Sometimes, I think of god as a lover of music
listening to the poetry of our lives
listening to the minor falls
and the major lifts
and to those who loved too much.
What a symphony
we shall be.
Strangers leave us poems to tell of those
they loved, how the heart broke, to whisper
of the religion upstairs in the dark,
sometimes in the parlor amid blazing sunlight,
and under trees with rain coming down
in August on the bare, unaccustomed bodies.
Jack Gilbert, Relative Pitch
THE Nostalgia of the Infinite has been my favourite piece of art for as long as I can remember.
I don’t know when I first saw it — perhaps it had something to do with the indie game, Ico — but none of that truly matters. What matters is this:
That there is a deep and yearning nostalgia within Man’s heart. He feels it flutter when he looks upon the endless sea. He feels it tighten when he gazes up at the beckoning stars. He feels it even when he is with the one he loves most in the world.
The heart yearns to mingle itself with the object of its desire and it can not and so it yearns to be whole. It has yearned since the dawn of consciousness and it yearns still with each (lub dub) and every (lub dub) beat.
For there was once a time when it was not so — the heart was whole and it knew no sorrow. But that time has long since passed and is but a half-remembered dream from a childhood siesta for ever ago. But men will do strange things to appease their half-remembered dreams. Alexander led his armies to the very edge of the world. Thousands died in the impenetrable rainforests of the Amazon searching for El Dorado. And in a town called Babylon, a man built the greatest tower ever built to look upon the Face of God. It has always been so.
But look closer.
There they are, in plain sight.
And, as they lean closer in the empty piazza, for a moment, their shadows become…
a photograph is all that lasts long
with glory years and quiet fears gone
when summer days are far away
you can dream of skies and lover’s eyes
Shoecraft, Eyes, Blue
OF all the addictions that may plague a man, an addiction to love is the trickiest addiction to have. This is due to the singular fact that one can not buy love in the marketplace. If one could, that would be another matter entirely and we would not be having this conversation for I would be in the marketplace but we are, and I’m not, for it is — truly, insufferably — priceless.
Its effects are astounding. It can take a boy of fifteen — a promising young lad with a first-rate mind and sound disposition — and render him anaesthetised to worldly pursuits. The worlds of commerce and politics and sport are forever more left grey and drab to him. The gold stars of society no longer mean anything to him. He has glimpsed a world drenched in colour and he can not thrive without it. Over the years, he secretly feeds his addiction with scraps of poetry and ancient Persian treatises on Sufism. He devours literature with an unslakable thirst, searching, ever searching. He sees something he can not articulate in the way the sun sets behind lonely apartment complexes. Something beckons to him on the sea breeze as it blows through banyans in the hot afternoons. And something tightens in his chest every night as he watches the rising of the stars from the roof of his ancestral home. Everything he writes ends the same way: smeared with the half-remembered colours of forgotten love. Like waking from a dream and scrambling to put it all down before it’s lost to the aether; knowing it’s going, knowing it’s gone, knowing even as you begin to write that it’s useless and yet still grasping for another fix, you addict, happy in your addiction, wouldn’t trade it for the world because you’d rather your half-remembered colour than the grey, grey, grey of everyone and everything else…
There is a boy or a girl a thousand years hence on another planet who is reading all this, feeling all this. Here, Earth is merely a byword for an unspeakable nostalgia. I write to you — future-boy, future-girl — from your ancestral home. The colours are real. They exist. There is only one way to find them and there always has been. Good luck. Godspeed.
For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Lord Byron, So, we’ll go no more a roving
All these books in my library — lives lived
out, words spent, atria emptied of their
blood. I see them and realise that I do not
have much time. But, like all the rest, I am
bound in webs of responsibility and class
and aspiration. A small cottage by the beach
with a well-stocked library and a fire in the
hearth where we could spend our evenings
before the dark descends. And, perhaps,
there is where I’ll have the time to ponder over
the mysteries of the Sufis. Why do the stars
call me so? Why does the sea, why do old
houses, and old books, and saudade call me so?
