Monday, 24 March 2014

The lost manuscript of Silvia Guzmán


Silvia’s country falls apart after a coup. She flees to London. Picked up by the police, she is dumped for weeks in a bed-and-breakfast with a crazy landlady, then rescued by cold intellectuals. She finds she is a nuisance to one side and a cause to the other, with no dreams, family or opinions of her own. Until she meets another, earlier, refugee; and then she has a surprise for everyone.

The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán is a story of flight, loss and the pain of exile. But it is also a sideways look at liberal London. The author explains how it got written – and, eventually, published.

AT THE beginning of 1991 I travelled to Ecuador to study Spanish and to explore the country. For three months I studied, travelled, made friends, drank cheap beer and ate very well. I decided to stay until my money ran out.

One morning in April 1991 I sat in a pavement cafe in the capital, Quito, reading a newspaper story about four nuns who had been stopped at the airport while trying to board an Iberia flight to Madrid. Suspicions had been aroused because one of them was pregnant. Outraged, the nuns threatened to report the customs officers to their bishop. The Ecuadorians searched them anyway. The ‘baby bulge’ was 10kg of cocaine. They weren’t nuns; they were Colombian couriers.

Ecuadorian friends found the story funny. In general, though, they were deeply concerned that drug-smuggling activities in Peru and Colombia were spilling over their borders. It seemed inevitable that this would at least affect their way of life. For example, controls on people’s movements had been reintroduced. Travelling in the remote jungle border province of Morona-Santiago, we had our bags minutely checked by the military; even shaving tackle was examined. In the north, taking a bus down the main Pan-American highway, which comes from the Colombian border at Tulcán, we were herded off along with the other passengers by the Policia de la Migración Nacional, and no-one was ignored. Especially the Colombians. A few weeks later a friend on the same bus saw three Colombian passengers caught in a routine search with pockets full of cocaine. This had nothing to do with the traditional use of coca to dull the appetite; this was the drug economy. More than one Ecuadorian told me that they regarded this as a threat both to their stability, and to democracy.

*** 
At the end of April my money did run out and I flew home, travelling with an Irish photographer; he proved most congenial. We enjoyed bibulous transfers in four airports, but eventually I found myself back in London, hung over, broke and at a loose end. I had plenty of time to think. It seemed a good time to write something.

I was living in in a friend’s house in Brixton, just south of the city centre; it was an area in which many West Indian newcomers had settled in the 1950s and 1960s. Some had done well. Others had not. Relations between the police and young people were poor, and there had been riots in 1981 and 1985. But our part of Brixton, and adjoining Stockwell, was attractive, with tree-lined streets of tall Victorian terraces. The population was mixed – working Londoners who had been there forever, and the more prosperous West Indians. There as also a growing population of young, upwardly mobile media and other professionals, who thought its multi-ethnic makeup made it a fashionable place to live. They also thought a house there was a good investment. (They were right.)

I worked in my bedroom, a small but comfortable room at the top of the house, with a view over the neighbour’s gardens. There was a rickety card table covered with a bright yellow plastic sheet. I put it beside the window, which seemed to be always open; memory plays tricks, yet I remember the summer of 1991 as a warm one in London. I had a portable electric typewriter that I had bought the previous year when still in gainful employment. Now and then I wrote the odd job application. Mainly, I wrote The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán.

Briefly, and without revealing too much, the plot is as follows. A young woman is forced to leave her family after a violent drug-fuelled coup in South America, and seeks asylum in London. She does not get a warm welcome, being put in a bed-and-breakifast with a rapacious and unpleasant landlady. Then she is rescued by a trendy couple in South London.  The rescue is a mixed blessing. Silvia has become a nuisance to one side, and a cause and useful tool to the other. Still in shock, she can do little about it. But when she meets another, earlier refugee, that starts to change; and in the end he has a surprise for everybody.

The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán is not really about drugs, or politics, or asylum-seekers. It’s about Silvia Guzmán. Novels are not the place for lectures. Trim your plot and your characters to make a point, and you will write crap. Orwell, that most political of writers, understood this as well as anyone, and put it with some force in his 1940 essay, Inside the Whale. If a novel does make the reader think about their world, it is because it paints it well; since that is what makes a good novel anyway, to attempt more is superfluous. In any case, I had great fun writing the book, not least because there is a sub-plot that includes a book within a book. I can’t remember why I did that, but I do remember, that summer, reading Anthony Burgess’s The End of the World News, a splendidly bonkers book that uses this technique to great effect. It lets you write two completely different books at once, and stops you getting too bored with either. In this case, the book-within-a-book let me try my hand at the sex-and-shopping genre. I may try that again one day.

