The Sunday evening train is very crowded. Its passengers are mainly students that return to Aveiro at the end of the weekend. Many of them have to stand up in the corridor and in the wider spaces near the doors. It is an inconvenient way to travel the distance from Porto’s Campanha to Aveiro as the trip in this Suburbano train takes about an hour. I stand up too. I was not fast enough to find a seat when the doors slid open. I didn’t even try.
As we pass stations the number density of people decreases a bit. However, most passengers are heading for Aveiro and barely any seat becomes available until very near the end. That’s when I finally manage to sit with a silent sigh of relief. And it’s also when I see a student sitting on the floor a few meters away from me.
An air of melancholy envelopes her. She is completely lost in thought, cross-legged on the floor, gracefully, her posture unforced, the kind a grown-up could not show. Nobody pays attention to her. Being a student and sitting on the floor is not perceived by anyone as strange. It is a normal thing a student may do.
As I look at this girl I wonder how many years will pass until she no longer sits on the floor of a crowded train. That time will surely arrive. Sometime down the road if she boarded a packed train she would not sit on the floor. She would find the action at odds with her age, something she is not supposed to do.
Upon retirement the old cop made a habit of spraying an “N.” in front of every graffitied “A.C.A.B.” he found in the street. He thought the message was more accurate that way.
The Dunhill ad in front of me reads: “Look deeper. See further. Seek refinement.” It portrays a finely dressed young man staring at the camera, an air of supposed refinement all over him. Looking deeper, seeing further, and seeking refinement have little to do with smoking a fag. Even if it happens to be a Dunhill, Tobacco of London Ltd.
All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.
As everyone knows, that’s the famous aphorism Orwell wrote in his masterpiece Animal Farm. Of course I will not deny the wittiness of the statement – it is pure genius. It occurs to me that we could revisit it these days and adopt a new, less cynical and more down-to-earth version of the popular maxim – All men are stupid but some men are more stupid than others.
Our home is a tiny dot in an infinite darkness. We are that special. Not only we fail to enjoy the privilege but we spend a whole lot amount of time engaged in deathly fights to make our opinionated stances about the miserable dot and the origin thereof prevail. My God created the dot and put me and only me and those like me in command. It was not your God who did it that’s why I have to kill you. To zeroth-order this idea keeps playing a significant role in the way we live and die.
Oblivious to the absurdity of it all, Nature keeps doing what it does best, utterly unconcerned about this lot of idiots.
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.