The dreams of another life… almost
forgotten… breaking on the shores of my
heart, and I… I frantic, searching among the
ruins and the driftwood for a compass to guide
me home. Home? The place I yearn for when I
hear someone playing A minor softly, clear as
a bell, through the sweet, sad sounds of static
on old radios. In a short time, this will be a
long, long time ago…
***N.B. ‘Heart Note’ was longlisted by The Missing Slate, a not-for-profit, international literary journal, for a creative writing contest. “We received 275 entries for this competition, of which only 14 have been longlisted … we felt you should know that your work made an impact on us, and we look forward to reading more of it in the future.”***
Again and again we put our
sweet ghosts on small paper boats and sailed
them back into their death, each moving slowly
into the dark, disappearing as our hearts
visited and savored, hurt and yearned.
Jack Gilbert, Kunstkammer
WE PARKED the Civic up where the road curved towards the hills. It was a black Civic and in the shadow of the hills, with the city lights spread out beneath us, it melted into the dark.
Amir bhai turned off the headlights and took out a cigarette and lit it.
“You want one?”
“No thanks, Amir bhai. I’m good.”
I rolled down the window and we shivered as the wind from the hills hit our sweat-stained shirts.
“Crazy workout today, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s good stuff.”
“Bus lagé raho! Keep at it!” He said. “High reps, low weights; you’ll be buff in no time!”
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks, Amir bhai.”
I’d met Amir bhai at a rusty basement gym a couple of months ago. He’d offered to drop me home and parked the car up here and given me clichéd advice about women for half an hour. I didn’t mind. He was twenty-nine and arranged-married and needed a young friend. I didn’t particularly relish walking home after workouts. It was a win-win.
“Ali aaj kal gym nahi aa raha? Haven’t seen Ali at the gym these days?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “He said something about exams.”
“Fuck yaar, that’s the life!”
“No yaar! University life! All those girls…” He took a deep drag on the cigarette and leaned back into the seat and closed his eyes. “But what am I telling you for? Handsome chap like you; I’m sure you’ve got more than a few girls, right?” He winked.
I smiled and shook my head and turned to look out the window. Some guys are born good at girls. I just wasn’t one of them. That’s why I’d joined the gym. A few more inches on the biceps and they wouldn’t be able to resist, right?
”Exactly,” said Amir bhai, reading my thoughts. “Just a few more months at the gym and you’ll get any girl you want. That’s how I became such a player. You know I almost got a number the other day?”
“Yeah! I was at Dolmen and this hot thing kept staring at me so I used this crazy line on her…”
All of Amir bhai’s stories began this way.
“…and I was just about to get her number when I saw my wife’s second cousin shopping for razors a few aisles down…”
And all of Amir bhai’s stories ended this way. His wife must have a lot of cousins.
He finished his cigarette and flicked it out the window. The headlights cut a broad swathe through the night as the Civic powered down the gravel road. He was telling me a particularly animated story about a PIA stewardess when I realised we weren’t headed home.
“Uh, Amir bhai?”
“You missed the turn!”
“Chill, bro! Have to get the missus an anniversary present. It’ll only take a minute.”
We drove past Sadabahar and Alamgir and the little old man who sells greasy fries by the side of the road. He waved to me. I waved back. Amir bhai broke a red light, swore at a rickshaw driver, and parked outside the department store.
“These bloody rickshaws!” he said. I nodded. We walked into the store.
Fat women hogged the aisles, their carts overflowing with enough supplies to last till Rapture. They gave us looks and I didn’t blame them. We were two sweaty, stubbled young men who reeked of smoke. Just the sort detested by police officers, school principals, and mothers with young daughters.
We pushed past them and headed for the perfume section. Amir bhai was on a roll.
“Oh, hey, just look at that one! The packaging is so third-class! Haha! It says ‘Made in the USA’! Yeah, if they mean USA, Lyari! Saalé kis ko chutiya bana rahé hain? Who the fuck are they trying to fool?”
Occasionally, he’d hold one up to my nose and I’d smile and nod and hold my breath from the onslaught of fruity fumes.
