Sunday, March 19, 2017


Like the mountain hyacinth, the purple flower
That the shepherds trample to the ground…

Sappho’s voice must have been beautiful, though we can only guess. Her verse was meant to be sung, accompanied by the lyre, which looks something like a small, curved harp. She would have been seated before her audience, with the graceful instrument poised between her thighs, braced between armpit and breast, while her fingers plucked and stroked the strings above. How Sappho’s music sounded we will never know, only that her poetry is known to have made grown men weep.

The muses have filled my life
with delight.
And when I die I shall not be forgotten.

Of nine volumes written on papyrus scrolls and placed for safekeeping in the great library of Alexandria, only 250 fragments of Sappho remain. Fewer than 70 of those contain complete lines and some are just a few words, or just a single word. We can only imagine such beauty, the way a forensic scientist might be forced extrapolate a whole face, a whole identity, from a single molar.

Here now, again, Muses leaving the golden...

Two millennia pass, and now Lesbos gives us the most famous gravedigger of our time, the translator, Moustafa Dowa. Moustafa had never seen a dead body before he came to Lesbos. He had moved to Greece to study the classics; he knew Cairo, he knew Athens, he knew three languages, but he did not know death.

The moon is down.
The Pleiades. Midnight.
The hours flow on,
I lie, alone.
In Lesbos, he had planned to be of service as a translator for the thousands of Syrians, Afghans, and Iraqis, who cross the Aegean Sea from Turkey, crowding into open boats and rubber dinghies, risking their lives on the turbulent water for a chance to reach safety.

Like the sweet apple reddening high on a branch
High on the highest, the apple pickers forgot—
Or not forgotten, but one they couldn’t reach…

            Before long, Moustafa sees the truth: the dead here need more help than the living. Moustafa brings a man to the morgue to help identify his sister. Forty-five bodies are stacked in a refrigerator, men and women together, some are naked. The morgue is full, the cemetery is full, and the dead keep coming. Some are carried to shore by survivors, others wash ashore battered by the rocks, disfigured by the sea, dismembered, without names.

Of all the stars, the loveliest…

            The town discusses the situation and Moustafa is given an olive grove. He digs the graves and teaches himself how to prepare the bodies for a proper Islamic burial.

I did 57 funerals in seven days. In one day I did 11.

            Moustafa buries a three-year-old boy alongside his brother and their parents after their boat capsizes. The child’s name is Adam Abu Jazar. He buries a small, headless girl who can’t be more than a year old; Moustafa crouches in the grave with her for a few minutes, unable to move. Her grave marker bears the inscription, Unknown, followed by the coroner’s file number, the date she washed ashore, and her presumed age.

Hesperus, you bring back again
What the dawn light scatters,
Bringing the sheep: bringing the kid
Bringing the little child back to its mother.

            One day there is just a foot, the foot of a 30-year-old man. On a white table, Moustafa ritually bathes the foot as he would the whole body, from right to left, top to bottom, three times. Usually family members perform this ritual.

Bismillah. In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the most Merciful.

Moustafa binds the foot in a white shroud.

Allahu Akbar. God is great.

He buries the foot, without a casket, facing the olive trees and, further away, Mecca. Moustafa offers his prayer as all Muslims do, in song.

Allah, forgive our living and our dead, those present among us and those absent, our young and our old, our men and our women…

            He takes the precious fragments and imagines them whole.

And I say to you someone will remember us...

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Investigating My Mother's Disappearance

My mother wears tiny, elegant black velvet slippers embroidered with carved glass beads, but otherwise she favors loafers, and dull, earthy shades of khaki ("shit tones," is how she describes her palate). She hardly ever gets dressed anymore, so she might be in her nightgown—my mother is very specific about nightgowns. Sleeveless, lightweight, with the hemline reaching exactly to her knees. She's tiny, so she often has to shorten her nightgowns by hand. Her nightgowns are pretty, pale pinks and blues, and some are trimmed with tiny seed pearls, eyelet, or satin ribbon. Isn't it curious, that counterpoint of femininity and camouflage, night and day? I hadn't noticed before.

