I have had this picture waiting on my laptop for 2 years. I just didn’t know what to say. The picture is from the Military History Archives of Slovakia entitled the ‘Enrolled camp worker Dalma. Apparently, Nazi propaganda took many pictures of women projecting an image of a well looked after, progressive and beautiful woman in services to the Labour camps. I still don’t know what to say about it. The curly hair, the warm V-neck and the barbed wire with the eyes swimming into the unknown.
This angel touched down to the tiles of Charing Cross –
yellow and dirty ones,
right by the wall he seeks the rest.
Above the ground, the Trafalgar’s hangovered.
St Martin glistens with frost blinding the doubledecker buses
‘Sightseeing in the morning, anyone’?
Our angel occupies a tent in the colour of blue,
so blue that it’s almost black
as black as his shoe sticking out.
Holy ghost may come from any direction but so far, there’s no sign of it.
Our Angel can fly out any way he wants,
but he decided to stay.
Let’s call him Daniel.
The Angel Daniel ate raspberry jelly and sandwich yesterday
and complained about the state of his tent.
For example, the tiles, they never shine as they used to,
Londoners have soiled shoes
and now look – his white duvet is all yellowish grey.
Duvets should be dyed black in London.
Inside his tent there’s vast Transylvanian sky peppered with stars
and Uncle Valera has calls to him:
‘What are yo doing down there son?
‘I am sitting here, by the creek with the weepy willow as always’, Daniel says. ‘But instead of the blackbirds, I hear clop-clop of women’s heels.
The train rattles every 6 minutes.
Uncle Valera looks around, ‘the same stars keep following you’, so much I can see. ‘You used to be a handsome man, almost as handsome as those at the National Portrait Gallery.
Angel Daniel thinks about it: ‘the other day a woman came. She said: ‘I want to draw you’.
‘Draw me into the light’, I replied. ‘Make me a moth with dusty wings’.
And so she sat on her yoga mat and silver pencil case made a screetchy sound.
She didn’t mind the stench of the duvet that is nearly as ancient as the Turin shrewd.
This angel touched down to the tiles of Charing Cross.
Shoe after shoe shuffles in the shifting train –
black soles, random souls,
dust catches winter thoughts
and, in the window, birds melt away.
Eye after eye die in the internet
mixing flesh with steel,
stillness of humans in the machine
like Millais’ Ophelia is reflected in the
canals of Watford Junction.
Empty balconies greet the train
with exotic plants and sleeping bicycles
that haven’t touched the Earth in months.
Canal boats, like alien spaceships,
gently rock to the sound of dog walkers
and horses, grey like the sky, are wearing winter warmers.
Little children are taking a walk and,
like true Gods, they see it all –
the passengers with hollow eyes,
balconies that dream of sea,
bicycles that fly in their thoughts,
and horses without Gypsies.
You won’t find me even if you light up two thousand Catholic lights.
Don’t look for me in the ground.
Heaving with maggots big like marshmallows’ – that’s not I.
Lifting the fake velvet gown is not my coffin.
I won’t be under the stones covered by moss.
Neither am I carried by evening’s ashes.
FOREST tells my wooden tale in its wooden ribs.
Search me in a bowl of November sun.
Where dead leafs roast their saffron coats
And hunters forget what they were hunting.
Where fairy tale giants wipe their boots
And owls ruff their feathers for the evening bunting.
South Kensington is white washed against February sky. We step outside as if we had done it before – this is our street for three days.
Sun kisses our hats.
The mews stretch into cosy distance where window plants dance in morning shadows. ‘I could see myself live here’, you say and I say ‘ the bin men are more frequent than in Birmingham.
Our sons walk shoulder to shoulder.
St Stephen’s Church appears in the corner like a turtle with a medieval shield. There’s the backdoor Tom Eliot used to escape from his wife and there’s the key hole through which she spied on him.
Sun touches railings of the basement flats.
Tom Eliot was a church warden. Keys in his pocket, he visited Virgin Mary when no one was watching: ‘Please forgive me that I had left Vivien in mental asylum. Please forgive me I hadn’t been to see her for ten years. Now that she is dead, give me strength to carry on writing great poems’.
Sun flickers through the robes of saints on the stained glass windows. It did so in the times of Tom Eliot. It does so now. At this exact moment, the homeless guy sitting by the abandoned phone box smiles at us. You look away.
We carry on…clop, clop…. down the Gloucester Road. I think everybody must be either rich or a cleaner. I can’t tell the difference.
‘Vivien, despite her madness, always looked good in a fascist beret’, Tom Eliot thought. One or two locks casually fell away when she was listening to my talk. I always knew precisely where she sat in the audience. She once said, ‘Tommy, your voice doesn’t suit your poetry. You are like a ghost searching for flesh in the bottom of other peoples’ souls’.