*** *** ***

I did try to publish Silvia Guzmán, and there was some interest from publishers, but no-one took it. Besides, what I really needed was a job. Later that year, in a pub, I was tipped off about an interesting job producing publications in Thimphu, Bhutan – a country where Westerners could not easily go. I spent nearly three years there, and explored the region as well, travelling to Calcutta, Sikkim, and Nepal as well as within Bhutan. The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán was forgotten. In 2003 I threw out all my old manuscripts after my parents died, and their house had to be sold. So far as I knew, there was no surviving copy; the book had never existed in digital form.

In August 2013 I was searching for some old negatives in belongings that I had at a friend’s house in England (I now work in New York). I found a yellow foolscap folder, dusty and discoloured. When I opened it, a comic-book in Spanish fell out, and I realised the folder must have something to do with my long-ago journey to South America.

What fell out next was a sheaf of publishers’ letters. “What you have here,” said one, “is a good, heartfelt novel, told from a convincing perspective and with an important story to relate ...Your dialogue is good, convincing, very readable ...and in general you’ve written a very good novel.” Another commented that I had “chosen a very emotive topic and ...tackle important issues with great understanding.” Another said it was “a very decent piece of work, sympathetically done”, while another called the writing “assured and intelligent”.  But none made an offer. There was a recession and they could not be sure it would sell. (Looking back, I am sure one or two publishers did not like the book; I seem to remember that one was almost abusive. But then, if something is liked by everyone, it is no good.)

Beneath the letters, unseen for 22 years, was the book.

Reading it, I was struck by how little I would change today. So I have changed nothing at all. The only superficial sign of the book’s age is that there are no mobile phones (we did have them in 1991, but they were large analogue devices and were still mostly used in cars). In the broader world, drug trafficking now affects Mexico more than Colombia, but it remains a source of instability, and of terrible violence. As someone who has had many good friends from Mexico, I feel as strongly about this as I ever did. As for the treatment of asylum seekers, this is no better – in fact it is worse. Instead of a dodgy bed-and-breakfast, Silvia would likely find herself in somewhere like the notorious Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal centre north of London, where there have been fire, hunger strikes, and sinister allegations of sexual violence and intimidation.

But in a way that is not the point. The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán is about Silvia. I am sorry I have kept her prisoner so long; she is free now, and I hope you will enjoy meeting her at last.


The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán (Third Rail) is available as a paperback (ISBN 978-0-9914374-0-5, $16.99 USA, or £10.07 UK) or as an eBook in all formats, including Amazon Kindle (ISBN 978-0-9914374-2-9, $2.99 USA, or £1.85 UK). Enquiries (including media requests for review copies) should be sent to thirdrailbooks@gmail.com.

I'm looking for a few people who would be willing to review The Lost Baggage of Silvia Guzmán for Amazon and Goodreads. The reviews have to be frank so they must be people I don't know. I will want to send the book direct to your Kindle using the Send to Kindle facility (if you haven't used this, I'll explain how). If you're interested, please write to me at thirdrailbooks@gmail.com.

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Friday, 24 January 2014

Uptown and the Bronx


Life in New York. Thunderstorms, a bladder like a zeppelin, Helen of Troy and a skull from Barnes & Noble

I landed in New York in late August 2008. I wrote to a friend a few days later: “Anita Brookner once started a chapter set in London in the late summer with the words, ‘The evening was livid and smelled of drains.’ NY is livid and smells of drains, and other, worse, things that you would recognize from a tropical meat souk at the height for summer.”

Chinatown; East Broadway and City Hall (M.Robbins)
New York does not smell like a meat souk (though it can sometimes smell of drains). It was more my mood. I had not wanted to leave England, where I had lived very comfortably for several years. I had also had a lousy journey; Northwest had overbooked the flight and tried to kick me off it in Amsterdam. It would be fair to say that I was in a crap mood, and in no state to appreciate New York, which was sweaty and humid. But, as I continued: “It becomes a much nicer city when the sun goes down; the concrete canyons become constellations of light and take shape slowly against an aquamarine sky that fades to orange.”

