Up the Road with a Ladder

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Up the Road with a Ladder

This is not a happy story.

It happened on Monday but since then I’ve tried not to think about it too much. Perhaps writing will excise my anxiety.

Before I begin, let me say that the baby is fine. This is not a happy story, but it could have been worse…

At a quarter to seven on Monday evening, two minutes from home, an old woman shouts at me as I walk down the road. There is something in her voice. Distress.

“Are you alright?”

“Come!” she wails, pointing to the entrance to a block of flats.

I hear shouting now.

I run into the building. There’s a staircase immediately to my right. At the top, there are two children. They’re about the same age as my kids—eight and five maybe. They’re quiet, wide-eyed. Scared. Behind them, I glimpse their mother. Simply put, she’s hysterical; she’s screaming. “My baby! My baby!”

At this point, I fully expected to find a dead infant. I race up the stairs and enter the hallway. What I see, instead, is the mother trying to break down a door. She’s running at it, hitting it with both hands, kicking it.

“I phoned the cops,” says a woman standing in an open doorway—a neighbour. “They’re locked out somehow. Baby’s inside.”

“Is the baby okay?” I ask.

“I don’t know. She’s freaking out.”

I try to calm the mother down, to get information, to stop her scaring her children. I’m not sure she understands me. She’s middle-eastern, her English is not very good. Her phone rings. “My husband,” she says. Then she drops the phone to the ground, unanswered, runs down the stairs only to run straight back, attacking the door with renewed, desperate fists. I try to calm her again. It’s no use. I don’t know what to do.

Someone mentions a ladder. “If we can get to the window…”

I have a ladder. I leave them. I run home. I get the ladder from the garage. On the way back, I hear sirens. As I get to the flats, a fire engine pulls into the complex. I feel a bit stupid carrying my little ladder. But I’m relieved. What would I have done? Climb up to their window, break the glass? I have the sudden horrible vision of the overwrought mother climbing up a rickety ladder, cracking the glass with her fists.

I follow the fireman into the building. The mother falls to her knees in front of them. The decision is quickly made. Fifteen seconds. They have a battering ram. Five hits and the door is breached. The fireman enters with the mother. Ten seconds. “The baby is okay,” comes the shout. The firemen, now joined by a policeman, look at each other. What just happened?

I hang around, talk to the children and grandmother, answer their phone and speak to the husband. What else can I do?

Later, I walk back to my own family, ladder in hand, heart still racing.

Turns out the baby was not in any imminent danger. The family had somehow managed to lock themselves out, with the baby still inside. How? I don’t know. We have the feeling that the mother overreacted. But then, she was looking after a grandmother, two kids and a baby. I know how hard that can be. Who knows what day she had?

I’ll visit them over the weekend. Bring them some cake or something. I suspect that social services may be called in. I feel for them. I worry.

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The Aching Bellies of Churchgoing Folk

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The Aching Bellies of Churchgoing Folk

In the mid-90’s, an old friend of my family planted a new church. As I recall, we missed his virgin sermon, attending instead a morning service a few weeks later. I remember that day all too vividly.

My parents sat in the front pew; I felt more comfortable sitting five rows back with my brother and sister. We sang three hymns, read from the Gospel of Matthew, and then worked our way through two more songs. All things considered, the service progressed swimmingly. That is until the new visitors were encouraged to stand and introduce themselves.

My dad said, “Hello, I’m so and so,” and I duly waited my turn. As the introductions commenced, my mind started to wander to my mum’s delicious Sunday roast at home. There was no need for me to pay attention, after all; my siblings would be my cue to get ready. They’re older than me. Obviously they’d be asked to speak before me.

Boy, was I wrong.

It came to pass that the boy raised his eyes to the man on the pulpit. And he, this anointed agent of Heaven with the godly eyebrows and obsidian robes, pointed a quivering finger at the youth’s gluttonous heart, thus casting out the roast reverie and delivering the child from his gravy daydream. ‘Twas as if God himself demanded, “WHO ARE YOU, BOY?”

Who, me? I was a deer in the headlights of onrushing shame. Futilely, I gestured to my parents — suddenly, so far away — and then, I tried to explain myself. I said, “I am…my father’s son.”

Never let it be said that I’m a liar.

A punchline silence greeted my declaration, shortly followed by laughter — the entire congregation were rolling in the aisles. And after the bellies of these good churchgoing folk ached too much to continue, my wiseass brother affectionately nudged me and announced, “I’m his brother.” Another round of chortling ensued and my humiliation was complete.

I’ve never lived this faux pas down, and I don’t really care to. It’s a fun story to tell. And it served me well when I toasted my parents at my sister’s wedding. “I am my father’s son. I am my mother’s son. And I’m very proud of that.”

A Pebbly Love Story

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A Pebbly Love Story

Let me tell you about the time I jumped down Suicide Gorge for love.

Okay, truth be told, I did it mostly for the sheer joy of it, but rest assured that wooing a girl with precious stones definitely played a part in the endeavour.

