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I grind my teeth. He just wonít keep still! The moment I finally get the focus, heís already moved out of the frame. Heís driving me insane with his constant chatter, with the wild gestures, with the darting around the lab, forcing me against the wall and making me trip over the camera cables as I try, in vain, to keep up.
By the second day we are both much better. He sits patiently as I get my ten second shots, and moves more slowly. But neither of us are ourselves anymore. The camera has made us into different people.
Ironic that the university famous for its sports department should have a campus build purposefully for cars. It feels like being back in the States. The campus is huge, populated by modern buildings, all overlooking extensive car parks. A proper road network, with roundabouts and traffic lights, connect the buildings which function as self contained units. No allowances have been made for pedestrians, and walking across the featureless landscape of glass boxed and manicured lawns is mind-numbingly tedious. An unhappy carp can be seen floating in the artificial pond in front of the conference building. Place is a pastiche.
Fall asleep listening to the rain, thinking of all the good this will do to the flowers I saw earlier that evening. We wake up early, and K asks me to open the blind, it looks strangely bright outside for 6 in the morning. I pull the cord, and stare at the layer of snow which covers the glass. It is April. It had snowed. It is still snowing, cold, windy, and wet. I am not impressed. Shivering in the sudden winter we wait for the bus, which is long a-coming, and I catch a catnap on his shoulder.
Bangladesh, Nigeria, Carbon Trust, Australia, Permaculture, Bangladesh, Bangladesh, Behaviour Change. Chauvinist, self-important, prejudiced, romantic, utopian, cynical. Around the table a series of agendas and ideas, a history of distances travelled, a difference in expectations and ambitions. How can we lift people out of poverty without harming the environment? Feelings of powerlessness and resignation threaten to take over. Some think about power, some about money, some about users. There are dreamers, and there are engineers. We look at one another from our islands, reluctant to commit, unwilling to risk. At these distances, can we even communicate, let alone work together?
Conferences have a soporific effect on me. It's five oíclock, and Iíd normally be snoring away peacefully by now in the back row. Today, even though the speaker has come to discuss bio-energy in Zambia, and expresses himself purely though diagrams and tables, Iím still with him. Iím still interested. The atmosphere in the room is up-beat, focused. There's a tremendous feeling of community, a will to communicate. Itís an atmosphere I do not associate with groupings of academics, which usually turn feral, knifes are thrust in backs and inflated egos lock horns.
ĎTremendous potential. All we need are good policies, and of course investment. But this is real, this is not academic talking.í
His face is cast in deep shadow as he hunches over his notes. But regularly he looks up, casts an eye over the public, and makes grand, opening gestures, talking animatedly and with great enthusiasm His eyes shine in the darkness of his face, and teeth flash in welcoming smiles. He is amazingly charismatic. He carries the room on the tips of his gesticulating hand. He is selling the future, and we can get a discount if we hurry.
I walk the length of a bland corridor, and come into a small, unineteresting room. One wall of the room is occupied by a basic bar, where two equally unappealing brands of beer are available for purchase. The floor of the room is covered with a wall-to-wall, mingy looking carpet with an unpleasant geometric design. The ceiling is low. The light is fluorescent. Ten tables have been arranged in this dire space, and are slowly filling with tired conference goers. I linger, thinking of the consequences of being stuck with the wrong crowd. I fail to avoid it.
I know that people eat this way, because I've seen it on American movies. I just never thought it would happen to me. The carpet. The fluorescent lighting. The smell of dust. And, worst of all, the food. Oh, the food. It's clearly been cooked in a catering kitchen with no passion nor interest, covered in plastic, driven over, and reheated in a microwave. And now it's being served by vacant eyed teenagers who wish they were somewhere else. I look at my grey potatoes, and feel suddenly nauseous. I am not a food snob. But I have my limits.
Itís funny how quickly antipathies form. She looks down her nose at me, and says Ďokí, and I know this relationship is a no-no. IĎve stepped into her territory, and challenged her authority. Sheís not impressed by me, or by anything I represent. The short stare has the cold intensity of a long gaze. As if nothing happened, she turns to a third person and continues to speak as if I werenít there. I shrug internally and hang in there; I am getting what I wanted out of this conversation, if I piss her off thatís just an added bonus.
"We'd rather not eat, but keep on the high. So what I'm saying here is that... I don't think, after 30 years, and I may be totally wrong.. I don't know, but it may be that it's not economics, and it's not technology, or even philosophy. I think that the challenge is a spiritual one. If we don't recognise that we tend to create these fantasies about sustainabile development, and if we don't recognise that we have this addiction to oil, well I don't think we're gonna make it. The change is gonna happen anyway. But we won't make it."
