The clockwork fence


I sit at the my desk facing my balcony. Diffused sunlight through a cloudy sky casts a soft light in my study. On my left, a table fan whirs and whines, rhythmic, I believe, so the silence of solitude is bearable. I have found that there is a comfort in my isolation from the world. My desk is littered with empty packs of cigarettes, and there is a bowl to my right which I use as an ashtray. Occasionally, I light a cigarette and blow the cigarette smoke upwards, to see it unfurl like a grey flag. It collects around the door to the balcony and makes its way out into the street, where it disperses in the wind.

There is a van outside, parked on the street, and there is an old man I can see. He carries stocks for the departmental store below my flat. I can see the muscles in his neck strain under the weight of the things he carries. He walks heavily, his breath comes in short gasps for air and I can occasionally hear a wheeze. Years of living on this earth have given his eyes a glaze that looks, to me, like a weathering of paint. There is not much to say to the beauty of manual labour. I walk to the balcony occasionally to watch the cars and vans that ply the street. In each of them, I see someone looking out of the window where they, presumably, see me. I catch the eyes of countless strangers everyday and there is a wonder in what they see. What do they see? Do they see a young man with very long hair? Do they see a stranger? Do they see nothing at all?

Kochetov’s Do not regret me in my old age, plays on my speakers. The Russian Oktavist’s voice fills my apartment. Can those people walking on the pavement below hear this man’s voice? In moments of rare euphoria, I too sing my favourite operatic pieces, usually Luciano Pavarotti’s Ave Maria. It is an odd habit, I admit. It is rare to see appreciation of Classical music, and I often replay moments in my life to the background of these songs. Song, the word itself, means nothing. There is birdsong, there is the song of the evening, there are songs playing everywhere I go, but Classical Music is, music.

I walked to the Primary school to see Vivienne, the landlady’s daughter. I was just passing by when she called out to me from the fence that lined the basketball court and I looked up from my dreaming walk to see her, her green eyes looking at me from across the road. I hesitated a second and crossed the road to her and greeted her. It’d been months since I last saw her. I took in her hair, blonde, curled in wide curls and I noticed the thread that stuck out from her floral dress.

I can remember her smile, there was an ink stain on her index finger as she held up her hands, lightly grasping the school fence. A group of small children ran around the basketball court. Vivienne followed my eyes and we stood watching the children in their play. Her colleague kept a weather eye on them and Vivienne turned to me.

“Children”, she said. She has no lipstick on.

I have nothing to say that I can put into words. We seem to have the world now, as we stand across each other with a fence in between us. Her fingers lightly grasp the fence. I notice that she has no nail polish on. Her nails are very lightly pink. I light a cigarette and puff it, blowing the smoke away from her. I turn my head to the left and see the towers that house families and I could see a man cleaning his windows. I turned to face Vivienne and she took the cigarette out of my mouth. Her touch was soft, and for a moment her lips brushed my lips. She traced my lower lip with her thumb, straining through the fence. I let her. She touched the tip of my moustache trying to curl it. We are inches away from each other now. I can feel her soft breath, I can hear, I fancy, her heart. She put the cigarette to her lips and draws. She breathes out a soft cloud of cigarette smoke through her parted lips. It rolls out smoothly. I trace the bridge of nose up to her eyebrows and my eyes rest on hers. I reach out to her cheek, my hands on the fence. My fingers are too large, and I can’t stroke her cheek. My index finger is on her lips now, a touch so soft that I am not sure if I am just millimeters from her or miles away.