A few days later I wrote to the same friend, Hazel: “Tonight I felt restless, so, although it was after 11, I went to a nearby Irish bar for a pint. It is still hot here, humid and rather close. I was walking down 2nd Ave. and crossing 43rd Street, on a corner where there is a bar called Redemption (why?). The pedestrian lights were red and I stopped outside Redemption, which was crowded with people and spilling out onto the pavements and everyone talking very loudly, and there was a girl who wore a tiny skirt and her legs were incredibly long, and her heels must have been a foot high.” There were few people about; Midtown is Manhattan’s office district, and can be dead at night.  The drinkers clustered outside Redemption formed a strange island of light and noise. As the girl stood there, and as I stood there, a garbage truck loomed suddenly out of the darkness towards Lexington Avenue. It roared and shook by, back open and stinking; a man in overalls clung to the back quarter. The girl stood there in her black cocktail dress, her flamingo-like legs bent by her weirdly high heels, and the man flew by inches away in overalls, greasy tee-shirt and thick gloves, hanging on to the back of the truck; then he was gone, and I thought of the medieval doom paintings in English churches, young men in their finery, their arms linked with a skeletal Death.  

Ten days later Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. As the months wore by the subway passengers thinned out, the panhandlers multiplied and scenes like that one outside Redemption became rarer. Over the next five years I watched New York go through a grim recession, a hurricane, a storm and tidal surge, and five winters, one of them appalling, another so mild it was like spring. Now and then I would write a friend, usually Hazel, about something I had seen in the city that had struck me. I called these my “New York moments”. Here are a few.

I
I’m in a health-food store. It has mineral supplements, herbal medicine etc. and there are lots of rather gaudy pill-bottles on shelves. I go to the counter to pay for my bunch of bananas. At the counter in front of me is a stocky, badly dressed lady in her late forties, rather gone to seed, and literally down at heel (she is wearing either slippers or worn-out shoes, and her heels are sticking out of them at the back). She is showing the owner a leaflet with herbal remedies.

"I got something like that," he’s saying. "Don’t have that brand." He brandishes a pill-bottle. "Does the same thing. Gets your husband more interested in sex. More eager."

"I guess I better talk to him ‘bout that," she says. "He’s away right now but I guess I’ll talk to him ‘bout that when he gets back."

"Does the same," says the owner, "just like the one you got there, give him sexual energy."

"I guess I talk to him when he gets back," repeats the woman.

She slopes off out of the shop without much energy of any kind. I pay for my bananas. 

II 
Walking to the subway station on a June morning, I take my usual route along the northern edge of Central Park. This isn’t the quickest way, but I like to see the green trees on a hot summer day, and there is shade from the trees and from the scaffolding on the tall 1900s buildings, with their maze of painted fire-escapes that catch the sun and cast intricate shadows on the sidewalk. On the way down Seventh Avenue to the park, I pause at a street crossing. Across the street, their backs to me, are a young women and a young man. The woman is in her 20s or early 30s, slim, even lithe, with long glossy chestnut hair, and wearing a blue tee-shirt, short, tight white shorts and running shoes. The man is about the same age or a little younger, in a polo shirt and baggy shorts. Both have dogs on leads. The dogs are sniffing around each other excitedly, tails a-wag. The woman’s dog is a thinnish black-labrador type thing; the man’s, a sort of fun-sized border collie with a touch of spaniel. The man and woman clearly do not know each other, but the dogs have introduced them. Their tails are wagging too as they talk about their dogs and encourage them to get to know each other.

East Village: Dogs and humans check each other out (M.Robbins)

Later I chance to see a website called askmen.com; specifically, its page headed Dating & Sex. Under the title “9 Unusual Places to Meet Women”, it volunteers the following: “...Many entrepreneurs are finding that our four-legged friends are natural-born matchmakers. Leashes and Lovers hosts cocktail parties for single dog owners... The company is based in New York for now, but it’s soon to go national.

I must say that the name Leashes and Lovers conjures up something a little cruder, but perhaps that’s just me. An article in the New York Times tells of another agency called Flexpetz, which rescues dogs from shelters and rents them out by the day (it does hope they’ll eventually be adopted). As one customer says, “I’m single and moved here from Scotland two years ago, and it’s been difficult to meet people ...But when I’m walking around with Oliver, I seem to get into so many conversations about him. It becomes a nice way to meet people.” She certainly pays for this, at $279.95, or about £175, a month for four one-day rentals; extra days $45 each.

