Canaries and goldfinches. Those are the two kinds of birds he rears and sells. Those are his favourite, the ones he finds the most attractive. They pair for breeding and the offspring are also pretty and sell well. Mockingbirds are not as attractive but he claims their singing is second to none. He does not breed them, though. Nobody does – mockingbirds don’t sing in captivity.
That was the topic he chose to talk about while at the funeral parlour. His companion for the last 28 years, my grand-aunt, had just passed away. I was offering him my condolences and trying to distract him. The man was in great sorrow. However, when the conversation turned to his birds he lighten up a bit and talked at length.
The cages are at the top floor of their house. He needs to feed the birds and clean the cages and the floor, on a daily basis. It is very hot up there in the summer and he can’t stop sweating while doing those chores. His shirt is always soaked through when he’s done.
It’s funny what people talk about at funeral parlours. I was expecting we would be talking about my auntie and we ended up talking about canaries and goldfinches and soaked shirts. I guess that’s fine.
My in-law is decided to slowly make his way out of the family. My cousins have insisted he should stay and keep living at their mother’s, to little avail. He must have his reasons – I didn’t ask. He has already made arrangements for admission in a retirement home. It won’t happen anytime soon, though. There’s a long waiting list and the rate of openings is low – only the occasional death of a resident can move him up the list.
Some things never change.
The thought struck me on the beach the other day. It just dawned on me that little kids spend their time down on the beach doing the same exact things countless other kids did before them. They dig holes in the sand by the shore, build towers and entire castles using the same plastic buckets and tiny shovels, chase each other for the sheer fun of it, play with balls, jump the breaking waves, or use nets to capture whatever tiny fish or crab they happen to find. On the beach kids do not need electronic screens to stare at. On the beach their playing is pre-digital age. By and large, they seem happy and free.
I envy their freedom and happiness, but I don’t envy their age. For, from then on, it is all downhill.
Some days ago, as I strolled along the shore, I watched a couple of kids that were particularly enjoying themselves, running towards the rocks with their nets, screaming in excitation at the prospect of the many crabs they were about to catch. It was then that I realised that these kids were going through their endless summer. Present-progressively, right then and there, at that very time, as I watched them. They are oblivious to it, of course, to any possible deeper layer of meaning hiding below their physical experience of joy – the only thing that matters to them. They do not know yet that the feeling – the magic – will end, that the endless summer is an illusion, that it is, well, finite. These happy kids are blissfully unaware that they too one day will realise (with a sudden hint of subdued disappointment) they once lived an endless summer. Perhaps they may even pinpoint the core of one of their fondest memories to a summer afternoon when they shouted and raced towards the rocks and the breaking waves beyond the shoreline, the exciting prospect of the hunting of crabs with their inseparable friends their only goal of their infinite conceivable future.
Oh yes, of course, the picture, he needs to have his picture taken.
My interaction with the bookseller at 22 Golden Lane, Prague, was, most conveniently, Kafkaesque. The renowned writer lived in that house for a short period of time. So tells the internet and assures a plaque on the wall. The lane, recently revamped to a somewhat much-too-polished extent, is one of the sights to see on the grounds of the Prague Castle. Everybody seems to know, as hordes of people certify. To think that Kafka once chose the place for its calm, away from the bustle of the city and a shelter from his dad, a quiet, unpretentious place to live and write. The bookseller seemed angry at the visitors. She makes a living out of selling them stuff but they don’t seem to buy much. So they annoy her. The day before my visit I had learned that Kafka wrote the short story “A Country Doctor” in that very house but for the sake of making conversation I asked her about it anyway. She was not in the mood for talking and simply replied with a grunt, not even bothering to stand from the chair she sat on. I don’t blame her. She must be asked that question a hundred times each day. Turning my face to the books I kept myself busy looking around the shelves, not really interested. I was surprised when she bluntly asked me if I had a book about Prague. I didn’t. I told her I had a map and my cell phone, and that seemed sufficient now that roaming charges were over. She told me I needed a book of the city and pointed to a selection on display on a shelf. I hesitated and in an attempt to change topics I asked her about Kundera, who does not seem to have so much visibility around the city as Kafka. She could not care less and insisted on me buying the city guide. There was a bit of me refusing and she insisting, unnecessarily long. At some point she went silent for a while and then abruptly she mentioned Kundera whom she didn’t like, the runaway, and Rilke, and Neruda, who were both the real deal. She took me off guard with the latter – I thought she meant Pablo but of course she meant Jan. Oh well, I just er-ed and aha-ed for a little longer. As I said, the whole episode was Kafkaesque, up to a point, now that the adjective is so vastly misused, which I sort of oddly welcomed though.
