Wednesday, 7 October 2020

NOTES FROM THE MARGINS OF A BLUE WARD


It would have been Clive James’s eighty-first birthday today. 

Lots of people have October birthdays; friends of mine, a goddaughter of mine. But the birthday of a friend you can never meet again, a friend who also, now, has a death day, imbues the month with even more autumnal poignancy than usual. 

 

He was, after all, the one who went viral with his Japanese maple leaf farewell. The death of the tree preceding his own was just the sort of joke the kid from Kogarah lived for. In his absence, it is harder to find the jokes, here, on the ward we shared. 



Clive’s yawns were leonine. He turned the infusion bay into his drawing room by holding no measure of that sound in discretion. He always fell asleep at a certain point during the drip of immunoglobulins into his vein, something I have never been able to do in my ten years of intravenous therapies. Aside from his genuine sleeps, the famous critic was also able to drop into utterly phoney narcoleptic faints when approached by an undesirable fan. One eager gentleman in particular acted extraordinarily upon Clive’s ability to stay conscious in the face of a bore. Poor dude, I tried to think, the milk of my human kindness attempting to overcome the bald truth: the gentleman in question really is an unstoppable torrent of opinion. 

There are many lonely people shepherded by ill fate into this place. Clive was not a philanthropist.

 

Sometimes, in his eagerness to skedaddle home, Clive would forget some portion of his garments. His cardigan. A scarf. But also, his slippers. Shuffling off in his socks, I ahoyed him back. (His drawing room, remember.) I was as unimpressed by his fashion as he was entertained by mine. His was sixties French philosopher, black, with crumbs. Mine was, is, anything to brighten the spirit. My soft, olive green beret had been eyed covetously so many times, that when the latest carcinoma had been shelled out of his skull, I offered it up. He swiped it without a hesitant beat. Goodbye, beret. I miss you, still.



It is only the start of autumn, mizzling days. The fire of joy is yet to come. We are seven months into a pandemic some of us are better suited to. (To or for? Clive would know.) My rabbit warren between home and Addenbrooke’s is traversed less because those three weekly infusions Clive and I shared are now weekly subcutaneous injections I attend to in my own home. Occasionally, I sit out in the garden, but the bees investigate the sticky serum too closely and drive me back indoors. No sub cut for Clive. No surgical masks or social distancing from his beloved granddaughter. No, just the freedom of a poet unbound. 

 

We were always joking about the spectre. And then one of us would look seriously at the other. Don’t die, said the look. The trouble is, I believed him when his look promised he wouldn’t. Or when he wrote, ‘my infusions have been stopped temporarily, hence my absence from class’ or, ‘I’ve had an op and it went quite well, so I’m coming alert again.’ 

Think about death all you like. It doesn’t help you prepare. Not really. Every poem is a brushstroke, feathering death away. Does it come mightily or lightly? Neither, I think, for Clive. Eighty he may have been in grown up years, but when it came, surely it cradled him softly, like the hug of a tree. No more thorns. The bark didn’t bite. He left the fire for us, and a deep impression in the blue vinyl armchairs, of joy.



All images via The Guardian website article 'Clive James: A Life in Pictures'

Sunday, 4 October 2020

SEAWEED AND SOLACE

In my last poem, I mentioned the sun going down. I spoke of the dark. It was an intimation. A week later I developed a migraine which led my right eye into dancing yellow spots, which in turn, turned into black cobwebby trails like seaweed growing across, floating across, my field of vision. 

The doctors took a look and decided there were no tears, my retina had not detached, but they could see the dispersed, disturbed jelly and told me either this would settle or my brain would adapt. I waited three weeks for this settling or adaptation to take place but nothing has changed. The seaweeds are as bad as ever and at times, worse. I have been back to the eye department, and next week I meet the Vitreo-Retinal consultant. 

Adaptation is all very well when you have some vision to compensate. My right eye has been doing all the compensatory work for the past fifteen years or more. And now where will I turn for solace? Well, I keep finding new places on Zoom. 

I was listening to the 'How To Fail' podcast with Elizabeth Day featuring Ruby Wax, who mentioned she had taken her 'Frazzled' cafe mindfulness meet-ups online. I joined in the next day, and had a chance to meet and talk to Ruby herself; she found me full of light, which cheered me in my shadowlands. 