Sun dances in its haziness all the way down the Queen’s Gate. Your son is excited to see the great blue whale – aren’t all the whales blue…?
A masonry restoration van stops before us: ‘These guys will be fixing the gargoyles’, but what I really wanted to say is ‘it’s been a while since I had fancied someone on a Thursday morning’.
February is the cruellest month. It lures the birds to pastel trees to sing themselves into warmth.
Let it rain silver pines and golden reindeers
sliding off paper wrappers like naughty children
caught on ribbons,
ribbons that would prefer to drift across the countryside
or better, whip about in hands of female dancers,
shaking off fake gold until everything is true again.
But, the weather is too bland for such frolics!
Even the cones are not glistening, apart from those she crafted herself in late November.
Robins, the knights of colour, either hide in bushes or have morphed into gift tags.
Holy wishes are kicked about where pine needles gather dust –
crumbs from the table & shedded skin float in the microscopic sheen
– the Holy You – omnipresent, even when you not there!
Male friends stop by and smoulder the heaven that is already overcast.
It is hard to say which is nicotine and which is fog.
‘Promised, you won’t smoke’, she shouted from the window.
‘Watch out! The paper snowflake is about to fly away!’
You must have been a beautiful woman entered his mind.
Families were gathering on the hill that mounted tender bodies of their relatives. She always loved elevated graveyards, their stones silencing the world that moved – children, cars and occasional tourists. The barman handed two cups of Turkish coffee the way they drink it in Slovakia. They both watched the ‘mud’ gather at the top but he slurped it without stirring, catching the grains on his moustache.
Anya never cared for men with blue eyes, yet there he was, studying her profile in the poorly lit saloon. ‘What brings you here?’, she asked.
The door curtain moved, bringing a whiff of rotten leaves inside for a moment but no one came in apart from a cat they didn’t see. ‘It’s been closed for years’, a woman was overheard outside. ‘Have you more burners?’, another one shouted. Several feet shuffled under the barred window, then stopped and turned. Muffled voices of children too disappeared.
‘Why are they not coming in?’
‘The place is closed’.
‘But how….?’. Anya slid off the chair that was too high for her and walked towards the window. The cemetery was shimmering in the distance, dozens of votives were huddled around the Central Cross. A child was climbing the pillar of the chapel. It started to drizzle into the fog.
‘The candles will survive the rain of tonight. They will still be warm in the morning. Last insects of the year will burn their wings on the aluminium lids’.
It was how he said the word aluminium that made Anya’s heart drop. The soft Slavic ‘n’ in it, like a child’s speech coming from an old man. She made for the curtain. It felt damp and mouldy, so different only from a moment ago. But his arms encased her within it and, on his neck, a tiny incision she’s known for years.
‘You are more beautiful than I remember you’, Franz whispered to her hair. He lead her by the hips, like a young man would, to an umbrella stand that was full of wet parasols.
‘Where is everybody?’, she wondered. Dim light revealed their faces in the mirror. ‘Your eyes are changed’, she studied Franz’s face knowingly now, her breath meeting his in the air that was stone cold. She appeared to have more wrinkles…’I have never seen myself old. I think I was 37 when …’
‘I have done many bad things to you Anya. I have cursed you to the Devil that night. I did not mean it. I didn’t know you couldn’t breathe. All those bottles. All those drinks you had drunk! I wanted you to stop. I should have been the first one to go! It should have been me. I want to hold you once more!
‘You never held me the way you hold me tonight’, she rested her head on his shoulder. I was so tired. So tired for many years. I just wanted to sleep.’
The barman entered to bring in a tray of poppy seed rolls. The door had swung back and forth after him, showing no signs of cooking.
Franz took a coat from the rack and covered Anya’s shoulders with it. Then he pulled out one of the umbrellas and pointed to the distance. ‘There they are’, he said. ‘They are looking at our graves. Come with me. We are going to join them.’
After posting the “Eating Blue Damson’s with Harry” a few of you asked me about the song I included in the link. The song Tumbalalajka (obviously referring to the instrument of balalajka) is a riddle song seeped in ancient Eastern European tradition, often ascribed to the Jewish community for their love of riddles, although its’ origin is not fully traceable. As part of the process of courting the boy picks a girl to answer his riddle:
“What can grow without the root?
What can burn and never stop burning without a flame?
What can play a song without a fiddle?
What can weep and never shed a tear?” – the boy asks the girl.
If she answers the riddle, they can get married straightaway….the song starts off…
There’s another way to look at “Tumbalalajka” – as a means for young people to explore the mysteries of life and slowly get to know each other…(what a wonderful thought!).