Her face is clear to me now, but the metallic touch of the rusted fence plays on my fingertips. She and I stood wordlessly but I could hear her voice as she whispered that I looked like a Prussian Officer. Her fingers stroke my cheek. She traces my jawline with her fingers, her eyes turn up to mine, and I can see them for the emeralds they are. Here we stand, a foreigner and a young girl in a floral patterned dress, and a gush of wind blows my hair. I touch it down and she pushes my spectacles up the bridge of my nose. The spell hasn’t broken as she steps away from the fence, her lips more set, smoking. She blows the smoke out of her lips and I want to feel them on my fingertips but my hands are too large. I stand at the fence grasping it with a forlorn determination. She smiles and  goes back into the school building. I stood where I was, watching her go, my lips still feeling her soft touch, but my fingers can only feel the powdery rust on the fence.























Inconsolable ghosts of our past

My fingers are hesitant as they glide over the keyboard. I am not documenting the witness statement of a war gone by, I am not writing to state endless moral dictums and preach compassion to a crowd I do not think even exists. I don’t write these words with pride or with humility, I write them with a resignation to the cruelty of life, the bitterness in its truth and this displacement of grief that I cannot bury, even if this grief wasn’t mine. In Europe’s backyard, years ago, there was once a war. My countrymen know nothing of it, and if they did, dismissed it in light of our own wars that seemed not to end. The wars of my country were not the thundering crash of tanks exploding in alleys, nor were they boastful declaration of machine gun fire, my country’s wars were a buzz in the air, like the background static that plagues old records of old songs. This war that Marija breathed in was nothing to her then, because she didn’t remember, she remembered what happened years later, through the stories of grief and loss repeated themselves with a numbed repetition.

I was sitting in her apartment, her books strewn over every conceivable surface. My eyes caught “The Aerodrome” by Rex Warner, a rare gem that is forgotten now, and regrettably so. I waited for her to speak, silently hoping that there was some redemption since our first meeting. The spark in her eyes is returning, and I can see that there is a forlorn, almost melancholic determination behind her pupils. I wait.

“I saw the village again”. Her voice is soft, her lips form these words as if she kisses them in the continuum of Space and Time. “I heard the voices and smelt the stench of the mass graves”, she said, her resignation sounded like a bar on a piano that we seldom notice.

Her slim shoulders were turned towards me and in the moment she lit a cigarette, I could see the glistening tears that welled in her eyes. I could trace her collar bones, jutted out in her slim frame, with my eyes and I saw that there was a vitality in her that reminded me of a sapling forcing itself through the cracks in the cement of a building. There was a resilience in her that I began to admire, a quiet stoicism that did not announce her bravery with a clarion but with the clarity of a stringed instrument.

“What did you see?”


I am not a counselor or a therapist, I am a medical student who is an Ear now, and if I was a Greek God, there would be a metaphorical litany dedicated to my presence in Marija’s apartment on a Summer evening. I am not, however a Greek God, metaphorically or otherwise.

What was “everything”? Was it the culmination of growing up in the soil where blood had flown with such recklessness that nothing wounded the innocence of her spirit? What did Marija, who was ten at the time when the mass graves were discovered, see in the presence of men and women in contamination masks? The anthropologists who came with the pathologists and the observers of the UN didn’t have any words of consolation to give to the villagers of whom Marija was a helpless part. There was a stench in the air, and it wasn’t the stench of death. The bodies didn’t smell, but there was a stench of grief that permeated the air like the ether of a disease. The women and children of the village, having spent a few years in refugee centers, returned to this ruined shadow of their simple lives. The men were dead or were missing. Only the old and infirm answered the questions of the visiting forensics team.

One by one, the mortal remains of the lost were exhumed. They were lifted from their undignified resting place, twelve bodies that were counted and matched. There were three children, and nine adults, all males. Of the sixteen missing people, twelve were accounted for. In some record book, in some filing cabinet somewhere in the world, there would be a clerk, changing the statuses of these people. No longer would there be a question mark alongside the names of twelve missing persons. There would now be a black cross, and these names would be filed into a different folder. In my mind’s eye, I could picture the clerk filing away these names, making the appropriate changes and closing the filing cabinet. What was the clerk thinking as he received the directives from the Observation team? Would he be relieved? Would he just make the changes, lock the filing cabinet and go home, unfeeling? Would he weep when he was outside a grey building with the UN’s flag on it?