Another day, I attended a book lecture given by Dr Sanjiva Wijesinha for the Sri Lanka Literary Society of the UK, on his book 'Strangers on the Camino' - an account of the ancient Spanish pilgrim voyage he made with his son Shivantha. It was a non-religious, lighthearted, yet moving, and therefore spiritual, journey of love renewed, and fun to share the moment with Sri Lankans across the globe, in different time zones. 

And finally, today, I joined a reading group, newly formed by Naomi Alderman, award winning English author of 'Disobedience' and 'The Power'. I stayed in my pyjamas, in bed, reading Clive James' 'Poetry Notebook', which is far more formal than his latest collection, but was perfectly calming. As calming as the small group of us reading in our individual cubby holes, in silence for 50 minutes until our ten minute chatty catch up at the end. Naomi's reason for beginning this group for the winter ahead... 'This was very much a feature of my Orthodox Jewish childhood. Going to someone's house on Shabbat and all of us just sitting together reading in silence and occasionally going "listen to this sentence". I miss it.' I could fully relate to the memory through a different route - being on our family holiday, and all five of us sitting in a reading nook of our borrowed hill station house, immersed, silent but for the chomping of salty wafers (Indian-speak for crisps)...    

It has been quite the week for me, recovering from my second round of Rituximab, haunting the eye department till 10pm (the doctors did apologise) and finally sticking the old sub cut needle in yesterday. I only did one... I think I could have skipped 'em altogether, but one tries to be diligent, even in private. Unless one is the leader of a certain nation in crisis, in which case all bets are off. 

Images: Cleveland Art: Fish and Rock, Mindfulness by Oscar Ortiz, The Wijesinhas at Fin Isterre, final illustration by Angie Wang

Thursday, 3 September 2020

IF WINTER COMES

It’s this part that gets me -
the sun going down.
Evening’s descent.
The dark, really,
going into the dark, 
unwillingly.

Tea going cold,
and tasting of nothing.


Banks of snowdrops,
gone in a blink.

I tuck two into this book.
Later, I’ll take a look.
Later, when I’m in need 
of light,
and it turns out
maybe the poet was right.

© Shaista Tayabali, 2020
Dverse Poets Open Link Night 



Friday, 28 August 2020

BIRTHDAY IN BADGER’S WOOD

It rained all day today. It has been raining most days this week. No walks for Dad. There’s a giant puddle in the pavement outside our house where our next door neighbours’ twin girls jump... where other children, unknown, wrapped in rain jackets, pause, position their boots carefully, and then jump! jump! jump!




A week ago, it was my birthday, and while I was still sleeping, Mum garlanded the front door, the dining room door, and one extra garland in readiness for my neck when I awoke; she hung birthday banners, geranium leaves and hibiscus everywhere that I might see and rejoice in being loved. I felt so loved and content that when it turned midnight, I wanted the day all over again. From seeing the Singaporean siblings off to school on their bus, to opening presents sent by the Malaysian twins, a bread maker sent by my brother, cards from afar, and talking to my childhood friend Fudge and her daughter in Bombay about dogs and drawings and fairy lights.  




I floated around all day, baked a Victoria sponge cake that evening and then, the next morning, when Joseph aka Badger, arrived to pick us up, bundled myself into a warm cosy blanket, mask on, and off we went, like the three bears, to Badger’s Wood. This was Dad’s first outing since his fall almost a year ago, and although he managed a goodish walk into the wood, he had a near turn in the heat - so I hustled back for water and Badger ran back for a chair and we all collapsed, while Dad recuperated in a kingly fashion, among the birch and blackberry bramble. 





Yesterday, during my respiratory consultation at the hospital, I shared the secret to surviving my new form of home therapy by subcutaneous injection - Colette and I FaceTime. Tuesdays at Two. We are each other’s video girls, smiling, laughing, commiserating and listening, each to the other, as we move forward in this strange pandemic, made stranger by the needles and tubes we administer in the casual atmosphere of home. The three medics present and the nurse who had trained us were all intrigued, impressed and hoping to present our buddy system at the upcoming European Immunology Delegation as an idea for all new patients and perhaps even the veterans - to help cope with pandemic isolation and the claustrophobia of an unshared trauma. It helps to have a friend-mirror. Coco and I have known each other for years, hence the trust in visiting Badger’s Wood at all. We didn’t hug, much as we wanted to, but just being near, sharing stories and warmth and courage, was enough. Clive would have hated home injections. Claerwen, his daughter, would have had to inject them for him, so he would have had company one way or another... 





