(* = shift in time or place*)
There was this one time, my mum went to go pick up an old friend of hers and her daughter from the airport. “Make sure you hoover the lounge once more.” she said before she left. The third time that day. Yes, mum.
Apparently the old friend of hers used to look after me and my brother when we were young. Too young to remember. I began practicing that smile and small laugh you offer when an adult gives you that, ‘My god, look how much you’ve grown!’ line. They were passing through, but their main purpose for the journey was to go to Wales to see some relatives.
I turn up the Ahmed Jamal jazz that’s sounding from my speakers to try shut off the sound of my mum talking on the phone. She has this habit of having her phone on loudspeaker and talking so loud that every corner of the house is blanketed in the sound of her conversation. She speaks in her mother-tongue, though, of which I can’t understand, so I never usually bother listening. I do, however, catch a few glimpses of English. Random words like ‘battery’, and ‘stop’ and ‘helpless’. I imagine she’s telling my auntie about the time her car-battery ran out, and she was left stranded in the church car-park for forty-five minutes.
Anyway, the time my mum went to the airport – the thought occurred to me that, of recent, my sister no longer stayed at home with my mum, brother and I, and so I wondered arduously about what I would offer the daughter to do for entertainment. It was typical in my home for the children to leave the adults to talk in the main room while they went off to play or whatever whenever we had guests. But this would prove to be somewhat tricky being male and female (not to mention never having met beforehand). I had no clue how old she was, or what she was in to.
I remember hoping for some reason that she wasn’t my age. That she wasn’t attractive. I just didn’t want to encounter that sort of ‘our mums are friends and we’re opposite sex age-mates so we should have some kind of reticent, unspoken but mutually agreed attraction going on between us’ scenario. I mean, it seemed great in movies and books, but how feasible is it in real-life?
My mum came back from the airport with the two. Unfortunately, the daughter looked just three or so years younger than myself, and she was cute. But how unfortunate was it, really?
Not half an hour later I hear the doorbell go off from upstairs. “Come in, my sister.” my mum joyously says, then they exchange a few words in their mother-tongue as she wipes her shoes on the rug which has Psalm 139:14 printed on it. It never made sense to me to have a Bible verse on something you clean your shoes off with. If anything, it deterred me from wiping my shoes.
I guess their uproarious conversation wasn’t intense enough over the phone. I skip gently down the stairs and greet my auntie before offering her a warm drink. She says she’s fine.
“How are Lou and the others?”
“They are all good, my dear. I was just with Lou’s wife and the little one.” she replies. I place myself beside my mum for a moment, and at that very moment my old man walks through the front door into the main room. I check the time. 4PM. Yep, ’round about the usual time he strolls in. I look down to the carpet. I look to the wall. To the switched off TV. Back down to the carpet. He greets my auntie in the same mother-tongue and they briefly catch up. My mum stands up and retreats to the kitchen without a word. The stale lines which rest below her eyes and at the sides of her mouth daub a zestless expression on her face.
She can’t bare it. We all hate it, too. My brother, my sister, me. The way he comes in and acts in front of guests like everything’s okay, like everyone is fine. Nothing is ever okay and we’re far from fine. That’s the case when he’s about, at least.
‘I could never divorce him’, my mum always says, ‘it’s not right for me to do that.’
You’re not in the wrong, mum! Things aren’t the same as before, and most likely never will be. You have to let him know that! I just want to grab her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her sometimes.
Anyway. Anna was her name. They’re from the States. Anna’s mum and mine go way back. They lived together for some time in England, then eventually separated when Anna’s mum (Agatha) moved to Manhattan with her husband. He died though, two years ago, from undetected Leukemia. My mum couldn’t make the funeral.
I rather uneasily invited Anna upstairs.
“My room’s a mess, by the way.” She laughed faintly. “Didn’t your mother mention you’d be having visitors ’round for a few days?” she asked, sounding half surprised half rhetorical. I looked at her sheepishly and said nothing. My room wasn’t as bad as I had thought. Or perhaps I knew it wasn’t that bad, but it’s just one of those phrases that comes out automatically in case you’re dealing with a clean-freak.
She stepped in. Barely looking around, she picked up a book off my desk.
“A really good book, this.” She said as she skimmed over the back of it, then flicking through a few pages.
“You’ve actually read it?”
“Yeah, why so surprised?”
“No, it’s just I just hadn’t figured you being into Guevara.” I answered, wondering why I’d said it. “Oh? How come?” I was tongue-tied. “You’ve met me before, so you therefor have basis on what and what not to figure about me?” Double tongue-tied.
Her strong undertone of sarcasm prevented her from sounding angry, and even rude. More genuinely inquisitive and thorough than anything. “Or is it ’cause I look too young?” Triple tongue-tied. I didn’t know if she was looking for an answer. For the first time since she came into the room she was staring me directly in the eyes with her own, small but powerful eyes. Her general expression wasn’t plain nor particularly suggestive. Just bold. Meticulous.
After I decided to stop slyly, and yet half unconsciously, acting condescending towards her, we manage to hold a decent conversation. We talked books, old movies, the States, touched on history, British politics, then somehow circled back to books. She had an interesting and insightful viewpoint on most things. It’s nice to converse once in a while with someone who gives you a fresh perspective on things and almost makes you question things you know (or thought you knew). Anna was one of those people. I remember being impressed with her knowledge and understanding in general. Certainly a lot more than I knew at her age (I still wasn’t sure how old she was at this point).