And then it happened.
“Haha! Oh, fuck me! Look at this one! It smells just like that shit schoolgirls wear, right?”
I shouldn’t have smelt it. I should have said, “Amir bhai, please just get her some chocolates and flowers and let’s head home.” But I was never very good at confrontation and all I could do was smile and nod and take a whiff.
Every perfume has three notes.
Head note: Morning. Summer break’s over. You hate being the new kid. Again. Your footsteps echo down an empty corridor. You are minding your own business, searching for Chemistry 101 when effervescent citrus sticks out a foot and you fall and you fall and you fall.
Heart note: Evening. A school concert. Music so loud you can’t think. You take a walk. Footsteps echo behind you. You turn. The answer to whispered prayers. A mischievous smile. “Have you been to the roof?” You haven’t. Adventure. Adrenaline. Stairs. Shh! Look, stars. Butterflies flutter to heady jasmine.
Base note: Afternoon. Detention ends. You’re thirsty. The canteen’s closed. The water cooler’s on the third floor. It’s okay, you like to take walks. Footsteps echo. Stairs. You pause. A familiar giggle flutters from a distant classroom. Adrenaline. Shh! One-step-at-a-time. You push open the door. Comforting sandalwood breaks your heart.
I opened my eyes.
I heard Amir bhai debating the merits of discreet motels. Across the aisle, I could see one of the fat women holding a crying baby as she searched for the perfect fairness cream. And, in my trembling hand, I held the little glass bottle that had changed everything. I looked at it. I looked at Amir bhai. I looked at the fairness cream mom and the baby who’d stopped crying and was now eyeing me warily. I slid off the cap and sprayed a hint of it onto the back of my hand and carefully put the bottle back on the shelf. The baby began to cry.
The rest of that night is a blur. I can only remember scraps of it. Of Amir bhai’s plans to meet a girlfriend at Day’s Inn. Of the smell of seekh-kababs from Sadabahar. Of the moon that night as it followed the car, a waning crescent on a flag waved by a smiling girl one rainy August morning… And as the car drove on and on through familiar streets, I’d raise the back of my hand and close my eyes and inhale my own cigarette of sweat and sweet heartache.
Amir bhai was right. It was a perfume worn by schoolgirls. One girl in particular. One girl with a hazel lock that still haunted my dreams and gave me a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach every weekday as the bus took me home past the lonely Sea-View apartments at sunset.
But now here she was, on the back of my hand, and I ran up the stairs two at a time and locked my door and shut off the lights and fell asleep with a smile on my lips and a pain in my heart, drifting in and out of sepia smeared dreams as they played late night love songs for me on CityFM89…
The next morning was a Sunday and the store was closed.
On Monday I had uni and Dad wanted to discuss politics and Mom needed help getting the groceries and there was lunch and there was dinner and there was gym and by the time I reached the store someone had already found and opened and smelt and bought and wrapped and taken far, far away that nondescript little vial that held my first love, my first heartbreak.
I would sell
all I own and have and built
for more time
— Tyler Knott Gregson
“FALLING slowly / Eyes that know me,” he stopped. They all stared at him. The café was full and now they all stared at him and even the waitresses who would bustle about and pay him no heed stood in the silence, staring. He tried to clear his throat. It didn’t work. He looked at the mike and felt the weight of the guitar on his knee and all the patrons and waitresses staring at him and felt the sweat collect on his brow. A group of rowdy teenagers walked into the café. Everyone turned to stare at them. They stopped. But that was all he needed and by the time they had turned back, the stage was empty and only the angled mike stood in the spotlight — a little off-centre — alone.
He sat on the bench outside, waiting. He didn’t have to wait long. He smelt her perfume on the breeze before she’d said a word and he wondered how a smell could do that to you.
“That was quite a performance!”
The cadence of her voice hadn’t changed. The lilt he remembered so well that he often caught himself thinking in it; it hadn’t changed.
“It was embarrassing.”
“I don’t think it was embarrassing.”
“Liar.” He smiled at her.