A funeral procession was held, pierced by the wailing of the womenfolk. The old men who had lost their youth and now had lost their sons and nephews carried the caskets draped with the flags of their identity. The children’s bodies had to wait because the Observer team accompanying the forensics team could not get them on time. The remains of the children were laid in the bombed out courtyard of a broken house. There was no room where they could leave the children and there was one man among the Forensics team who said that he couldn’t bear to leave the children out in the cold. The women brought out some blankets and covered the bodies of the children. Mementos were laid next to them. Candles were scarce, so there was no candle-light vigil for them. The courtyard was washed with the pale moonlight of a European night. Marija remembered the burnt blankets that were wrapped around the bodies. She could still feel its texture as she handed it to her mother who didn’t speak a word that day.

I wonder why I am writing this. It is an ungodly hour and my head is tired, my eyes want the soothing embrace of sleep. My head is light from the cigarettes I smoke, my throat is comfortably warm, there is a comforting bewilderment in my sleep-deprived state. I wish there was something consequential I could say to Marija, but I found that my voice was, suddenly, absent. For a few moments the two of us sat in silence. She remembers the funeral for the three children, their burial in graves that were more dignified than a hole covered by mud stamped in by military boots. As I sit now, fatigue weighing on my eyes, I find that there is nothing that I can say. There is a numbness to my verbosity. I took Marija out for dinner that night, after which I dropped her off at her apartment. Pale moonlight washes over the streets as I return home. There is a comforting silence in my apartment, a solitude that reminds me of something I cannot quite put into words. I too can hear the mourners and for a brief second, I think I too can smell the stench of grief, but it disappears in the clouds of cigarette smoke.


















Angel of Verdun

I haven’t written in a few days. Time, elusive Time. I find that there is a listlessness in my being that makes me want to switch off the lights and sit in the dark silence of this city and listen. What do I listen to? Do I listen to the pulsating calm of this city, or do I wait to hear a lover’s footsteps? Philosophizing is a triviality now, all that is said and done is transient. I have taken refuge in my apartment, in my solace and in my long walks through this city that I have begun to cherish as it were my own. I long for the sunshine of my adolescent years, the tumultuous sound of life in my own country but this encompassing silence in this city is a balm, dream-like but true.

I was walking silently through a very quiet neighbourhood, trying to gather my thoughts and relieve my unease. I walked through streets and by-lanes again, dreaming of something or someone I couldn’t make out. My  mind is a marsh, it is a cold, misty night where everything seems at rest. I sat on a bench somewhere and felt the darkness of my day-dreaming return. There is a term for it, melancholia, I think. Melancholia, my true feeling, my measurement of this world in my terms. I felt a light from a distant in the marsh and opened my eyes to see John, the Angel of Verdun.

“Ativ, you ray of rare sunshine”, he beams. 16 years old and he is happy. 16 years of walking these streets that are familiar to him and yet, there is a freshness in his step, a joyous exuberance from his being that makes me feel that I am in the right company. I smile a greeting at him and he sits next to me. I apologize for cancelling out on the dinner we were supposed to have a month ago. He is sympathetic. I look into his green eyes and see the spark of life. Marija’s spark is returning, and I am glad for a moment. I soak in his smile, his hair and his eyes, and I can’t help but feel a momentary elation. It is like being led out of a dark room into the warmth of sunlight.

“That evening in May”, I began, “You saved my life”. I am blunt, unapologetic, if not humble. “You saved your own, Ativ, come on”, he replies. I tell him the story of the Angel of Verdun, and he listened attentively. After I finished, he sat back on the bench while I lit a Marlboro. We are silent, as if we had just shared a moment of rare intimacy that makes you feel a twinge of shame. The shame of last month returned and I wished I hadn’t told him about the Angel of  Verdun. He leaned his head on my shoulder, hesitating for a moment to see if I was comfortable. I was.