I dream I get the date of the half marathon wrong - it's today actually, and I am not ready. I miss the start, and when I ask the organisers if I can still run, I am told I am too late.
I wake up with a knot in my stomach, and lie there, still, in the twilight. I am annoyed at myself, and puzzled. I prod different thoughts, waiting for the anxiety response. It's like touching a sore tooth with the tip of your tongue. There are potentials, but they are all vague. Perhaps this is still the PhD echoing.
"The principle of quantum physics: stuff comes in little packets."
"The mechanics of conversion of photons into electrons work like a parking meter. The cost of one unit of parking is £1. Infra-red photons are 50p coins, and UV photons are £5 notes. The meter does not give any change, and it does not accept coins below £1. So however many intra-red photons you fire at it, it will not work. It will work with a UV photon, but the difference will be lost - you will still only get one unit, although you paid five times the amount."
It's a tense atmosphere at home. We don't feel like talking to one another in the evening, because whatever we talk about, our thoughts gravitate back to the same topic of uncertain future. He is anxious, and sad, and I soak his mood up like a sponge, can't help myself. We both know that this is his last shot at getting funding for a PhD. We have both worked hard on this proposal. Although we tried to keep our hopes in check, we just can't help thinking 'what if...'. And we are both afraid of heartache if it falls through.
Back from Dec
I stand there for a long time, in that bare, utilitarian bathroom, in the harsh, ugly light. I keep nuzzling my wrist, surprised at how the scent stirrs me, how I can't get enough of it. That half-evaporated bottle was a surprise find, the scent of the forbidden pleasures of rumagging through her things, the silk scarves, the wooden jewellery, the fur. So cliche. I let the scent carry me.
I take the bottle back home with me after Christmas, although I do not open it again, and I do not wear the scent, too weird.
Back from Dec
My room is filled with objects I used to fill its echoing emptiness. Material memories of things past. For a long time I thought they weighed me down, but I don' feel it any more. If anything, I am surprised that they exist at all, surprised I had truly lived through that recital, that walk in the forest, this lesson at school. Memories in each drawer, and I feel I should tend to them, put them away so that in years to come I can marvel at my past, at the fact I had ever been.
Back from Dec
"This friend of mine, she says you could get everything you wanted in Wrocalaw during communism. It drives me mad. I remember gramma telling us, trying to explain to us what marzipan tasted like. Or Matijas herrings, we have never heard of them in our lives. It's very difficult to discribe a flavour. Before Christmas they always announced on the radio when the ship carrying oranges had left. Once, my father got hold of some cocoa shells, and mum boiled them to make hot chocolate. We all walked around the stove in a trance. The smell was heavenly."
Back from Dec
"I used to be in awe of Israel. Such a small country - such a small country! 17km accross! - and it manages to keep all these Arabs in check. But then I read this war-time diary, and this Jew, who had been fed and saved from death by the Polish hand, who lived, owed his life to this Polish family, he hated them. All this time, he hated them."
I once gave him a faomus book about a boy who survived the war amongst primitive peasants. Couldn't read it. It was too visceral. He is analytical.
Back from Dec "I think the Jews, they still have a love-hate relationship with Germany. Because Germany was to them what America is today: a strong nation, a nation organised, successful. And they can not understand how this great nation could have turned against them. So they blame Poland, because Poland is weak.
Anyway, you can't say anything critical about the Jews, because you are immediately accused of being anti-Semitic."
"I never had a reason to be anti-Semitic, but I am accused of it in France. Apparently because I am Polish, anti-Semitism is in my blood."
Back from Dec
"What no-one talks about is that it was Jews killing Jews in Treblinka. In the whole concentration camp, there were 26 Germans, and 152 Ukrainians, and the rest were all Jews, and they exterminated twenty thousand people there."
"I think no nation can deal with something like that. So they try to project the guilt and the hatred onto others."
"And they choose Poland, because Poland is weak. If you told an American it was Jews killing Jews in the second world war, you'd be called a liar and anti-Semitic. They will not accept it."
Her house is a real throw back to the forties, all original wooden fittings, a hopelessly outdated kitchen, and a romantic if impractical cast iron stove in the living room. Atmosphere, lace nets and drafts. All spotlessly clean and without a speck of dust, it must take her the whole day to get round all the knick-knacks. She and her boyfriend, both hippy, long-haired, makeup-less, intelligent, smily and ironic people, fit right in, and with pride describe each new charity shop/skip-side find which together make for a cluttered but tasteful interior. What a cool place.
