Tuesday, May 15, 2007

You can't hide your famine eyes

Maude is now in the habit of mentioning my physical attributes in the context of our forthcoming child.

‘I hope the baby doesn’t get your big nose,’ for instance.

I know that this is well-meant and I try to not let it trouble me.

‘Yes dear, I hope not too.’

Lately though I do tend to leave the living room and busy myself in the kitchen during the TV commercial breaks. If I forget myself and linger, Maude’s gaze wanders and I can feel her looking me up and down. It makes me feel like an old nag at a horse fair, at the very end of the day’s business.

‘I do hope that the baby isn’t preternaturally tall either….like you. Somewhere in between my normal height and your excessive height would be ideal. I do hope that my genes win out.’

Another trait of my family which has often fascinated Maude is our weary-looking eyes. She dropped many hints when we first dated that perhaps I needed to have my eyes tested - that perhaps I ought to wear glasses. She then met the family, realised we all had ‘Deputy Dog’ eyes and quizzed me about this particularly unfortunate part of my genetic heritage. I suggested that this was just a throwback to The Famine. I also joked that - however indirectly – it was attributable to her community ('your lot', I think was the term I used).

‘Oh yes, we took all your potatoes didn’t we. Don’t remember all the details – I was very young.’

Lately, the ‘Famine Eyes’ have become less an object of banter and more a focus of genuine concern.

‘Seriously though. Freakishly tall, with a big nose and famine eyes. You can explain all that to the child when it is ostracised to its own corner of the playground and pelted with bits of packed lunch. ‘

I suggested that our genetic makeup could well fuse perfectly. We could create an ‘individual’. This individual could indeed inherit some of my burdens, this is true. They could also be blessed, nonetheless, with Maude’s forthright approach. This individual would deal frankly with all challenges in its way – even ‘famine eyes.’ Maude extracted the flattery from this theory and began to smile proudly. I was in my pyjamas and barefoot at the time. Her smiled faded as she looked down and began to scrutinise the imperfections of my feet....

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Osama bin Ginger

A friend of mine has developed a habit of travelling to dangerous places around the world for ‘holidays’. Over the last five years his passport has been stamped in Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and the Lebanon.


Born and raised in Newcastle, Tig never felt part of the local clique of ordinary boys. He cultivated more refined tastes in dress and culture after watching ‘Brideshead Revisited’ as a boy. He took things a little too far when he wandered to the cornershop in a smoking jacket, while trailing a teddy bear. It was during the subsequent month in traction at Newcastle General Hospital that he was first exposed to David Lean’s ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. He then formulated less conspicuous strategy for the acquisition of refinement (I have often thought that only the bedbound would be likely to hang around long enough for Omar Sharif to come into view across the desert).


Foreign travel became Tig's new obsession and not for him the clich├ęd stopovers of the Grand Tour – T E Lawrence would have balked at such comfort and indulgence. Insurgency, the threat of kidnapping and civil unrest became the big selling points in Tig’s imaginary holiday brochure. (Tig has always claimed to ‘blend in’ with the local community when he goes on his travels. I am still unconvinced by this: he is pale, ginger and stands at 6 feet 7 inches.)


I was recently in his company when he was asked about his predilection for staying in unstable countries.


‘Well it’s a bit like when one was a child and mater would tell one not to touch something because it was hot. One just had to touch it..... didn’t one?’


The fazed enquirer paused for a moment and then simply said: ‘No’.


Tig is also in the habit of returning to Tyneside bearing some suggestion of his latest odyssey. I waited for him recently at the bar of our local, just after his return from Pakistan. The pub has a large glass facade looking out onto the Tyne. It was a summer evening and I had an uninterrupted view through the hazy evening sunshine all the way up the hill to Byker. I could see a speck moving on the brow of the hill and watched it intently as it grew and moved closer. A shimmering figure became discernible and strode closer with some purpose. I recognised the gait – it was Tig.


Another 30 seconds of watching and I could make out that he was wearing some kind of pale cloak. The cloak wafted in the wind as he pushed the button at a pedestrian crossing on a main road. He crossed the road and endured some barracking from a passing car, casting his cloak over his shoulder in a gesture of disdain for the barbarians within. He was now in the home strait for the pub and I was nearing the head of the queue to be served. The pub gives a panoramic view of the river and approaching friends, but is more or less opaque to those looking in.


Tig’s full ensemble was now visible: sandals, a goat-herder’s shawl, a crook and a Pashtun hat. He looked like he was on the catwalk for the Taliban’s spring collection. I edged towards the open fire escape. As I stepped out into the glare of daylight, I heard the pub’s warm Tyneside reception for the returning traveller.


‘What’ll it be Osama?’