Americans in general do dote on their pets; they were expected to spend about $50.84 billion on them in 2011, and the State of New York told pet cemeteries to stop taking humans as too many people wanted to be buried alongside their loved ones. However, in New York it seems that dogs have a specific role in helping humans to mate.

It doesn’t seem to happen today. The woman says a polite goodbye to the young man, and bounds off into the park, glossy hair swinging, the black dog jumping and leaping behind her.

III
I’m walking in Central Park; it’s a Sunday evening about seven and heavily overcast. I decide to take a shortcut through the North Woods, and pick a wood-chip track that I think will cut through to the top of the hill and thence down to 110th Street. It doesn’t, but before I find that out I find my way blocked by a very large man who is talking on his mobile phone; his legs are splayed to either side of the path and he is urinating heavily onto the centre of it. All the while talking. This man must have a bladder the size of a zeppelin because he urinates heavily for what seems like several minutes, so that I decide to go past anyway. I have to clamber round him. He goes on urinating, talking intently on his cellphone, apparently quite unaware of me.


IV
I am walking up 112th Street. It’s early evening on a weekday, the sun is shining but it’s very humid. Two young men are entering the ground floor of a brownstone, one with a bicycle, one carrying a cardboard box full of junk; the bike man is in long shorts and a sweatshirt and has a headcloth.

"I ain’t staying in that house no more," says one of them. "It’s got rats."
"Jeez, rats."
"Yeah, rats. Not mice, RATS."
"Rats," says the other. "Not mice, rats. Beeeeg rats."
As I walk on down 112th Street I hear their voices coming at me from behind. Raaaats. Not mice. Raaaats, man, raaats.

V
Third Avenue, January (M.Robbins)
A very cold but snowless day in mid-December; I am walking back from the shop just as the last of the light is going.The sky is pink and dark blue and a moon has come up.  As I get to my street, a Cadillac Escalade goes past. An Escalade is a huge, very long, very high SUV with lots of brightwork, like a sort of chrome-plated turd on wheels. It turns into my street, then stops abruptly; the driver has seen someone he knows. He winds down the tinted window and a great wall of bassy dub sounds billow out across the street. His friend on the sidewalk has a squat dog on a lead; it looks like a pit-bull. The two men greet each other very, very loudly. YO WASSUP HOWYRDOIN’ WASSUP. As I draw level I realise that there are deep bass sounds coming not just from the turd but apparently from the dog as well. The dog is standing patiently by its owner, blinking its pink, stupid eyes, and in its jaws it holds the handle of an enormous ghetto-blaster.


VI
It’s March 18 and nearly spring. But I’ve just looked out of my window to see light but steady snow falling out of a grey late-afternoon sky.

Four children run up the steps of the brownstone opposite. The reddish-brown stone of the building looks oddly purple in the grey light. There are three small ones of about six, and a bigger boy of about 11. They’re all dressed neatly in parkas and boots and have little backpacks. The older one rings the bell and as they wait for an answer, the young ones dance around on the lower steps as he looks down at them, a little sternly.

I wonder if they know that they are about to enter what was once the home of Irving Berlin, who moved in about the time he wrote Alexander’s Ragtime Band.

VII
A Thursday morning in mid-September; it’s unusually dark and the sky is threatening. I’m standing in the crowded express subway on the way to Times Square. I get on through a door that won’t open again on the journey, as the platforms are on the other side. If I can I will always stand and lean against the door, so that I can read without strap-hanging. Today I’m lucky; the train’s packed but I can lean back on the notice that says For Your Safety, Do Not Lean on the Door, and open Camus’s The Plague. For the first ten minutes, as the train rattles its way from Central Park North to 96th Street, I’m in plague-ridden Oran. I’m reading the passage in which the priest Paneloux mounts the pulpit and rails against the sins of the populace. There is a flail in the sky, he thunders, and it searches out the houses of those of you who have sinned.

From Brooklyn (M.Robbins)
As I read the train stops at 96th Street and a small middle-aged African-American woman gets on and stands a foot or so away from me, facing away from me down the train. She is wearing a bright purple top. She starts to preach at the top of her voice, which must penetrate to every corner of the carriage. She bellows at us to abjure sin lest we be consumed by hellfire. I can no longer concentrate on Paneloux’s flail for the one in the subway car. No-one says anything; this is not unusual; a few people shift from one leg to another and show signs of annoyance, perhaps thinking of becoming Wiccans or Druids or Satanists. I’m reminded of Goethe’s comment: "Distrust all those in whom the urge to punish is strong".