I write this now because I promised the unfettered truth. There is no point in self-censorship. I face the consequence of my own actions, and I face, unapologetically, my doubts about myself. What started as a chance encounter between a drunk foreigner and a 16 year old boy is now a moment of humility for both of us. John’s father died in a drunk driving incident; he was the driver. He rammed his car into a bus, but apparently, even in his drunken state, he turned his car ever so slightly so as to not hit the children in the bus. His last act was an act of redemption. John was 10 years old then. He doesn’t have brothers. He has an older sister who hasn’t spoken to him or his mother since his father’s death. I listen. I listen and I can picture a confused, heartbroken boy in a black suit, burying his father and carrying the burden of a broken family. His voice is husky, thick with emotion as he recalls the police officer who told him that his father was taken to a ‘happier place’, and he knows the hollowness of those words, but that unenviable task, that of telling a 10 year old child that his father is dead is one that makes the entire disgust of platitudes and religion so obsolete. He has no resentments, just a wish that his sister would return to the house, even for a minute.

At that moment, I didn’t know what to do. Should I cradle his head to my bosom and stroke his hair, saying “there there now”, and try to console him? I put an arm around him and the two of us just sit there in silence. The streets are empty and there is peace. There are no cars, there is nothing. The only sound I can hear is the sound of John’s breathing. I stub out my cigarette and turn to John. I ask him if he is hungry. He knows a cafe nearby where there will be quiet. The two of us walk in silence and there is a gravitas. We are in our own bubble, a 20 year old man and a 16 year old boy trying to understand the greater meaning in our own suffering.

We enter a cafe and sit in a private booth in the corner. We sit next to each other on the sofa and he again rests his head on my shoulder. He is tired, mentally exhausted and the exuberance of an hour ago is gone. He is a man, I conclude, because he has borne the weight of an adult. Tragedy hardens us so much but I am glad he is not a cynic. I have lost friends to accidents, and I am a cynic, so I know how retaining your optimism is the more difficult thing to do. I often see patients for whom there is nothing that we can do and I feel disgusted by it. I feel the disgust and helplessness at my inability to do something for a Stage 4 cancer patient, or for a victim of trauma that is not going to make it. I witness the grief of humanity whenever I am called to the hospital as a student of medicine. I don’t know if my colleagues feel the same, grief and pity are private emotions and we, medical students and doctors in the making, keep our grief to ourselves.

But John is not a patient. He isn’t my patient, and neither is he someone who I pity. I admire his strength and the fact that he opened up about this grief to me, a stranger. Worthless are the trembling words of compassion, the sharing of grief, the emotional bubbles we choose to keep, like a broken heirloom. Eventually, our order comes around, served by a tall, thin woman who reminds me of Mrs Adams from the Adams family. John and I eat in silence. I break the ice by telling him that his taste in food is very good. The pie that I ate then was divine, made as if it was an act of love and devotion. Forgive my swing from gravitas and emotional depth to a mundane mumbling appreciation of good food. John laughs widely, he is glad that I like the pie.
































Happy Endings

We need happy endings. Often we don’t get them, often, the world is too brutally real and life is as cruel as it comes. Fiction gives us an alternate reality, a truth that exists in happy endings. Happy endings exist, happiness exists, possibilities for recovery, joy and gladness exist. All manner of positivity is a tangible reality, but then again, the past is a forest of horrors. The past is a brutal forest of terrifying truths cloaked in a mist of regret, but at times, the sun just shines through the pain.

A drop of dew is lens enough for our crimes. We must look for happy endings, and I can say that happy endings are real because I believe in them. We may get ripped apart in many ways while we live but as long as everything works out for the best, we can say that life has been a positive experience. I look around me in this strange city, I look at the people that aren’t mine and I know I am home. A foreigner I may be, but I have done my part for the joy I hope I bring.