          She craves strong, pungent flavors: sardines, lox, raw mussels on the half shell, sauerkraut, spicy chicken wings, mustard—not ketchup, red wine, liver braised with onions and vinegar, bleu cheese, Kalamata olives in brine.

          When her stomach is upset, she drinks beef broth, but when she has a cold, she always wants chicken soup. I prepare it the Armenian way, with a raw egg yolk and the juice of a lemon. 
          She drinks her coffee black with no sugar, two mugs every morning, while she reads The New York Times. In warm weather, she enjoys an Armenian drink called tahn, an iced mixture of plain yogurt thinned with water.

          My mother prefers specific fruits: pomegranates, blackberries, Concord grapes. She avoids bland, insipid sweets, such as shortbread, but she loves licorice, crystallized ginger, and tart key lime pie. 

          These little details, these specks of information, are important clues. I'm sure no one else possesses her exact constellation of habits and preferences. But of course you should know that her name is Roxanne—Araxie, in Armenian. She's been shrinking for years; now she's really quite small, about the size of a child of 9 or 10—but of course very old and stooped, although she prefers to lie down lately. Her eyes are a deep, penetrating brown, with an owlish gaze. Those eyes convey all her emotion, even when her words don't. And she has a Bronx accent.

          I'm not really a careless person. In fact for decades I don't recall losing anything more cherished than a single earring and, I suppose, my youth. Not until I was 51, the year my mother vanished.

Here my mother would interrupt me. I'm not lost, she'd say, I'm just dead. She was always the practical one. But I won't back down on this. I can retrace my steps exactly.

          I would tell a Private Eye that I sat at your bedside on the fifth floor of Princeton Hospital just before one a.m. on December 18, 2013. I was holding your left hand, which was quite warm. And a little swollen because your kidneys were failing. 

          Every breath you took was followed by a surprisingly loud, shameless gurgle, and an even longer silence. The silence was stretching, and your mouth was stretched in a long oval, like a fish out of water. Of course I couldn't help noticing your resemblance to my father. I would have been sharing this observation with you, except now it was actually happening to you, and we couldn't compare notes anymore.

          Do you believe this, I wanted to say. Did you ever imagine you'd end up like this? But there was no answer, not even in my imagination. 

          There was another deathbed moment you shared with my father. When your blank, fixed features contracted in a deep spasm, with brows knit, a vertical furrow appeared between your eyes—in all your life there had never been such a crease! It may have been a grimace of pain, but it looked even more like concentration.

          I had understood my father's grimace, years earlier, as the result of his effort to stop all systems, once and for all. The heart is so used to beating that to stop altogether must require almost as much strength as pumping. In his expression, I saw the harnessing of all his body's dwindling energies. When you winced like that I knew you would die very soon, but I couldn't keep my eyes open for another second.

          It's so hard to get comfortable in the hospital; the chair was so much lower than the bed, and even though I'd lowered the bedrail it was still dividing us. I couldn't seem to get close enough, but I managed to rest my head against your thigh. I focused on the solidity of your leg under my head rather than the coarse texture of the hospital blanket between us. With closed eyes, I timed the seconds between each gasp...12, 13, 14.

          When I woke up with a jolt you were gone. You had gripped my hand hard with your last strength. I felt it—or imagined I did. 

          I stood up and leaned across your body, pressing my fingers against the side of your throat. There was the faintest reverberation under the skin, and a succession of images flickered through my mind. A runner crosses the finish line and continues to run a few extra strides, stumbling a little, before coming to a full stop. After a performance, the drummer places his sticks against the rim of the drum and there is a tremor. Nighttime, raindrops.

        Once I was sure there was no more pulse I sat down beside you again and waited for the change. Before too long your skin turned a waxen yellow and it was no longer possible to imagine you were living. I hadn't let go of your hand and I would continue holding it for quite a while. I would sit with you till there was no more warmth. The absurd idea came to me that I might be transferring my own heat to you and, if so, we might hold this pose forever; but it was of no consequence. As long as your hand was warm, I held on.

So right there, in those few minutes between closing my eyes and opening them, my mother had vanished. She vanished while I held her hand. 

          My mother doesn't believe in God, she believes in annihilation. She told me often that death is The End. She said it a little smugly, to be honest, as if she was the more rational, reasonable person who refused to be duped or mollified. But it's not reasonable to vanish.