In the street the sky is getting darker and a strong wind, cold for September, is blowing down Third Avenue. I get up to my office, in which I switch the lights out and use a desk lamp, so that I am sitting in a little island of light.

About 11 o’clock I get up and look down into the side-street six floors below. There’s a man who runs a food cart; this is a portable kitchen in the street, a sort of aluminium mini-caravan with a gas bottle. He sells kebabs and chicken and rice. Two men are moving a second cart; it’s heavy for them – one pulls, one pushes, and they swing out into the busy stream of Third Avenue and the traffic eddies round the cart, except for one big old-fashioned yellow cab that has to stop and move round it. It takes him 15 seconds but he honks loudly anyway. The men ignore him, bent over against the growing wind; one of them has no cap and his thin white hair blows this way and that as he bends over the handle of the kitchen. This will not be his only job. He may have three. He may have papers. He may not. There are still more clouds now, light grey higher up, darker grey lower down, and the darker ones are chasing each other above the silvery-white Art Deco flanks of the nearby Chrysler building. The clouds build up through the day and at about 5.30, the light in my office suddenly drains away.

A clap of thunder comes down the gaps between the buildings. I look out and to the left at the Chrysler Building. It’s Metropolis. Really. The sky above it is black but split with lines of lightning and the tip of the building pierces the clouds.

I remember that a friend’s office is landlocked and she can’t see the sky. "Come and see the storm," I say into the phone. I put down the handset and turn back to the window, and as I do so my hip catches my copy of The Plague and sends it spinning to the floor. I pick it up and put the bookmark back in the passage that describes Paneloux’s sermon, then turn back to the window. The wind is driving clouds of spray up 41st Street. The lightning flashes catch the silver spurs that extend from the Chrysler’s higher floors, far above me, like half-finished gargoyles on a medieval cathedral spire. My friend comes in. The storm is bad, but we do not know how bad; in Brooklyn there is actually a tornado that picks up trees and slams them onto cars, and it is very lucky that no-one has died.

After a while the storm abates a little and we make for the subway, but there are trains standing on either side of the platform, one for Times Square, the other for Flushing, and they are crammed full of bemused passengers who are going nowhere. An announcement is made but is so garbled that none of us can understand it. So we make for the Times Square shuttle train that leaves from below Grand Central, about 500 yards away through the underground passages that are crowded by hurried troglodytes laden with books and bags, often with wires snaking up from their pockets to the buds in their ears, so that every now and then you walk through clouds of someone’s music as they pass you, like the diesel fumes from a bus going the other way. The shuttle trains are so full that each one groans away from the platform with people crammed up against doors that can barely close, and a voice booms around the hall THIS TRAIN IS FULL GO TO PLATFORM TWO FOR THE NEXT TRAIN THIS TRAIN IS FULL PLEASE GO TO PLATFORM THREE and masses of people divides this way and that like confused shoals of herring. We squeeze into the last carriage of a train and stand pressed closely together with the other passengers in the oddly stiff attitudes of those who are forced into close proximity when they are not intimate.

At Times Square we all tumble out and intersecting threads of passengers steer for the lines they need, for the A Train, the Port Authority, Penn Station. Here and there puddles have formed as the jets of rain in the street above leak into the passages below. The air is like wet cotton wool. A voice clangs at us: "We wish to inform you that due to weather conditions there are NO LONG ISLAND RAILROAD SERVICES At This Time." My friend has got a signal and is telling her husband that she will be late. We follow the signs saying UPTOWN AND THE BRONX and fight our way up to the uptown platform. As we reach it, there is a man standing in front of us, dressed in rough corduroys and a hooded jacket. His hooded face cannot be seen. His arms are outstretched and hanging around his neck is a placard that says NO HANDS PLEASE GIVE. He is in the middle of the platform and the crowds swirl around him. I notice that on the end of his arms there are stumps enclosed in the remains of knitted gloves, and then we’re swept past him and a train comes in and its doors open and there are great gusts of hot and cold air, and we are lifted in with the crowd and the train pulls away, its wheels cracking and clanging on the worn track like a flail.

VIII
Spring, Central Park (M.Robbins)
A warm afternoon in April, hazy milky clouds and patches of blue. I’m walking through the North Woods of Central Park to my favourite reading place, a common on a hill surrounded by trees, above the perimeter track. I love the spot although it is blighted by a young saxophonist who sometimes turns up and starts playing bad jazz on Sunday evenings. An unspeakable crime could be committed with a saxophone’s mouthpiece.