Why do I feel this positive feeling? Why the gladness and euphoria? I am sober, there is no alcohol, no drug, but there is a grave realization, an epiphany that glides around the room I am sitting in, reminding me that there is hope, there is happiness, there is real beauty in the bloodthirsty chain of nature and relationships, and that it is real. I felt the grand weight of the stars as I sit, a foreigner at home, at heart and in mind, but a welcomed foreigner in a country that is beautiful. Home is where the heart belongs, and my heart is here, for now.

We have set our sights on ambition, I certainly have, but there is a calm relaxation in realizing that in our search for reality, we often forget that happiness is real. Cynicism is real, but so is optimism, however misplaced it might feel to those of us who are having our blues. I look out of my windows in the hopes of catching a crescent  moon drift across a cloudy sky. I see the streetlamps, our closest stars guiding the lost where they may be found. They led me to my flat as I walked gravely through the streets again, and I reached the door of my apartment to find a welcoming hum of silence and a warmth to my acceptance of the fact that this, right here, is home. I miss the streets of my city, but I am courting this city now, the streets here are my lovers, and in them I find solace.

The man on the verandah

I love nighttime here. I spend the whole day waiting for the night and when the sun sets, I am content. I feel satiated, as if I have been hungry all day. I feel that my thirst has been quenched when the sky turns black and the streetlamps come on. Sunset is at a late hour, but sunrise is pretty early, which makes the dark hours of the night seem so precious. I have heard that mythology exists that tells the story of a man falling in love with Dawn, but nighttime? The streets are silent except for the occasional pedestrian or car. The buses glide smoothly now, towards the bus station and I can see that there is a smooth motion to the buses.

A little distance away are apartment buildings, large and towering. I can often see people on the verandahs, smoking, or just dreaming away at sunset. Occasionally, I can see people move about in their homes. I wonder if they can see me here, and I have wondered about this question for quite sometime. This was answered this evening.

I was standing in my verandah, smoking Rothman’s mild cigarettes. the rush of nicotine was pleasant, breathtaking, and there was an uneasy comfort in its lightheadedness. I stood there, savouring a cool breeze at the end of what was a hot day. I was at peace, probably. I was at rest, dreaming away about my muses when I heard a voice come from below. It was far away, lost in the distance between my flat and the pavement below. I looked down to see a young woman wave up to me. I smiled back, wishing her something inconsequential.

“Hi”, she said.

“Hello”, I replied.

“Do you live here?”, she asked.A simple enough question.

“I do”, I answered, shifting to a more comfortable lean against the railing that borders my verandah.

She smiled, unsure of what to say next. I waited for her to speak. I am a patient man.

“My friend lives nearby, on that building over there”, she pointed to a building a short distance away, “She often sees you stand here”.

“Your friend has great eyesight, I can barely see anything at that distance”

“Yeah, well, you know”, she stutters and I realize that there’s a greater game afoot.

“She’s got a pair of binoculars, hasn’t she?”

“A telescope, astronomical”, she says. I laugh.

“It’s not that we are spying on you or anything”, she says again. I am amused by her stuttering. She’s apologetic about the fact that her friend, armed with a telescope, can see me and probably spends her evenings stalking me while I smoke cigarettes. I laugh and tell her that she has nothing to worry. An astronomical telescope is called so because it’s used to see stars. I thank her for the compliment. She laughs, and I can see her white teeth.

“It doesn’t matter, though, all you’ll see is a man standing at a verandah. In your defence, it is difficult to see anything clearly”.

She agrees. I know this technical detail because there is only one model of astronomical telescope available in this town and it is pretty useless for spying on foreign men. The technicality lies in its purpose. I cheekily ask her if she and her friend have named me something, as is customary with stargazers.

“Yeah, we call you the “Man on the Verandah”. There is a poetic way she says it, like it is some title of a book or a movie. I laugh again, I am, after all, a Man on a Verandah.