I'm sure you would see that now if you were still here. And even the PI, if he were to materialize, would help me search. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Case of You

First Bowie, now Prince. For people my age, whatever else is happening in our lives, this is the year we start saying goodbye. I've been immersing myself in music and stories, perhaps as a way of celebrating life or maybe just to prolong the moment of departure.

          In February, only two months before Prince died, one of his great loves died. Her name was Denise but, as Prince tended to do with his many lovers and musical protégés, he had wanted to rename her. The name he chose was Vagina (pronounced Vah-gee-nah).  Quite sensibly, she declined, and took the name Vanity instead. Of their split, Vanity had said she loved Prince and missed his sense of humor but, "I needed one person to love me, and he needed more." She died a born-again Christian and the two hadn't been in touch for many years.

          Prince learned of her death right before going onstage to perform in Melbourne, Australia. The feeling was very intimate—no band, no backup singers, no dancers—just Prince on the stage, all 5'2 of him, and a grand piano—for his Piano-and-a-Microphone-Solo Tour. Before playing "Little Red Corvette," he told the audience, "I just found out a little while ago that someone very dear to us has passed away, so I'm going to dedicate this song to her." He then proceeded to dedicate every single song to her, in one way or another, working her name into the lyrics and the mood. Denise, Denise, Denise.

          When he returned to the stage for an encore, he said, "I am new to this playing alone. I thank you all for being so patient. I'm trying to stay focused, it's a little heavy for me tonight. Just keep jamming...

          "Can I tell you a story about Vanity? Or should I tell you a story about Denise? Her and I used to love each other deeply...

          "She and I would fight. She was very headstrong cause she knew she was the finest woman in the world. She never missed an opportunity to tell you that." Prince told a story about a fight where he had threatened to throw her into a pool and she replied, You can't throw me in the pool, you're too little. He then asked his female bodyguard named Chick—who was 6 feet tall—to do it for him.

          Love is strange, isn't it? Unpredictable, un-pin-downable, it shows up at the strangest times, in strange ways, taking flight and reappearing in another form. What makes Prince's story so funny and touching? Maybe it comes down to timing. Love in your 30s feels different from your 50s, love after separation, love after love, after betrayal, after death, each leaves a different imprint on the soul, and a different kind of longing. We all have stories, but after awhile the way we tell them changes.

I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints.
I'm frightened by the devil
and I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid.

The first time I first heard Joni Mitchell's song, "A Case of You," I was around 13 and had never been in love. But right from the start it was my song. I mean, you can't always be in the mood to listen to a melancholy love song, but that was irrelevant. For as long as I can remember, that song has been my touchstone. Anguished, maybe a little embarrassing, but comforting, too, like a beautiful prayer I sing for myself.

          The point is, I'm 53 now, and even after 40 years of life experience, Joni's song was still my song up till last week. 

          The first time I heard Prince's cover of Joni's song, last week, I was transformed. I know that sounds really corny. I know I had probably changed long before but still, without Prince I might never have noticed. With the very first line of "A Case of U," Prince's voice could easily be mistaken for Joni's—but then the earth moves. Breaking through that pure, sweet falsetto the deeply masculine emerges, intimate as pillow talk, from the lower end of his vocal register. 

          He subtly alters the lyrics and some verses are dropped entirely—gone are the bitter lines

          Just before our love got lost you said,"I am as constant as a northern star,"
          and I said,"Constantly in the darkness, where's that at?
          If you want me I'll be in the bar."

Instead he extends the lines

          Remember you told me love is touching souls?
          Surely you've touched mine.
          Part of you pours out of me 
          from time to time in these lines.

          You're in my blood like holy wine, you're so bitter,
          so bitter, so bitter, so sweet and 
          I could drink a case of you, darling
          and still be on my feet, 
          and I'd still be on my feet.

Also, Prince is singing Gospel.

          So the same song, but absolutely different. Prince is still a lonely painter, but he's no longer afraid. That's in the past now. I think if I could use only one word to describe the transformation in Prince's version, it would be matured.

