My father is a whisper. A passing cloud. He is there but always receding. A swimmer across the far side of a lake. A bus pulling away. The ground getting smaller as the plane takes off. And so when we go to Mexico City to see him, we do not see him that much after all. And even when he is there he is always also somewhere else.
We arrived in Budapest at night and caught the bus towards the centre. Through the dark glass we looked into its suburbs. They are austere and the wind is cold in the winter. At our accommodation, we sat and shared a beer. Laura went on her phone. After some time, she said that the invasion of Ukraine had begun.
We hadn’t eaten and decided to go out for some food. The streets were partially lit. Thick misty breath rose above the people as they paced through the frozen night. Some were alone, others were in groups.
A tangle of black comms lines, like a clustered neuron, hung dead on a wooden telephone pole. It was a web ready to burst into flame at the first signal surge. This was the first image Zed saw as he exited the Vijayawada air terminal. Wired lines at the end of the 21st Century? I have to rely on these to carry my “all safe” message home.
Zed had come to give a lecture at a new university, an up-and-coming institution in this Indian Capital of Learning. Twenty-four hours of planes through Singapore and Chennai, a slight kerfuffle at customs (he’d misspelled the address of his destination), happily countered by a warm greeting by his host and friend, Prof. Srinu.
“You’re going to be a big hit,” Srinu said, taking Zed’s bags. “Our design students can’t wait to hear from a top typographer like you.”
“Oh my god,” said Sarah, staring at the mural. “That’s exactly what I’ve been talking about.”
It was a garish Lautrec-style painting on the side of a house. The woman’s face was devoid of features – a peachy splodge under a black, lacy hat. Her dress, draping the rest of the brickwork as though dressing the house, was the brightest red. It was pulled up around her hips, white bloomers and underskirts everyplace, frills in captured motion. Dodging around the dancer’s feet were spray-paint words in broken English – Live Hard. Sex Long. Dance the Night’s Away.
I never travelled as a kid but I did play “spin the globe”. It’s that game you play by yourself where you close your eyes and spin a globe, then use your index finger to stop it. When you open your eyes and see where your finger landed, that’s the next place you pretend to visit.
It seemed whenever I played this game, I landed on Russia. The largest country in the world, of course, but my 13-year old self took it as a sign. A sign I had some connection to this frigid, far-off place. And so began my Russian obsession. Mostly 19th century Russian stuff, since that’s all I could get my hands on, but I took what I could get. I borrowed books on Russian history, read all 800 pages of Anna Karenina. Ignored the strange looks of passers by as I sat on the beach with Crime and Punishment while other kids read Harry Potter. I imagined myself a Russian beauty with a pale, heart-shaped face and ever-blonde hair. I knew without a doubt I’d marry a Russian, study Russian in university. At night, Tchaikovsky blasted in my headphones while my mother and her boyfriend slurred daggers in the kitchen, diminuendos punctuated by crashing glass and the thud of bone on drywall. Sure, my pants had holes in the seams and I slept on the floor, but I burrowed in a dreamland, my own Nutcracker fairy tale, dancing the mazurka with a Russian beau.
A heavy breath of smoke and things smoked wafts through the open doorway. It’s the scent of silver plumes spiraling from heavy stone roofs, the deep odor of smoked meats and the tang of clothing dried around the fireplace. It’s also the only sign of life in this shuttered village shadowed by the damply wooded Pyrenean foothills. Like other valleys, it’s seen a steady population decline from the end of the 19th century, although descendants of the original emigrants sometimes return to their ancestral homes during the summer months.
But the voices I hear aren’t always French. There’s a scattering of English incomers settled in this wilder western side of the Ariège département of France, following their dream of a new life across the Channel. The western Ariège, however, is a long way from sunny gourmet France, being a place of stubbornly rooted wildness. People talk about leaving England for the French way of life and an old-fashioned sense of community, then end up leaving their families to live amid the ghostly silence of abandoned and decaying houses. Some feel disquiet when they realise they share the landscape with a growing international community of pierced and dreadlocked incomers. What the French call the neo-ruraux, or marginaux, these seekers of an alternative way of life sometimes squat in empty barns, using adjacent battered vans as cupboards and wardrobes.