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Sunday, September 03, 2006

vignettes of long ago and far away..

31-08-06 5:43 PM

When I go to the kitchen on an afternoon like this to fix myself a coffee, perhaps it is not coffee I'm after, but rather the complex mix of memories and fantasies from my past, those afternoons spent playing guitar or reading or writing or drawing in the 'azotea', the flat terrace roof in our poor broken house in Catia, in West Caracas, facing the Avila mountain ini the distance, the blue-blue sky above with shreds of clouds, the Whitby glassworks shop across the road -Whitby? Did they know? I certainly didn't until many years after, by then having been to Whitby many times for the gothic festival, when looking at an old photograph in which my father and my sister are getting into his '76 white Chevy Nova parked in front of it, that I realised that was the name of that place, the source of those grinding noises which were part of the afternoon, like the giggles and screams of the girls coming out of the commercial high school nearby, or the buzzing of the planes far above, or the smell of that coffee, the memory of which compels me now to go to the kitchen, not the dark kitchen downstairs, with high walls covered in soot from two thirds up, or the one upstairs, bathed in sunlight, in my grandad's quarters which would eventually be mine, but that which I share in this horrid little North London flat with people who have no conception about the meaning of the expression 'washing up'.

So I make myself a cup of coffee from the espresso machine and climb upstairs, my knee hurting on every step and sometimes forcing me to climb only on one leg, hopping on my left leg up and trying to keep my right leg straight without taking the weight of the body. Much, as I now recall, as was the case with my grandad, with him dragging his bad leg as he climbed the steps, grumbling and ranting about my father much as I now go on about my flatmates, their lack of consideration and co-operation, the same themes echoed in such different settings a third of a century on.

I didn't have a espresso machine then, people didn't have such things in their houses then. Of course, I didn't have many things that I now have and take for granted, like the computer I type this in, the instant connection by voice or word with people half way across the world. I had a sauce pan boiling water and a cloth coffee colander, what n these parts is called a 'sock', name which I find curiously disgusting for some reason that I haven't stopped to find out. After my mother's fashion, we used to put the sugar in the water to boil, we claimed that made the coffee taste sweeter with less sugar. Who knows, it might even be true. Then I would go back to the azotea, to look at the people passing by on Avenida El Cristo, the church at the top of the hill, the electricity sub-station a bit further up the road, the Portuguese corner shop -the one that still had on its wall after many years and attempts to erase it, a grafitto that originally had read 'Viva Romulo' (center-right president in the early sixties, universally hated) and which the local wits had changed to 'Niña Romulo' (niña meaning young girl).

There was a large aloe vera or related plant on a square, large, home-made concrete pot in the minuscule inner yard. It wasn't a yard, just the corridor in the house, but had no roof on it so it was open to the sun and rain, like a miniature version of a Spanish house's patio. My grandad had built the stairway, as he had also the plant pot and much else in the house. I don't know what planning permission regulations were like in Caracas in those days but they must have been pretty lax. There had been a back yard, which had been paved and built over and had become the junk room, where my grandad had the remainder of some hardware shop he'd had in the thirties or forties and we all dumped stuff that no longer worked or was wanted. As a child I used to climb on overturned beds and furniture to explore the drawers full of screws and bolts, of buttons and instruments whose purpose was wholly unknown to me. There were clouds of dust, the whole set up was dangerous and unstable, there probably were rats in there although I don't remember ever seeing one.. From that back-yard turned storage room you could climb to the flat roof, which I did regularly when I had an argument with my father -although 'argument' is the wrong word. I never ever uttered a word during those 'arguments', it always was his show, a loud, aggressive one where he would threaten to kill us (but he never touched us, he only smacked me twice during my childhood, both with good reason) and proclaim that we were not human and had no feelings. Up there in the roof behind the water tank I would read Gil Blas de Santillana or Knut Hamsun and wait, while he shouted from down there for me to come down, he'd teach me a good lesson.

We were such a strange family. At some point I realised we weren't like my friends' families. My mum and dad didn't sleep in the same room; my sister slept with my mum and I slept in my dad's room. It was an arrangement which I hated. In the night, when he came back very late, reeking of booze and clumsily blundering around, he would wake me up to tell me stories of the war ('seven years and three months, they took me at 16 to go fight that stupid war...') or the rather violent, misogynistic life that the males of the family seemed to live in the Italy he was growing up in the thirties. He had some story of having travelled a long distance to go see Jorge Negrete, Mexican film star of the day, and heckling him when they found out that this macho Mexican cowboy hero was, apparently, effeminate and gay. About an uncle being stabbed to death at a village fair (no-one in the family seems to be able to recall this or know about it). About the Nazis retreating and a girl being allegedly raped by a group of them, and these being hunted 'like rats' and killed by the locals. About a platoon mate of his declaring, in a clearing in the forest, that he wanted to see what was inside a hand grenade and proceeding to take one apart, while his mates ran in all directions, followed by the explosion and raining of body parts... All those terrifying stories, in the twilight of the room with my father reeking of booze sitting on the bed and suddenly stopping mid-stream and declaring that we didn't understand, we had no feelings...

The outside world seemed such a hostile, incomprehensible place...

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