          He could have sung this wearing a purple feather boa and lace gloves, high heels and assless pants, and that still wouldn't be the biggest difference between his rendition and Joni's. 

          When Prince sings it, "A Case of U" is a spiritual. Here, with Prince, these lyrics seem inspired by Rumi, channeling love in all its guises, tapping into the very source of the beloved from within, and turning longing right into praise with every breath. 

          Joni's version ends almost abruptly, the way a candle, or love, sputters out. Prince ends the song in a lower key. His closing bars are a completely different, moodier melody that repeats, insistent, over and over like a promise of returning love. 

          Since the news of Prince's death, I've been listening to this song on repeat, the same way I used to listen to Joni on my record player when I was 13. Like a beautiful prayer we sing together, I feel less alone. There is a plaintive and surprisingly masculine quality in his voice that is so true. It stirs and soothes some deep yearning and I want to stay in touch with it just a little while longer. 

I am a lonely painter, I live in a box of paints.
I used be frightened by the devil and 
drawn to those ones that weren't afraid.

Thursday, April 14, 2016


A protein designed to ticket germs and junk for destruction had been co-opted by the nervous system to ticket synapses for destruction. “It reinforces an old intuition,” my psychiatrist friend Hans told me. “The secret of learning is the systematic elimination of excess. We grow, mostly by dying.” Siddhartha Mukherjee (“Runs in the Family,” The New Yorker, March 28, 2016)
We thrive on destruction. Right down to our most basic physiology, at a molecular level: we sacrifice in order to thrive. Every day our damaged cells are flushed out, our synapses are pruned, and no one weeps while the ruthless human organism strengthens and refines itself at the expense of its outgrown parts. No, it’s not ruthless—immorality is too sentimental a notion to be applied to these insentient bits—discreet, obedient, innumerable—that comprise the human body—the self—and behave, in concert, like an automaton. 

          Likewise when growth goes unchecked in this microscopic arena, cancers develop and the wellbeing of our organism as a whole is threatened by the chaotic proliferation of cells. Unimpeded growth ultimately overtakes and becomes the destroyer. We are most comfortable discussing cancer as an enemy invader. To envision that chaos always threatens from within is harder. But it's just as inappropriate to attribute ruthlessness to a malignancy as to our daily survival. Nothing personal about it, just doing a job. (Or is that the definition of ruthless?)

          Tonight we're all alone: We all lie down. We close our eyes. And we wage war for eight hours, fighting to the death. And, if we’re lucky, we awaken refreshed and remember nothing.

Friday, March 18, 2016

The Swan (Part 11) A Chip off the Philosopher's Stone

XI. A Chip off the Philosopher's Stone

          Most of us probably have recollections of happy hours spent as a child in some kind of constructive activity—from building sandcastles and coloured brick structures to turning bits of odd materials into dolls, animals, houses, soldiers, and, above all, of covering a variety of surfaces, including wallpaper and tabletops, with drawings. Few children can resist the attraction of pencils, crayons, chalk or paint box, and the satisfaction derived from such works of creative art is completely unrelated to the results obtained.

          Once the results become more important to us than the work involved, we begin to become dissatisfied, and usually between the ages of 12 and 15 we abandon our childish pursuits and with it a source of happiness which we can ill afford to lose.

          However, the source remains and promises untold delights if only we can overcome our natural laziness and our unnatural idea that whatever we produce has to be perfect.

          For many centuries men attempted to prepare a substance, called the Philosopher's Stone, which was supposed to have two properties: to turn base metals into silver or gold, and to give eternal life to its owner. The emphasis lay on its power of transformation—be it of coarse matter into something finer or, ultimately, of turning sinful man into a perfect being.

          Creative work, from the very humblest to the greatest works of art, contains something of the secret of the Philosopher's Stone. The transformation of coarse matter into something finer touches on that special brand of happiness which is unaffected by outer circumstances.

          Naturally, it would be more gratifying to put paint to canvas and produce the Mona Lisa than, for instance, to turn a piece of felt into two left slippers, but the final result is not indicative of the happiness that is derived from the actual work.