I once passed the house where Adolphe Sax was born. It was a tiny cottage on a side-street, on a corner, in Dinant. I went to Dinant for the day because I wanted a day out of Brussels and thought it would be nice to spend a day in the Ardennes. Dinant is built on a steep high hill in a gorge through which runs the Meuse. It was beautiful, but I mainly remember two things about it. The first was the waterfront, which was crowded by large numbers of Francophone African men, all trying to sell identical electric shavers with rather kitsch wooden handles. The second was reading in the guidebook that in the Middle Ages, 700 townspeople were drowned at Dinant by someone called Phillip the Good. I was not quite sure what to make of that. Anyway, I saw where Sax was born and if he hadn’t been, my afternoons in the park would be peaceful.

So anyway, I am walking through the woods on an unpaved path reinforced, here and there, by woodchips to prevent erosion. It’s a strange path because at the weekend it’s often full of rather gloomy-looking men, usually black or Hispanic, who sit on fallen logs looking vaguely confused, as if they were not quite sure what to do with their day off. I suppose it could be a pick-up area. But there’s no-one around this afternoon. 



I pass a tree with a slight hollow between two roots at its base. In the hollow is a fresh apple. Just sitting there for no obvious reason. In the evening the sax player appears so I give up reading and walk home for a beer. The apple is still there. For a moment I am tempted to pick it up; but there is a reason why it is there. It may even have been left by someone of animist beliefs who wishes to propitiate the gods. I leave it alone.

IX
Today I have an appointment with the surgeon, Dr G, for 3.30; so out through the harsh January air, between the high-piled snow, being careful not to step in the deep pools that collect in the edges of the roads, where the snow had decayed to leave slushy water that won’t drain away. It’s nearly 3.30 when I get there, but the doctor’s nurse tells me, unusually kindly, that he is running about 25 minutes late. I tell her I’m used to that and she laughs. (Last time he kept me waiting two hours.) She has a strong foreign accent and I wonder if she’s actually his wife. (I was bitching about the cold to him once. "You should worry," he said. "My wife goes round the house turning down the thermostats all the time. She’s French.")

At the Guggenheim (M.Robbins)
But the waiting room, which is very small, is if anything overheated. It has a huge TV playing a non-stop loop of fish in a tank. The two doctors in this suite don’t have much space; they are moving soon, to Fifth Avenue, but to an even smaller office. ("I don’t know how the last doctor there managed with so little space," Dr G told me later. "She was a gynaecologist." I have a brief vision that I choose not to pursue.)  

I look for the book in my bag. I left it in the office. I fish out another but don’t really want to read it, and find myself looking out into the street two floors below. It is savagely cold out there, and the afternoon sky is just turning orange behind a spiders’ web of naked branches. A few men fuss about with a delivery van that is drawn up hard against the snowbank on the sidewalk. A mother hurries by with a stroller – or perhaps she is a nanny; she looks very young and also has a small dog on a long lead and you see she gets some fresh air and you dress her warm, and don’t forget to walk the freakin’ dog at the same time an I’ll be back, I don’t know, seven, eight, dependsa dis Skype ting, there’s loadsa stuff in da freezer but don’t you give her no e-numbers she’ll be up all freakin’ night. 

I’m feeling mellow. My head leans back against the wall and I fall gently asleep.

I awake 30 minutes later to see the other nurse standing over me, telling me that Dr G will see me now. I’m undressed and ready in my surgical gown when Dr G comes in. He’s a tall, bulky man of about my age, friendly and easy going.

One day last summer I was waiting in the consulting-room while Dr G finished with another patient. When he came in he saw that I was reading Between the Woods and the Water, the second of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s trilogy on his walk across Europe in 1935. “Any good?” he asks, sitting down. “Yes, excellent,” I say. “He walked across Europe. In 1935.”

“My grandfather walked across Europe,” says Dr G.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, I observe, seemed to have stayed in the house of just about every aristocrat in Austria and Hungary.

“My grandfather,” says Dr G, “didn’t.”

He busies himself with implements.

“He set out from Odessa. In 1916. His parents gave him three gold coins and told him to walk to Palestine. No future for Jews, they said. Not round here. Walk to Palestine.”

“He made it?”

“He made it. Not the three gold coins. They got robbed. In a barn. In Bulgaria. But he made Palestine.  Wound up on horseback in the Frontier Force. Then came here. Had a few tales to tell.”