I am reluctant to pull the banners down, but oh so grateful to have felt like celebrating myself. So grateful to have been cocooned in loving messages from California to Peru. Most of all, I suppose, I am grateful to have tidily tucked my infections away into what I Hope was the final admission of the year. Winter will be upon us soon, I hear you say, but my eyes are still busy with summer days...

Saturday, 8 August 2020

EVERY BRILLIANT THING

I was watching the Korean drama, Romance is a Bonus Book, when, in the penultimate episode, our heroine Kang Dan-i, is horrified to find plagiarised translations of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's epistolary 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. My face resembled hers in that moment, for a different reason. I had only just heard of this novel in the strangest of circumstances.

A week ago, my childhood friend Arzanne sent me tickets to a play. She had already attended it, and it had moved her so much that she wanted to share the experience. And it was an experience... I have watched plays online since quarantine began - Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Fleabag for Soho Theatre on Demand, where our donations helped to keep theatre cast and crew afloat during these audience-silent times, and Frankenstein with alternating lead roles between Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller for the National Theatre at Home productions we have been so fortunate to enjoy free for a week each. (Frankenstein's monster also finds The Sorrows of Young Werther in a leather portmanteau... but that wasn't my connection). 

Every Brilliant Thing, a play written by Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe, does not require its audience to be silent. Would it terrify or invigorate you to be part of a play, your own participation fuelling the thing itself? A woman suffers depression. Her husband fetches her little boy to the hospital. That little boy must live, now and always, with the shadow of an unknowable beast stealing his mother from time to time. Macmillan's play has been traveling the globe, and the director/actor use the alchemy of their nation's idiom to alter the words but not the impact or emotion of the original idea. 

In Bangalore, the actor Vivek Madan, used to performing in the round, graciously invited our tiny screen faces into his home. Some of us had already been sent a word or a sentence - a brilliant thing on the list of the little boy who walks through darkness towards manhood, signalling for light with 1) Ice cream 2) Water fights 3) Staying up past your bedtime 4) The colour yellow... which reminded me of Albert Espinosa's memoir The Yellow World, and the yellow benches it inspired for sparking conversation between strangers... on and on to me at 521) Plinth (not the easiest word to wrap one's tongue around mid concentration!)

A thousand brilliant things... 2389) Baby elephant... ten thousand brilliant things... 10,000) Waking up next to someone you love... And somewhere, in the midst of that list, a book appears - the one that has for 250 years touched a raw nerve of how to be young, and filled with desire, and the thing you want not wanting you... and how, with that seeming failure, you exit the world, with violence and the poetry of your grief. The book has been banned for showing the way out, literarily speaking. 

I liked seeing the tall trees wave, friendly and rhythmic, behind Vivek as he moved with expert familiarity around his home, us in his home, known words on his tongue and making space for unknown words on our tongues... Occasionally, he'd call out a number and be met with silence... sometimes a zoom call is a fumble! What is worth living for? Many things. Who gets it right for a child? A counsellor with a sock puppet. Or an idea to record the good thing that lives between our fight or flight stress mechanism. Depression changes the chemistry of the brain of children... so should we lie to our children to protect them? Should we share the nature of the beastly growling lurking thief of happiness and peace of mind? I think it is difficult either way. And with that in mind, QTP, the theatre company producing the play, arranges for a mental health practitioner to join the audience at the end. How loving, how considerate. 

I liked seeing the sky darken behind Vivek, and then turn black. Night had come for him and everyone else watching in India. In my pocket of the world, sunshine streamed through the lilies and rose bush and the white butterfly pranced, keeping her promise to return to me year after year after year. The play was directed by Quasar Thakore-Padamsee, who, not enamoured of attempting an online theatrical experiment, was inspired to take that leap of faith by his fellow producer Nadir Khan, another childhood friend of mine. Nadir and his brother Darab were a brilliant thing when I was a girl growing up in Bombay. Two more brothers to add to mine, two more friends to make life worth living and memories worth holding dear. So many brilliant things, couldn't we just cry thinking about them? But we don't. Because we forget. Or make ourselves forget. Maybe your children could start their lists? And maybe your parents, too. 