           There is a magic in creative work as many of us have discovered who have diligently fashioned awkward or beautiful objects out of unyielding raw materials. Take a ball of knitting wool: what is it but many yards of thread, and yet it can be in your power to transform it into a wearable garment. An old cardboard box can be turned into a dolls' house, pipe cleaners into little figures, wire into ornaments, paper into lampshades, lengths of can into baskets and, last but not least, a piece of board with the aid of brushes and some paint tubes into a picture, good, bad, or indifferent. Collectors can transform chaos into order by sorting, labeling, and sticking into albums or arranging on shelves.

          After a day's hard work one may feel inclined to look for passive relaxation—if one is ill or old (or both) one may acutely dislike the idea of exertion. How often does one hear the argument, "I have no energy left for such things." Quite wrong! The only real effort needed is the decision to go and do it. Once started it does not sap one's energy—on the contrary, it provides energy in abundance and with it a feeling of happiness that one had thought lost and that, in truth, had only been mislaid in childhood.

17th July, 1975—Dear William

What you wrote about alchemy made me look for an article which I wrote many years ago, called "The Philosopher's Stone" and which was published—if I remember rightly—by the Chest and Heart Foundation because I sang a praise of creative work in all its forms. (The title is Alchemy for Invalids!)I can't find the article but what I did find was something called "Church Organs" which I shall photocopy in the office tomorrow before I send it to you. I don't think you want to read it but I could imagine that Roxanne would like it as the final appearance of the organist's apprentice was in the organ loft of the Marienkirche—although Roxanne could not climb up to it on account of her operation.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Swan (Part 10) Venice in the Fifties

Life Magazine
X. Venice in the Fifties

11th January, 1958

          There is nothing exciting to report. One wintry week of Venice is quite an experience, though—all kinds of weather with rain (today), freezing rain (and woe unto him who doesn't know his way—but they strew conscientiously to cut down Loss of Life), sun and frost and the fastest fog which comes rolling in from the Adriatic in grey balls and simply blankets out the whole city, as well as moonlit nights which are quite exquisite.

          For someone who has seen weeks and months of Rome, Venice is a city of pompous funereal churches with endless pompous tombs of Doges and precuratori in chapels which are sky high, where somewhere a tiny man on a gilded wooden horse s "IT"—but not the intimate churches of Rome which give one a feeling of musicality. Here all is pomp and great dignity. The 200 and more palazzi which line the curving Canal Grande are white and asymmetrical (very refined in taste) and completely unprotected because in contrast to other towns there was no reason to defend one's house against another member of the nobility because the democratic regime dates back so far.

          The city consists, like a jigsaw puzzle come apart (the seams filled with green transparent seawater), of so many sections but one soon understands that the centre, which is the knot, is the Rialto Bridge (known from postcards) which had Shylock's shoppe amongst many others (still standing). The thing to do is to hop from one of their B pontons into a vaporetto. The pontons rock like mad and the vaporetti seem mostly under water. In the 57½ minutes one has gone from one end of the city to the other, from the Station to S. Marco Square and in this almost hour (?) one passes one phantastically beautiful residence after another because there is no ugly house but all is XVIIIth-century, XVII, XVIth, back to the XIVth. 

          Most of those palazzi are of marble, at least their facades, and have coloured barber poles in the water with the heraldic signs (mostly in gold) of the owner of the palazzo. The poles are used to tie gondolas (all BLACK) or motorboats to. From the palazzi superb marble stairs, flanked by lanterns which are lit up (vaguely) at night, steps lead into the water and inasmuch as the water is the Adriatic Sea, it laps up the steps and often hits the wooden doors.

          The Canal Grande is alive with Gondolas which cross, because there are no more than three serviceable ridges and these gondolas are managed by two gentlemen in black (on rainy days with umbrellas in their left hand!) who stand high in back and low in front and with exaggerated motion and meter-long oars set the black shallow canoes in motion whilst nuns, ladies with laundry baskets on their heads, dogs, gentlemen in fedoras, elegant ladies in furs, stand in the centre of the frail ship which, in the waves caused by vaporetti, rock like mad. But a huge city is completely water-minded; schoolchildren hop into the boats and off they go. 

