him to fuck off as soon as he liked, and to hit the fucking road, Jack, and she did so because his surname was Jack, his full name was Scott Jack, and she a few years ago had been called Mallie Jack, but now thank God no longer was.