Number 7,800,000,000) Us. You and me. 

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

GUEST POST : IN THE LAND OF TORIA

While I was in hospital, my friend Victoria sent me photographs of her garden. There are gardens in my hospital, one in particular that I claim as my favourite, but while in a shared ward or private bay, there is no green to be found. Blue and cream aplenty but no living, moving green. So I thought I would share Victoria’s photos with you, with her permission, so you can see what cheered me...







Of course there are other ways to escape while in hospital. My new friend Mary, with the wandering mind, was not in Addenbrooke’s at all... she was in Selby in Yorkshire, and sometimes in the mining and weaving towns of her youth... sometimes she would give me directions to the cemetery nearby and sometimes she accepted that I was not real, I was a visiting spirit to whom mundane things of the mortal world would be of little interest. ‘How long have you been here, like this?’ Mary asked, her hand fluttering, indicating my other worldliness ... ‘Oh, I come and go,’ I answered. We spoke exactly the same language, Mary and I, both of us being of this world and not of this world. It’s all very mysterious, we both agreed.
When I was finally discharged I said goodbye to all my ward mates except Mary. I couldn’t bring myself to utter the finality. Mary had said I would return to her mind from time to time, and I told her I would never forget her. Mary Longbottom of Selby, Yorkshire. So why say goodbye?

(All photographs, except the last, by Victoria Kingsley-Pallant)

Friday, 24 July 2020

QUARANTINA


Sometimes it looks like this - 
Crisp white sheets tucked obediently down,

A bird on the cover of a book of poems,
A splash of colour in orange and green -

But outside these curtained walls, a man is shouting
As though the sails of his lungs have sprung 

Free their cells, and every woe, his angst and grievance,
From childhood years to this present moment 

Are billowing and bellowing in merry disobedience 
To the Golden Rule of Silence, in quarantine. 

I gather only this: a man has lost his shoes,
And life will never be restored to him.


It looks like I’m able to read and write but I can’t ... although I did just write this poem! I have been very sick with sepsis most likely caused by haemophilus ... high fever, migraine, vomiting, coughing and more coughing... antibiotics, the wonder of our twentieth century, are doing their work and I hope to climb out of these crisp sheets when the fever decides to stay cool...
For the DVerse Poets Gathering (www.dversepoetscom)

Sunday, 19 July 2020

COLETTE: A REVIEW (OF MY UNFASHIONISTA WAYS)

Like La Vie En Rose and Coco, Before Chanel, the two recent biopics of Gabrielle Coco Chanel, Colette is sumptuous. Every screenshot of every scene could serve as a painting in a gallery of nineteenth century artists. Attention to details make such films a cinematic joy for someone like me, who cannot withstand much of today's Marvel visual and graphic acrobatics. My eyes and soul are soothed by period pieces. A slower pace unfolds on screen, and no expectation of a car chase or a villain plotting to end the world.

  

While very aware of my current immediate access to antibiotics, monoclonal antibody therapy and immunoglobulins only made possible by modern progress, the rhythm of my days (pre-pandemic too) mimics an earlier century. I still hand write my poems. I live with my parents. I potter. I go for walks in the same village I was once a teenager in. What would Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette make of my current wardrobe? She would be horrified, I think. Sweatshirts. The very term would make her recoil. Anyway, she was French, and even when she was at her most gauche in 1893, she was svelte. Sweatshirts. Joggers. Jumpers. How do these even translate across time and culture?


I have had my moments. If anyone were to describe my style (someone polite), I am sure they would mention my penchant for feminine swirls, but I also like the masculine escape into non-figure consciousness - a term I have just coined. Which itself points to how very far removed I am from Colette. I want to be blanketed. At my most ill, I simply want to wear a bed. And in place of wearing a bed, I wear my father's cosy oversized wool sweaters from M&S. The ones his sister Saida bought him in the 70's and 80's. 