We drove out of Cape Town before sunrise and an hour later, we parked the car in the foothills of the Hottentots Holland Mountains. My companion was a friend, mind, not my later-to-be-wooed love interest. A three-hour hike up the mountain brought us to the top of a ravine — Suicide Gorge. I’m not sure if people go there to reschedule their appointment with Death, but I do know that many hikers have perished in this beautiful slice of nature.

The ravine is a series of pools, connected by waterfalls, leading to a river at the bottom. Hiking down is a five-hour journey. You jump from pool to pool and wade through the river to the end of the trail. Thing is, after the second jump, you’re committed; you can’t climb back. And then, there follows a ten-metre drop, which, if you’re unwilling to jump, will result in a helicopter full of annoyed rescue personnel coming to save your ass.

Now, to the girl. She was in London at the time. We were dating online, you see, which is about as frustrating as trying to snatch a teddy bear with a Claw Machine. She referred to our Skype calls, Google Talk chats, and text messages as “pebbles”, little virtual markers to keep us on track.

So, obviously I stuffed my pockets with rocks all the way down the gorge. These I mailed to her — a near kilogram of river-smoothed stones in a self-painted, glazed flower pot. A bit daft, I grant you, but she married me in the end. Couldn’t have been too weird then, right?

Come to think of it, I’ve done way more romantic things than mailing a woman a bag of rocks, but none of those stories start with, “I jumped down Suicide Gorge for love,” so, you know.

Weirdo

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Weirdo

London is full of weirdos — in the best sense of the word, I mean. Freak flags fly all over this town, proudly heralding our pretty deviances, luring kindred kooks into our nutcase fold. “Join us,” we whisper. “There’s a place for you here. There’s a place for everybody…”

Even for you, Lemony Snicket man. I saw you walking down the street. Did you think I wouldn’t notice? Did you think you could get away? Looking like that? You were mistaken. I noticed — your image branded my mind. Let me tell you: brain-tattoos itch and the only relief is to scratch. I have to scratch your description while it’s raw. So here goes; here you are.

White, wide, and flat, a New York Yankee cap, a mac to match your jeans, three-quarter cut, and for some reason tight, it seems, like a teenaged girl’s, and your retired curls I did not miss, grey and marvellous and undeterred, your attire, a perfect meme, baseball themed, and boyband righteous, halfway feminine but not curvaceous, I regret I missed your shoes, confused, for breakfast you ate, a croissant as you cruised.

Ahhh, that feels so good.

The Future is Bright

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The Future is Bright

Have you seen those memes that mock modern life and technology? You know, the caricatures of people herding like cattle as they stare dead at their mobiles…the illustrations of onlookers using their smartphones to record a drowning man instead of helping…that sort of thing. Many of them are thought-provoking, especially when you consider the bleak irony of appreciating these dark parodies on the very devices they lampoon.

If this dissonance interests you, you absolutely have to watch Black Mirror on Netflix — a Twilight Zone-esque, techno-paranoia TV show for the social media age. Charlie Brooker, the show’s creator and principal writer, said of the title:

If technology is a drug — and it does feel like a drug — then what, precisely, are the side effects? This area — between delight and discomfort — is where Black Mirror, my new drama series, is set. The ‘black mirror’ of the title is the one you’ll find on every wall, on every desk, in the palm of every hand: the cold, shiny screen of a TV, a monitor, a smartphone.

Every episode presents a new cast and premise, and while it’s not ‘easy watching’ — it practically spits on the corpse of sentimentality — each story is brilliant, and terrifying, and totally worth your time.

I Should Like To Say Two Things

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I Should Like To Say Two Things

I’m an admirer of the late Bertrand Russell — a philosopher, mathematician, and Nobel laureate in literature. This week, I came across an interview with the BBC where he was asked. “Suppose, Lord Russell, this film were to be looked at by our descendants like a Dead Sea scroll in a thousand years’ time. What would you think it’s worth telling that generation about the life you’ve lived and the lessons you’ve learned from it?”

I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral.

The intellectual thing I should want to say to them is this: When you are studying any matter or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only, “What are the facts, and what is the truth that the facts bear out?” Never let yourself be diverted, either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only and solely at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say.

The moral thing I should wish to say to them is very simple. I should say, “Love is wise; hatred is foolish.” In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way. And if we are to live together, and not die together, we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.

Here’s the full interview.

Beautiful Barista

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Beautiful Barista

After a fifteen minute walk to the station, I enter The Cappuccino Bar, the coffee joint where I get my morning fix. The barista nods in greeting. I don’t have to say anything; he knows what I want. But when it’s time to pay, the penny drops. I am without a wallet. That’s half-an-hour lost right there. A thirty minute circular detour of hard, berating steps. The barista, seeing the anguish play over my face, saves me from this fate. “Here,” he says, handing me twenty bucks to go with my latte, “is this enough to get you through the day?” Yes it is, you beautiful man. “Thank you, you’re a life-saver. See you tomorrow.” #KindnessIsMagic