The going is much harder than I expected. The ground is saturated and absorbs all the power of my stride, leaving me moving through endless pastures sluggishly, jumping awkwardly over temporary springs bubbling up from the grass. Newborn lambs scuttle away. The river is full, dramatic and powerful. For a few minutes a downpour comes from the blue sky, and I run through a rain of heavy, sparkling diamonds which soak me to the skin. The coming back is easier, the mud a bit dryer. I still ache, but am already longing for the next one. What a strange amnesia.
When I turn up at the department the power is still not back from the overnight maintenance. The sky is heavy, and spits on the ground without conviction. I head to town to do some errands, and grab a book from the library on the way, any literature book, just something to fill the time on the bus, in the queues. Itís a weird one, and I canít put it away for the whole day, sneaking out every half hour devouring a few more pages in the bathroom or while making tea, and, at the end, shamelessly at my desk.
Iím still reading it at the bus stop, in my running kit, the rain pounding on the roof of the shelter. I step onto the bus without really checking the number, and I donít really look out of the window until I feel the forward tilt of descent. Damn. Wrong valley. I get out, and break into a run, can run from here just as well, along the river, through the park, and out again. It is still raining, and getting heavier. I soon start following the course of the river, keeping close to the fast flowing brown, foaming water.
That is an angry river, I think to myself. The higher up I go, the angrier and more dynamic it becomes. It is on the blink of flooding, hungrily licking the legs of the bridges, ramming into the bends with a speed that sends splashes high in the air. The rain is now a constant hammering, and I take the hood off resigned to getting soaked. There are very few people around, a few slaves to dog physiology, and a mountain biker whom I overtake, and then stand aside to let him go first, as it is increasingly muddy underfoot.
The river is raging nearer and nearer. The feeling of excitement is replaced by a vague anxiety, I want to put some distance between this river and me, and fast. But I need to get to the next bridge. I run on a path which has become a thin ledge between the swift brown waters below, and the slow flowing but brimming overflow channel above. Suddenly that too disappears, the ledge is breached, and the water is spilling over into the river. I turn back, but there the path has been eaten up too, in the space of a minute.
Itís not fun anymore. I patrol my short stretch of a path looking for a way through to the bank on the other side of the overflow channel. There is a rock, just under the water's surface. That is the only option. I jump, bounce, and grab a sapling on the sodden slope. Praying it does not uproot, I scramble up through the brambles. The road is near, I can hear it. My anxiety is disproportional to the events, I know, it is just a small river after all. But it is full of spirit, and itís spiteful.
I wonder if the darkness under his eyes was caused by this news. Tears shoot to my eyes and make my nose tingle as if for a sneeze. For a moment I am light headed, the by now familiar sensation of falling news of proximate death seem to evoke in me. It must have been an accident, we say to one another. I only saw him on Wednesday, last week, last month. As if the fact of being visible was proof of sanity. N comes in, grabs me by the shoulder and breathes into my face ĎJumped off a bridgeí.
I feel the loss of him, I feel the loss of what he represented, with his thin frame and withdrawn manner, with his warm smile when relaxing, with those long limbs and bony shoulders wrapped in cardigans. With his activist feminist wife, and his two year old daughter, he seemed so deep in the current of life, strongly anchored. I was going to come and meet his family, stay over in Newcastle, he was so enthusiastic about the city. Now his absence will be dissected with dismay and pity, and heíll be remembered for his lack, not his warmth.
It's the end of my run, and I see the buckled back of Herman the German finishing his daily walk. With his support poles and crooked spine, neck forewer twisted into the shoulder, he proceeds carefully and patiently, like a spider. He is always smiling, or at least showing his impressively false teeth. He must be nearly a hundred now. 'I had to leave Germany in the thirties', he told me once, 'because of Hitler'. Herman the German is alive. He holds on to life so strongly, in spite of its thorns digging into his flesh. And P is dead.
Not feeling very perky today. The weather is back to the usual gloom and news of Paul still hang heavy in the air. Motivation at a low, paradoxically because of the compliment N gave me when we saw one another in Durham and she said I worked 'silly hours', just like her. Do I really? Look through my time sheets, forty odd, forty odd, nothing that special.
I keep thinking about P stepping off that bridge. It seeps the strength out of me. I wish someone had told me it was an accident. I wish someone had lied to me.
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