About an hour in total passed before we even realised the flow of time was still gearing in motion. I heard my mum calling from downstairs, and it’s not until then that I noticed her sat on my bed, legs crossed, toying around with a pen she must have found on my bed. I clocked that next to her were three or four of my T-shirts she’d folded neatly for me and laid beside her.
We ate dinner all together, our mothers, my brother and the two of us, and I set up the sofabed for Anna while Agatha set up camp in the spare room.
My mum and auntie are lost deep in their foreign language chit-chattering, and I find no better opportune moment to escape back to my lair upstairs. I only took two characteristics from my old man: a profound liking for jazz music, and a habit of wanting to be alone a lot.
He loved being by himself, and would release his signature grunt whenever someone disturbed him. 90% of the time he was in this gloomy bad mood, and so naturally, everyone left him alone. Just as he pleased.
It came to about twenty minutes past midnight when I heard a gentle knocking on my bedroom door. A distinctively slow knocking. My mum’s fast asleep and my brother never knocks, I thought to myself.
It was Anna. She said she couldn’t sleep, and that she needed a book. I asked her why she hadn’t brought any with her.
“They’re in my suitcase in the room my mum’s sleeping in. I don’t wanna go rummaging around in there and end up waking her up.”
“Fair point.” I said. “And you knew I was awake?”
“No, but I thought I’d take a chance,” she replied in a low tone. “I find it very difficult to sleep without a book by my bedside.”
I switched on my side-lamp and pointed her towards the shelf where my books are kept. She gently felt her way across the spines of the books, then did the same again trailing in the opposite direction. I watched her as she did this. I watched how her bare left foot crossed over and toed the outer side of her right foot subconsciously. She wore a silk gown which spilled down to her knees. A blue-grey hue. The meek lighting that exuded from the lamp left most of her frame silhouetted. Her braids are tied up in a sleek bun. The shape of her collar bones peering through the gown. The slight crumpling of her eyebrows as she surveyed which book teased her fancy. She turned her head suddenly and stared right at me before asking inquiringly, “Which do you recommend? For a bedtime book.”
She named the ones she’d read quietly, and I retorted her a few suggestions. She finally picked out a book. A book of short poems. She pressed it against her chest and thanked me.
“Are you cold downstairs?”
“A little.” she said.
“You need me to grab you a spare blanket or something?”
Her eyes wandered around my room, then squinted and fixated keenly on a painting on the wall. She pointed to it. “Who’s that?”
“You don’t know Miles Davis?”
“No. Well I’ve heard the name, but how many Miles Davis’ are there in this world.”
I said nothing to this. She studied the paint splashed portrait a little longer. His shades. The saxophone he so passionately blared in to. The swirly signature of the artist. “I’m guessing he’s a musician. Jazz player?” she continued.
“A very famous one. Extremely famous.” I told her.
“Well he can’t be that famous, now, can he?” She walked up to the painting, and her arms flopped lazily on either side of her hips, book in left hand.
“You must really like this… Miles Davis then.”
I smiled a little. “Yeah. Is your mum a light sleeper?”
She looked at me for some five seconds before saying, “Very heavy. You need to bash her a couple times to wake her up sometimes.”
I got out of the bed and put on Davis’ ‘In A Silent Way’ album at a hushed volume. She said she’d never really taken the time to listen to jazz music. We sat in the dimly lit room, soundlessly listening to brilliance of it all. She seemed to have enjoyed the album quite some much. After a fairly long but finite silence between us, we plucked out from the tranquil thin air a conversation which oddly had nothing to do with Davis, or music at all.
Anna could hold a lengthy conversation, but somehow, almost skillfully, she managed to never touch on her personal life. At all. We talked about mostly abstract or general things. Anna didn’t ask many questions, especially not personal ones, so the conversation never had the chance to hold an intrusive element of privacy.
I’d got to know plenty about her thoughts and opinions, but nothing really about her. I felt passably distant from her.
Again, time had its way of passing by us inconspicuously but without doubt. It came to 2:13AM. The room was submersed in the proficient, lingering works of Miles Davis and our quiet, on-and-off rounds of verbiage.
Somehow – don’t ask me how – I’d happened to find her sat on the edge of my bed with my head stationed between her knees. She’d been re-twisting my dreads for goodness knows how long. The realisation of it all had only struck once Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue‘ album had come to what seemed to be an abrupt end. We looked to each other for some clues, both wondering how we ended up in this position. Her face carried a don’t ask me look on it.
She lifted her legs to the bed and hugged them. I told her to cover herself with the blanket.
“Are you tired?” she asked.
“No, not really. I was so lost in the music and conversation that I forgot about sleep.”
I forgot about everything.
That’s the kind of effect being with Anna had on you. I wasn’t too sure whether this was good or bad. It was partially trying to tackle some clash of perspective we each had on whatever matter, and partly just listening to her explain something and simply wondering. Wondering about what? Well, I don’t know. A million-trillion thoughts gallop through and around your head when speaking with Anna. She evokes oodles of thought.
I put on another jazz album. This time the 1962 works of John Coltrane. She laid her head on one of my pillows and closed her eyes. I sat on the floor leaned up against the wall. Silence.
It came to about 3AM. She was fast asleep, but her face carried a very calm expression. As if she was still awake, just closing her eyes listening to the music which seeped softly from the speakers. At this point, I decide to quietly leave the room and take up position on the sofabed downstairs.