Harlem (M.Robbins)
Today he asks a few questions, examines me and sounds pleased. He’s about finished when the phone rings; it’s the ER (casualty ward) at a nearby very major New York hospital. A young doctor’s on the phone; he has a woman who appeared to have appendicitis but, it turns out, doesn’t. He wants to fill her with painkillers and send her home. Dr G’s brow furrows. "I guess we oughta hold off on that awhile," he says. "You thoughta kidney - what? – no – KIDNEY stones. No. Yes. No. You do a UA, huh? You keep her right there and do a UA." He puts the phone down. "‘Scuse me," he says. "They got a question, I got to answer it. We all gotta learn."

I say I come from a medical family myself, on my mother’s side. When young, my two uncles lived partly in my grandfather’s granite house on the edge of Dartmoor. Some years after he died the local police station received a phone call from a mildly hysterical owner, who said that two skulls had been found buried at the bottom of the garden. A placid policeman plodded round, examined the skulls and gave one of the jawbones a flick. It sprang back into place with a twang. "I believe, Madam, that before the War the young Seale gentlemen were preparing to enter the medical profession," he observed.

Dr G chuckles.

"One moment," he says, and leaves the room. He returns a moment later with a skull. "This is the one I used when I was training," he explains. "I’ve had it, well 30 years I guess." He shows me the long, thin coil springs that fasten the jaw to the roof of the mouth. "And here’s a wire I put in to show my stoodents where to find the auditory canal. Now, this skull’s a pretty good specimen and I paid extra, because you can see these bits here – and here..."

The skull, he explains, probably came from India. The teeth are long and their bases yellowed but they are all there, and I wonder if the man was young.

"I got it from Barnes & Noble," he says.


I say I thought Barnes & Noble was a bookshop.

"Sure, it’s a bookshop but back then they got skulls also."

I try to imagine the big multi-storey Barnes & Noble opposite the Lincoln Center; it’s just closed but I used to go there when I first came to NY. First floor, fiction, feminism, femurs. Third floor, skulls and biography. I’m thinking about the skull as I walk home. I remember travelling by bus across the Bengal plain late one afternoon as the day turned gold, watching the boys in the villages play cricket as we drifted past. Who were you? Did you play cricket when you were a child, and did you laugh? Did you lose your land and struggle in from Bihar or the Bengal plain to sleep below the platforms at Calcutta station? How long did you last there and where did they find you?

Twenty or so years ago, I was walking up Calcutta’s Bentinck Street with an Irish friend. It was early one monsoon morning, when the heat was not yet too great. We passed a young man lying dead on the pavement in a torn tee-shirt and stained dhoti. There were a few coins scattered around him. When Ronan and I returned an hour or so later he was still there but the piles of coins around him had grown, left by passersby to pay for the funeral. At the time, I thought how useless that was, when he needed the money when he was alive. I had missed the point. The coins were people’s way of saying that they could do nothing for him and his kind, but took no pleasure in that fact.

I walk home through Central Park. It is nearly dark now and quite quiet, the hum of traffic coming from Fifth and Eighth Avenues some distance away. The snow shimmers in the dusk and the dying light bounces back off it. As I skirt the southern edge of the North Woods, the path climbs thirty or forty feet above street level, and I find myself looking south towards Midtown. The buildings shine a myriad of colours against a cold, darkening blue sky. I think about the long, strange routes that people have taken to reach this place.

X
I decide to walk home from work one night; it is cool for July, and anyway I like to do this when I’m in a bad mood, which for a couple of reasons I am. It’s about an hour and a half, more or less if I dawdle or shop or have heavy books in my bag. I walk north up Madison Avenue, then west along 58th St., passing through some of the most expensive residential property on earth.

I cross Avenue of the Americas and am passing a solid old apartment block when I become aware that an old man is on the pavement, moving his legs as if trying to get up. Several people walk past and a girl is standing in the doorway, unconcerned. I walk past too; a Chinese couple beside me hesitate, look back, but continue.

Now, I’d like to say I hear a quiet still voice of conscience deep within me, but what I actually hear is a very loud voice (mine) saying "Go back and do something, you little s**t." So I go back, and offer my help. He looks up.

I realise then that he is really old.

"Do you need a hand, sir?" I ask.

And really deaf.

"Euhh?" he says, looking up. Then he blinks, and said: "You have an extraordinarily civilised voice, you know. Now where are you from that you learned to speak like that?" You’d think that’d be obvious, but New Yorkers often do not recognise English accents.