“Hi.” She smiled back.
They looked at each other like that for a while, each watching the other watch them, drinking in the ravages of time — a line here, a wrinkle there.
“So,” he asked. “Where’ve you been?”
She considered this for moment.
“Tangier,” she said, narrowing her eyes. He could hear the teasing in her voice.
“That was one time, okay? The one time I play a Dylan song for you and —”
She laughed just then and he wondered how a laugh could do that to you.
“I was just kidding!” she said.
“Sure you were.”
“I was! I was! It’s just the way you sang it. So … poignant!” And she began to laugh all over again and this time he couldn’t help but join her.
“Hey, we both did some stupid things back then, okay?”
“Yes, you did!”
They watched together as a car drove by, the afterglow of its tail lights fading into the darkling twilight.
“Do you remember all those promises we made?” She asked.
“I do,” he said. “I do.”
“Seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said. “But sometimes it seems like it was yesterday and now its morning and I’m awake now — I’m finally awake — and I’m brushing my teeth and going to college and walking up to the quad and there you are with that stupid grin, waiting for class to begin.”
“I wasn’t waiting for class to begin.”
“No,” he said. “I was waiting for you.”
“You’re sweet, but I’m not buying it.”
“Well, it was worth a shot,” he grinned.
She reached for the guitar lying between them and plucked at the strings.
“You used to say something to me when we were kids.”
“I said a lot of things,” he smiled. “Most of them to impress you.”
“I know,” she said. “And it worked!”
“Until it didn’t.”
“Yes,” she sighed.
“Hey, listen. Don’t, okay? Tell me something else. Tell me something — okay, what pseudo-intellectual bullshit did I say to you?”
He could tell she wasn’t convinced but she relented and he saw the hurt as it cleared from her bright eyes.
“You told me,” she said with care, as if each word meant something different to her. “You told me: Listen! One day we’ll graduate and we’ll be old and we’ll never see each other again and never feel this way again and it’s weird, isn’t it, how life is learning to say goodbye?”
She looked at him looking at her, remembering.
“You also said how much you hated Mondays.”
“You said that, too!”
“You know, I had this dream last night.” He looked off at the lights on the buildings.
“Yeah. I was late for this stupid party. I didn’t want to go. I was sleeping in the dream and I didn’t want to go and then my Dad came into my room and woke me up. “Aren’t you late for that party?” he said. And I could tell he wanted me to stay — I could just tell — and I didn’t want to go but I got up just the same and I got dressed and I left and I didn’t say goodbye.”
She gazed at me for a moment with her hazel eyes.
“Why didn’t you say goodbye?”
“I don’t know. I woke up then and I ran downstairs and then I remembered. So I walked up again and sat on the roof till dawn.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It’s funny though, isn’t it? How we never do the things we want to do? We never do those things.”
“I’m so sorry.” She reached for his hand. He felt her skin touch his and the hurt and the pain and the years melted away and he was fifteen and in love for the first time.
“Don’t look at me like that,” he said. “I’m fine! I’ll be fine.”
“Hey, that’s my line!”
“God, I missed you.”
“No, seriously. I always miss you. Even when I’m with you, I miss you.”
“Well, maybe it’s not me you’re missing.”
“No, I’m pretty sure it’s you.”
“Good boy.” She intertwined her fingers with his.
“What are the chances, though?” he asked.
“Of this. Of you. Of us meeting again.”
“It’s crazy,” she smiled.
“You’re crazy.” He smiled and he knew, just then, that he’d never let her go. Not ever. Not again.
“What are you smiling about?”
“Nothing! C’mon, let’s get some coffee.”
“I hate coffee!”
“I know, I remember,” he winked.
“Ice-cream?” she asked.
“Only if you’re paying,” he said.
“What happened to chivalry?”
“You’re horrible!” she said. And, laughing, they walked back towards the café.
He woke with a start and his hand reached out to touch the sheets beside him. They were cold and he remembered and it took him a few minutes to compose himself.
When he could breathe again, he sat up, pushed the sheets to one side and went to the sink. The water was cold and fresh and when he saw his weathered reflection staring back at him, he smiled.