I thought of my grandma C the other day. It’s not that frequent that I think of her. I was walking to the dentist and I started perspiring a bit. The heat of the day was building up and it was then that I thought of her. I thought of those long gone summer mornings when she and my grandpa were back from the market, the boot of their little car filled with plastic bags. She would invariably complain about the heat, annoyed and suffocated. I would’ve just got up from bed and would be called for help to carry a few bags to the kitchen. That was my time for complaining.
Sometimes I just feel like taking the day off, driving away to the house by the sea, and write, just write. I never do it, of course.
Although it is a strong impulse I know it’s short-lived. Had I the chance to spend time writing I know I’d soon become weary. I don’t have the willpower a real writer must have.
A man and a woman met by chance at the waiting room of a hospital. He was already there when she arrived, waiting for his mother to walk out from a minor operation in one of her eyes. The woman walked into the waiting room some fifteen minutes later than him. She was accompanying her mother too, who had to undergo some similar minor eye surgery. The woman and her mother sat across the room from where the man was sitting and then their eyes met for a split second. They instantly recognized each other. They were close friends long ago, during their late teenage years. High-school classmates. They even dated for some time, up until they found a fork in the road. Now they were both in their fifties and had not seen each other in the lifetime long interim.
He stood up and walked towards her. She grinned and stood up too. They showed genuine surprise and affection and happily proceeded to update to one another the highlights of the last thirty years, however succinctly.
But no, that did not happen. They instantly recognized each other, that much is true. However, as soon as they became aware of each other’s presence they lowered their gaze fast. All through their waiting they avoided subsequent eye contact, pretending their identification had not happened, they neglected each other. Their acting was both right and wrong, simultaneously neither good nor bad, it was just the way it was. The reasons could be diverse – irrational, pragmatic, understandable, conscious, against their will, unknown to them, whatever. Their reasons were the least important bit to explain their behaviour. Assuming it needed explaining.
Sometimes I go to her drugstore. It is not only because I need to buy something. It is also because I like to see her. We do some small talk then and all along the memory of her long gone brother escorts our mundane conversation like an invisible presence hovering overhead. We both feel it and we both bear it. My visits to her drugstore are not frequent, only a few times a year. I notice her aging as no doubt she must notice mine. I wonder if she pays attention to my physical changes as I grow older. I’d like to think she does. Her brother and I were the same age and perhaps my appearance is a proxy of how he might look like today. I’d like to think I’m being useful.
Everyday, as I walk up the stairs in the office building where I work and I reach the space in between the first and the second floors my eyes look out the window for a second at the municipal graveyard across the street. This is a recurrent little scene, a regular brief moment. Beyond the low walls of the cemetery my gaze is fixed for an instant on the neatly arranged array of burial drawers, on their stones in monotone tones of gray with their ugly buckets of flowers decaying on their holders. I keep climbing up the stairs to prepare my lectures and ponder over the wonders of the universe and the image is instantly forgotten until the next day. The graveyard seems immutable, unaffected by time, while I am a day older each time I look again out of the window and into those tombs in the distance. The event is not entirely devoid of significance, the street a metaphorical divide separating the true us and them. There are no other us and them but those at either side of this street. Any other arrangement seems purely artificial.
I used to write short-form entries. I used to have time to do it. I used to even have fun writing them.