They have large colourful or sober stripes or diamonds on them. Some have shrunk over the years and the arms are an odd length. One has a giant gash in the sleeve. These are the ones I pinch. I feel safe in them. Like and unlike myself. Who am I in someone else's clothes? Still, and always, myself I suppose. The dark and the light. Scruffy or neat.




Coco Chanel would disapprove of this arbitrary giving away of my form to chronic illness. TB never stopped her from becoming the doyenne of fashion in her time, and still now, in ours. BUT Coco was almost single-handedly responsible for introducing the world to silk pyjamas - the European world, that is. The word 'pyjama' is Persian in origin (pai: leg; jamah: clothing), and the loose, flowing trousers were then adopted by the conquering Arabs. So, really, the perfect attire for a descendant of Persian-Arab-British colonial empires. Coco and Colette can't really disapprove, after all... 


Now all I need is a pair of cream pyjamas with black piping, a slender cigarette in my hand and voila!


Monday, 13 July 2020

HINENI, HINENI

הנני

A few years ago, Leonard Cohen released a song on his 82nd birthday. 'You Want It Darker' is in English but for the repetition of the Hebrew lyric 'Hineni' meaning 'Here I am' or 'I am ready, my Lord'. Behold me, ready, waiting. Some sacrifice may be due. Usually is due. Its nature will be revealed. 



I didn't hear the song at the time. A few weeks ago, when I began 'Black Earth Rising', a fictional episodic drama situated in London and Rwanda, 25 years after the genocide, the introduction of the tone and nature of what was to follow, is utterly imbued with Cohen's song-cloak of darkness, rising. Whose is this voice promising acceptance of terror, I wondered? The singer seemed almost too courageous. Hubris in its making. And in a way, any time we, mere mortals, attempt to unravel mystery and meaning with our bodies and minds as instruments, a foreboding thuds around our ears. We are truly the strangest beings on this black and green and blue earth. Rising and falling with each hidden breath. A million candles burning, for the help that never came.


Michaela Cole, the writer-creator of 'Chewing Gum', star of 'Black Earth Rising' and now writer-creator of 'I May Destroy You' seems to hold this word 'Hineni', spoken or unspoken, as she steps into her work.  Throughout time, words have been our tool for change, for promise, for betrayal. Today, speaking out, speaking up, echoes from one corner of the globe to another, so that 'mere' is no longer appropriate for 'mortals'. A tiny flame fanned fast enough catches fire. Who burns? What burns? What survives? What must survive? The freedom to fight is the greatest we possess. Who are we fighting? It isn't always clear. 


Hugo Blick, an Englishman, wrote 'The Honourable Woman', centring a Jewish woman (played by an American actress) in Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He also wrote 'Black Earth Rising', centring a Rwandan orphan who is told she is a Tutsi to protect her from the truth; she is, in fact, Hutu. The role is played by Cole, a British-Ghanaian actress. I don’t know how this fiction sits with Rwandan intellectuals and critics, because so much of Western-centric drama about ‘Others’ is reviewed within the Western canon through the Western telescope. I say Western, I mean something else. I mean the construct of white, colonial, the historical half story. Almost every Palestinian in ‘The Honourable Woman’ is dishevelled and portrayed as being more capable of dishonour. It’s always tricky to attempt balance - personal politics are difficult to wrangle out of fiction. 

Should we narrow our focus, pick a subject and delve deep like historians do; Samira Ahmed on 'The Art of Persia', Sona Dutta on 'The Treasures of the Indus', Mary Beard on the Romans? Or do we dabble, knowing we will never read the whole library of who we are - but finding a few treasures along the way to guide us, keep believing in the best of each other, while knowing the worst of each other? Hineni, hineni. We are ready. Well, some of us are. Some of us run, hide, disguise, hate, fear, delegate. Some of us write, paint, create, medicate, heal, study, mate. Perhaps it was meant to be this way. Darkness and light. Except that sometimes they are almost indistinguishable from each other. Like when you sleep in the day and wake in the night. Or when there is a pandemic forcing us to slow down even as we race to the finish line. Which is what? Which is where? Sands in time, disappearing fast. Hold on, for a little while longer. The spark can lead to fire.