The man has now managed to get to his knees, and is looking up at me with interest. He is certainly not drunk, and, although rather deaf, does not seem confused.

I say he has quite a nice voice himself (he does), and asked where he was from.

"Cleveland, Ohio, originally," he said, and then indicated the building behind with a stick: "But I’ve been living in this building for 62 years. And now I’m 92 years old."

I say that my father once taught at the university in Columbus, Ohio. This seems to please him.

"I went to university in Ohio," he told me, "and all my friends did, but I left. Yes, I left. I wasn’t learning anything."

He thought for a minute. "You should do voiceovers," he said. "You’d be real good at voiceovers. And you’d make some money too. That voice, it’s really quite extraordinary." And he reaches in his pocket and hands me up a smart if old-fashioned business card. 

"I run a school of dance," he said. “Dance. In this building here. Dance and relaxation."

I chat a moment longer and then leave, shaking hands with him and saying that I enjoyed meeting him, which I have. He seems not to need assistance. His handshake is very firm. As I leave he remains on his knees and resumes performing the odd movements with his legs that had first drawn my attention.

Later I come across his card, and decide to see if the Milton Feher School of Dance and Relaxation exists. I find it certainly does, or at least has. It is named after Milton Feher, a successful actor and dancer in musical theatre in the first half of the 20th century. His career on Broadway was cut short by the onset of arthritis in 1941. Unable to obtain relief from conventional medicine, he explored movement and relaxation techniques that proved more helpful, and opened his school in the late 1940s to help both arthritis sufferers and people on the stage. In 1962 he released an LP of relaxation music and techniques that is today archived in the Folkways collection at the Smithsonian.

When I read all this, I realise that the elderly man’s odd movements on the pavement had not been struggling attempts to get up, but exercises. I also realise that he was Milton Feher, sadly to die less than a year later at the age of 98 (he is 97 when we meet, not 92 as he tells me).

I have met a man who, a very long time ago, was afflicted with an illness that ended his career, but decided to confront it, and to share what he had learned to help others.

XII
It’s a weekday in January; there has been snow, there isn’t now, and the streets are clear, but it’s very, very cold, with a high grey sky. I’ve been to get my sandwiches. I come back along the wide sidewalk on 42nd Street. Ahead of me, a mishmash of skyscrapers of different eras rises up along the two sides of the street like markers of successive civilizations uncovered in the excavation of some ancient city; glass and steel, curtain walls, the jazz-age elegance of the wonderful Chrysler Building a block down. Closer to me, there is a row of crenellated castellated follies from a little earlier, dark with dirt and wreathed in steam. You just know that this is Gotham City and any moment now the Penguin will appear on a distant battlement, wheezing and evil.

Just in front of me are a row of bollards by the curb. Sitting on one is what looks like an old man. He has his back to me. He wears a dark wool coat and a sort of Homburg hat. He holds a stick, which is stretched out in front of him at an angle of 45 degrees, and planted firmly on the ground. He is looking along 42nd Street. There is a sort of space around him, the little crocodiles of passers-by on the busy sidewalk parting around him like a stream round a stone, and he seems oddly tranquil and otherworldly, and I think I have seen the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock.

XIII
A weekday, early evening, in Midtown, very hot and humid, really sticky. I’m crossing Third Avenue on my way to the subway. As the pedestrian lights change, there is a big surge on both sides of the street. A yellow cab has got too far forward at the lights and is in everyone’s way. This happens all the time. He starts half-heartedly to reverse, then thinks the better of it. The crowd surging across from the other side are the usual Midtown commuters; men in shirtsleeves, sometimes with ties, often wearing yarmulkes; young and not-so-young women in light summer dresses and decorated sandals; tired young men with baggy trousers and handfuls of flyers they are handing out to make a buck. There’s a family coming towards me; dad, mom, son – and daughter. She is about fifteen, dressed in blue-grey shorts and a matching sun-top. She has long, vibrantly orange hair and a porcelain face and intense light-blue eyes with very long lashes; her mouth is open in a slight pout, her lower lip prominent, and on her feet she has gold sandals. She seems oddly unaware of her surroundings. But I’m aware of her, and I think others are too. The family makes the other side of Third Avenue and goes on down 42nd Street towards the Helmsley Hotel. I glance back and see her, still standing out, and I know that I’ve just seen Helen of Troy.

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Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.