“Who’s the best?” he said, aiming a punch at the mirror. It was something he did in the mornings when she’d walk in behind him, hair messy from just waking up, cascading to one side like a waterfall that you’d chanced upon in a clearing in the woods and it was all yours, the curtains waiting to be parted.
“Who’s the best?” And she’d loved it and told him it was adorable — that he was adorable — but now she was gone and it wasn’t morning it was night and he felt silly and old and so he stopped.
He stared at himself for a while and then switched off the light and walked up the stairs to the roof. The old acoustic lay against the door and he picked it up, took it outside and tuned it under the stars.
He played a chord and it was hesitant and unsure and the sound died out soon under the vast night sky. He tried again.
“Spent all night / Tryin’ to remember your face,” he stopped. He tried clearing his throat. It didn’t work. His hands shook as he took off his glasses and wiped them on his shirt. He laid the guitar down on the dusty floor and lay back in the dusty chair and closed his eyes, trying to remember her face.
They wouldn’t find him till Monday.
Let me fall
in love one last time, I beg them.
Teach me mortality, frighten me
into the present.
Help me to find
the heft of these days.
That the nights
will be full enough and my heart feral.
Jack Gilbert, I Imagine The Gods
SOME days the sun was too hot and the breeze that blew in from the ocean would pause for the siesta and on days like that the heat rose off the streets and the heart yearned for a home it had never seen.
On days like that I’d fire up the old clunker with the faithful ’70s radio and shift her into first then second, up and up, smooth as I could manage, until fifth and we were roaring down the causeway and the little kids who splash the summer away in the sewers would laugh and jump and wave and I’d honk twice and wave back.
Most days I’d park her up at that lane under the big old banyan and crank down the windows about three inches each side. I’d push the seat way back and sip at the milky coffee that was always too hot to gulp down but sweet enough that you tried anyway.
It’s hard to say why I chose to park there. I guess it was the perpetual autumn more than anything. Even in the doldrums of summer the lane was fresh and clean and quiet — the air a little crisper, the sun a little softer, the entirety of it drenched in magic.
I’d sit there for hours drifting in and out of sleep. As the sun set into the sea, dark figures would pass me by heading for the kabristan. Sometimes they’d pause outside my window and I’d hear them whisper to me and it grew cold and I’d wish just then that I had brought her along because she was warm and alive and then I remembered and was quiet.
There were big trees all along the sides of the lane and the pools of light from the lamp posts would end up dappled across the dark asphalt after making their way through the leaves. It was then that I’d carefully crank up the windows, lock the car and make my way up the lane towards the kabristan.
He was waiting for me by the entrance.
“You are well?”
“You do not look it. You are well?”
“You do not look it. Your eyes betray you. But come. See what a good job I have done. Rosewater every day, just as sahib ordered.”
“I am sorry.”
“Shall I leave?”
“Yes. No, wait. Here. Thank you.”
“Thank you. You are too kind. Are you sure you are well?”
“Alright. I should be on my way. The rains will come soon. They are forever flooding the graves downhill. It is madness. You are lucky, sahib, to have a spot up here. The rains will come soon. But they will cause no trouble to a spot up here. Alright. Allahafiz.”
I watched as the caretaker walked off down the narrow path. Soon he was only a dark blur weaving between the graves. He was a good man. He’d built the little bench next to her and there I sat. The scent of rosewater carried each time the wind blew from the sea. And I remembered.
I clambered up the rough face of the outcrop and reached the top where the wind never stops and looked for the sunset and dusted my hands off – once, twice – on the faded blue of the jeans. And the sunset was beautiful and warm and the air was cold and fresh and I saw the city’s skyline, silhouettes softened by the fog and the distance. And, as the city lights flickered, my thoughts turned to a girl who lived in a castle by the sea. And whether, if ever, she thought of me.
The breeze blew another gust my way. And I could have sworn I heard a familiar voice mingled in the scent of rosewater.
“Hi,” it said. “I missed you.”