          All the rest of the city—it only takes minutes to traverse it at most points—moves on foot and the streets are mostly so narrow that if it rains only one umbrella fits into it—so there is endless ducking and shrinking into doorways, and the whole city is like an endless unfolding of theatrical vistas with the most intricate turns and twists and bridges, all of stone and very steep up and down—so that when, as I do it, one walks all day one goes endless staircases up and down again; within the city again numerous palaces with their own mediaeval bridges leading to the front door, churches mostly completely absorbed by the houses; turning a corner you will see, if you crane your neck to look up, suddenly a two-story apse(?) of a gothic church. 

          Through the streets (which here are called not "via" but "calle") the mass of humanity moves and one hears a tremendous hum of voices.

by Canaletto
          Restaurants are beautiful—mostly food to be had at about 8 pm; not before. I went to a modern opera yesterday in the finest theatre of Venice, The Phoenix, which is a completely intact XVIIth-century theatre. I wish I could say that the music was good; my theory that the Italians have lost their taste for music was verified once more. Indifferently good orchestra, fair choir, stinky soloists—and ugly as hell. But as an impression: fine. The city smells beautifully—most people seem to heat with wood, the fishiness (?) is not unpleasant. Most houses have canaries which even in freezing weather are outside the windows where they sing like mad. 

          The strangest thing is lack of desire for light. I have noticed this before in Italy. The city at night is dark. Even the gayest stores have dim lights. My own bulbs are 25 volt which we would give to the girls to burn all night (for nightmares) and even the station, which is one of Italy's three post-war stations, is dimly lit. The city at night is incredibly dark but one's eyes get accustomed to it and I, knowing Italy, always carry a very strong flashlight which means that in museums I creep all over the pictures, lighting up details but hardly ever seeing the whole. For art, the city has heavenly spots and especially the XVIIIth-century painters, such as Pietro Longhi with his small paintings of, practically speaking, every aspect of life, from hunting to tennis playing, to confessing, to dancing—makes you nostalgic for the good old days.

          In contrast to Rome: much less ravishing beauties. This is a hard-working city. And Italy, except for its tourist guest, is no fool's paradise. The amount of work is twice as much as in Holland and 30 times as much as in England. Here everyone works on Sundays and shops are open till 8-9 pm. The post office, for example, opens at eight am—closes at 8 pm or later. I heard from an American that Ravenna has the biggest oxygen plant in the world. And Venice, with all its dreamy (?) aetherial beauty, has a "Waterfront" with freighters and ocean-going vessels of all sizes.

          What is nice here is the damn good food. Bread is better and more varied in Rome, but meat and fih is good and soups are poetic. And one doesn't overeat on the whole. One orders meat which one eats. Then spinach appears upon which one strews parmesan cheese. Then one eats creme caramel and has a demi-tasse of the strong, mellow Italian coffee. If one is elegant one has consomme with vegetables or vermicelli in it at the beginning and a carafe of red wine which is pale red, slightly prickly and knocks me over (but pleasantly so). My breakfast consists of one roll (hard), three tiny dabs of butter, jam and four cups of foaming chocolate (which is, since the XVIIIth century, the drink here). 

          I rise at seven and try to be at my first museum at nine, home at one o'clock and on the beat again at 2;15. At 4 o'clock it is getting dark and at 5:30 I am at "home" writing my daily report and mapping out my strategy for the next day. 

          You can imagine that I sleep notwithstanding the fact that this little albergo lies in the slums with drunks singing till 1 am. The hotel is—as all cheap hotels in the world—run by a family where members sponge on whatever money comes in. Screaming babies, the owner a distraught widow, two effeminate sons, a beautiful daughter and two country maids who are extremely clean and appetizing. My room is immaculate every day. 

          In general: Italy is enormously clean compared to Germany and filthy Holland. Italian train toilets can actually be used. Dutch trains are the way I imagine country trains east of Kiev.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Swan (Part 9): Polio

IX. Polio

I have never been able to understand the nervous reaction of my fellow females to mice. Those wild screams and mad scrambles for chairs and tables. Those agonised commands of "Kill it!" Those pale faces, staring eyes, trembling hands, the ultimate abandoning of all reason, all dignity. I am a tolerant person. I just smile, I make soothing noises, both to the trembling human creatures high up as well as the little furry grey creatures low down. I admit they must be high-strung, I recommend plenty of milk and a few early nights. In any case, I feel terribly superior.