In this particular version sang by the Pressburg Klezmer Band the girl answers the riddle as follows:
“a stone can grow without the root,
love can burn without a flame,
wind can play a song without a fiddle, and,
a heart can weep without shedding a tear”.
How much can you pack into 17 years of your life? Is the first 17 years of your life more important than your last 17 years….if you are…for example…96?
This September I met Harry, whose who also calls himself Zvi. In my native Slovak tongue, the word ‘zvi’ relates to ‘invite’, but in Hebrew, it means ‘gazelle’ (according to Google).
Harry and I were born 52 years apart in the same Slovak town called Svaty Jur. I am 44 and he is 96. I live Birmingham UK, he lives in Tel Aviv. We have never met before, however, the chances are that every year in September, both of our minds wonder to the leafy vineyards of Svaty Jur, her gentle slopes riddled with bunches of golden grapes. Lingering scents of honey and damsons are carried through our brains by imaginary breeze and we see fruit insects hovering above every barrel of ripe harvest….I could go on and on but will spare you the detail!
There are other things we have in common with Zvi. All my childhood, I lived beside a disused synagogue my grandfather used to refer to as the Jewish Temple in the town where, as far as I was aware, there had been no Jews. I wrote about this place on my site previously. Zvi, too, lived not far from this site as a child but in his days – mid 1920s – the building was used as a place of worship, one of many – catholic, protestant evangelic and so on within the same quarter of a mile.
But today, this place that once filled us both with piety is crumbling in front of our eyes – ITS ROOF IS FALLING and a group of local enthusiasts, led by my lovely sister Anna is desperately seeking to mobilise support for its conservation. It’s a complicated process involving a private land owner, the state national heritage regulator, several donors and international charities – with no tangible result at present – but ‘hope is the last thing that dies in men (and women) ‘ as they say!
It is true to say that Harry is the only known living survivor of the worshipers of this late synagogue, he is also the only survivor of the Svaty Jur Jewish community as far as we can tell. As an honorary citizen of the town, he visits every year to mark the beginning of the Hebrew New Year Rosh Hashana and commemorate lives of those from Jewish community who died in concentration camps or were otherwise never found again after the Second World War. Harry has been a driving force behind this important Holocaust Memorial event for 27 years – ever since the borders between the European East and West relaxed, following ‘the fall of Communism’ as it’s known in modern history.
But this year felt somehow different – or at least that’s what his lovely grandson Eyal and Harry’s full time carer Sonia, who both accompanied him, tell me.
After his flight to Budapest, followed by a ride to Svaty Jur via Bratislava, he was greeted by the Pressburg Klezmer band, performing a concert in his honour at the medieval catholic church he would have seen up on the hill as a child.
Harry said he could never imagine hearing the well known Jewish tunes, including the songs of Hebrew worship, inside a Christian establishment. He has been able to talk to younger generation, some of them descendants of his former classmates, who were genuinely interested to hear his life story. Meetings were set up for him to discuss synagogue’s future with local representatives, plans were made for a civic association to be set up in his name to continue promoting education about the Holocaust.
But most importantly, Harry was able to reminisce about running up and down the middle street near the synagogue (and it is still called that – the Middle Street), picking up odd jobs for wealthier familes, nicking fruits and eggs from the backyards (as did most kids those days), remember pretty girls with raven curly hair and eat lots of blue damsons, from those old damson trees that you can only find in the backyards (just like my kids do today)!
And so this is my little way to say thank Harry for finding the time to visit our little town again, for giving us a chance to connect the dots, make up for the past and perhaps continue the family connections for many years to come!
*In memory of someone dear*
She appeared gracious in her drunkenness.
The greasy hair did not take away the soft cheekbone.
The pale skin,
and her dreams always stalling –
it was either the sound of the pigsty
or his voice that interfered.
There was no shame in liking that cellar full of lumber
where petrol smell permeated all the tools –
next to celeriac
and potatoes sprouting
the muffled sound of neighbours shouting
into the air that should have smelled of honeysuckle instead.
Underneath the hidden window,
earthen floor harboured various bottles.
and the local Silvan wine she drunk much quicker
even thought, it did absolutely nothing for her.
It was the sheer bottles she liked the best.
The way that chicken feathers stuck to them
appearing soft and clean as those of tiny owls
that were playing on her mind,
the worlds she was thinking up below the ground,
stories of forest mushrooms, love and war.
At the age of 37, she was gone.
‘Like a stone thrown into water’, my mum always says.
Where she dwells the tide carries on, loud and complicated
yet, she sees stillness in that flow that appears to move all of us.
And this week, they moved in and painted the cellar light green
and several corks were found on the earthen floor
that did not fit any bottles.
Out of the plastic dustpan an ombre feather ascended.
On a day so windless it has played with the air
as if the nest has been disturbed,
as if her presence was still there.