Saturday, April 14, 2007

Message in a bottle

If you’re reading this, it’s because of an old problem to which I have finally found a solution. The old problem is: I tend to do everything at the last minute. The new solution is: I must anticipate last-minute problems and do things in advance. Other people have tried this and say it works.

Accordingly, this column was written a long time ago, and has just been dug out of storage by the editor to cover for some contingency, such as emergency travel, or death (other people’s), which has made it impossible for me to write something in real time this week. The problem emerged the last time a relative died unexpectedly. I had to sneak off between sobs and other funeral activities to write, and it told on both the column and on the bereaved.

Of course, sometimes, you find what looks like an elegant solution to a problem, but someone gets mad anyway. For instance, when I was a child, living in Switzerland, I was invited to a classmate’s birthday party a couple of towns over. I was to get there on my own, and they’d drop me home. My mother put me on the train with instructions for where to get off—this was perfectly normal in Switzerland, and not at all a sign of delinquent parenting—but a nice lady on the train talked to me incessantly, and I forgot the name of the station, so I took a bit of a guess and got off somewhere that sounded all right.

If this was the right station my pickup would show up, so I decided to wait around and see; but, being a shy sort of child, I did this from a secure position behind two enormous wooden barrels in a corner of the platform. I liked looking at the world as long as the world couldn’t look at me, and I spent an enjoyable hour carefully observing many people come and go, including the lady who searched high and low enquiring after ‘a little Indian girl’ (we little Indian girls were few and far between in the Swiss villages of 1980). When I was sure that nobody was coming or going any longer, I sallied forth from the barrels to wend my way home.

It was the middle of winter. I had no money for a return train fare, and no idea where I was, and there wasn’t a phone in sight. So I did the only thing I could think of, which was to walk home along the train tracks. It was hard work, what with struggling through a foot and a half of snow, and having to press myself against the snow banks along the tracks every time a train passed, and all this with my body frozen almost solid; but three hours later, in the early winter night, I walked through the door of my house, feeling pretty tired, but quite pleased.

My mother dropped the phone on which she was frantically speaking with the police, and used her freed-up hand to clap me one across the snout. She later said it was out of relief, because she’d been worried sick. I guess she wasn’t impressed that I’d averted the horrible alternative fate, which was that I might have died of starvation behind my barrels. And thus it was that I learned how love can sometimes be unfair, and hurt to boot.

I don’t know why I didn’t reveal myself to the woman who had come to fetch me at the station, but it might have been that I didn’t want to go to stupid Noelle’s birthday party in the first place.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Curtain call

It’s been a surprising few days. There was a tsunami in the Solomon Islands; the Sensex crash wiped out legions of small investors; Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards said that he’d snorted his cremated father’s ashes along with a bit of blow; and the state of Jammu & Kashmir lost a 50,000-year-old mammoth skull from a maximum-security tin shed, and will now have to keep an eye on Ebay. Most astonishing of all, my husband and I finally bought some curtains.

We moved into our shared, married space three years ago, after a gruelling renovation process that had taken eleven months instead of the projected four. Things were still a little half-baked—some window grilles had been fitted, but the rest hadn’t arrived. The company that had pledged to supply piped gas to the colony had suddenly decided not to bother. And so on. But we were in.

After shutting the door on the last of the workmen, and double checking that the kitchen, bathroom, and television worked, we decided to rest a bit before finishing up. We got back to paid work, socialised with people who had no masonry or carpentry skills whatsoever, and walked past home stores without worrying about whether the fittings inside might be better than the ones we’d picked. We slowly found happiness again and, in celebratory excitement, extended our little sabbatical by a few days. The next time we looked around, this week, three years had passed.

It’s not that we haven’t made small home improvements in the meantime. We got plants, opened some cartons, commissioned a bed so that we didn’t have to sleep on the study floor every time we had guests. After a year we had all the doors planed so that they close, which means no more posting guards in front of occupied bathrooms during parties. The rest of the window grilles never did show up, but we’re secretly glad.

As for the windows, we learned to simply ignore the fact that we have neighbours. The heat was more difficult to forget, so during our first summer we installed a retractable awning and hung a couple of green chicks on the eave along one balcony to protect the plants. My corner of the study next to an enormous window is so bright that I have, on occasion, had to sit down to work wearing my sunglasses. At some point my husband pasted a sheet of wax paper over the window to diffuse the light—a welcome-back present after one of my travels—and that worked all right. Eighteen months after moving in we bought curtain rods, as a sort of promissory gesture.

And a year and a half after that great leap forward, our windows were still large and bare, half-grilled, casting on us the harrowing stare of lashless eyes. But last week, as March turned to April and the temperatures shot warningly up, we finally took the plunge and drove ourselves off to Fabindia, where we selected some fabric and cut it to size. We took it home, looped it over the waiting curtain rods to judge the effect, and approved the lot. We shrank the material. We dried it. Now all that remains is to give it to the tailor and sit back.

It would be unwise for me to assume that we’ll follow through and give it to the tailor anytime soon (we’ve already deferred it for three days), but after all that waiting, getting some curtains seems like such an easy, tiny little thing to do. It will both soften the house and greatly relieve the neighbours. I can’t imagine why it took us this long.

Now if we could only get ourselves to hang up our pictures.