          Now take spiders, for instance. That is an entirely different case. Spiders rattle when they walk, they are thoroughly irresponsible and look like small editions of men from outer space. They always seem to make straight for me. I feel I am fully justified in feeling nervous about them.

          As a matter of fact, the sight of a spider makes me lose all reason and all dignity. I scream and try to climb straight up the nearest wall. Failing that I jump on a chair or table. If I happen to find a spider in the bath it is a matter of screaming for help to remove it or, no bath, and never mind Nanny's voice over some odd 40 years which seems to call out, "Oh, you dirty girl!" I have been known to spend some awful 20 minutes on a balcony with shrapnel falling round me during an air raid, trembling like a leaf because there was a large spider on my bed.

          It took a spider to bring home to me what it really means to have "a slight paralysis of the legs." All was peace. I had just finished reading the evening paper and when I put it aside I saw a spider approaching me rapidly. I gave a scream, but when it came to flight I found that my most intense desire to put lots of space between myself and the fiendish animal did not result in speed. I dragged my legs slowly as I had been dragging them for weeks and I almost collided with the spider. I suddenly began to think. 

          So far I had only been out in an ambulance or a car and now it dawned on me what it would mean not to be able to run. How would I ever cross a street? How would I get on a bus? How would I go to work? I quite forgot the spider and looked at my future for the next few years and did not like it. However, it turned out to be not quite so bad as I as I expected, but certainly odd.

          For once thing, it is not at all easy to convince one's surroundings that a person who walks slowly with a stick is not a perfectly normal human being. On the other hand, it is jolly hard work to remain so. I deeply resent it when people make a fuss of me, when chairs are pushed under me, when they step aside to whisper, "Poor thing." I equally resent it when nobody takes any notice of me, when I am pushed off my balance, when I am not immediately offered a seat on the bus, when I am left waiting.  With other words, I want to have my cake and eat it.

          There are compensations. Time seems to stretch quite pleasantly. If I miss one bus, I think I may get on the one after the next. As I stroll slowly along, I have ample time to see things I have never seen before. I have given up being discreet and I look into all lighted windows as long as I can. 

          I have seen a children's party in progress which I would have missed had I run. I have seen people dancing where I never expected them. I have seen a man playing the piano and six people in the room behind him yawning simultaneously with six mouths wide open. I have seen a rather large woman trying on a rather small jumper and the jumper lost. I have seen a little girl having a piano lesson and she looked very happy. I have seen a very pink man who only wore trousers ironing a very flimsy nightdress—probably a surprise. His tongue was stuck out several inches and his forehead was creased in concentration. I have also seen an owl flying along a street where there are normally no owls about. I have discovered the shape of buildings I never knew were there and I have found trees which I had passed for years without noticing them.

          I also have time to take in smells. I know the Indian boarding house by its nice spicy smell from the basement kitchen. I know who is having kippers and who is having bacon for breakfast. I know without looking that the patch of lilies of the valley is out in the park and that the ice cream factory has its vanilla day and that our factory has switched to rubber for a change.
Lottie in Russell Square, 1966
          I have overcome my fear of crossing streets. I just wait until the traffic thins a bit. It always does eventually; one has to be patient. I wait for a driver to signal me across. I felt terribly self-conscious and guilty in the beginning, holding up the traffic. I imagined all drivers cursed me for making them wait. I now think they have better things to do and probably only dimly see me as an unavoidable obstacle that will eventually remove itself. I still love bus drivers and heavy lorry drivers who wave me across and smile. Ours is a nice country to be lame in. People are friendly and patient. Abroad they are nothing of the sort. They are, on the whole, quite horrid. I have been hooted at and mudguards have brushed me and words have been called which I could fortunately not understand.

          Yes, I have been abroad. I suppose one could quite well travel round the world with a rubber-tipped stick in one's hand and dragging legs. I have not been that far, only across the Channel, but I got there and back again. My great worry was how to get on board a Channel steamer. Nothing could have been easier. A porter almost carried me on board, with my suitcase.