Steve Fataar: Outside The Machine

The first time I met Steve Fataar I was 16 and he was a legend.

Wearing a long multi-coloured patchwork leather coat and boots, he held my hand for a long time in both of his and looked down at me, saying nothing.  That first encounter – which impressed me though few words were spoken – lingered as a lesson in what it meant to have presence.    The shimmering star-flooded sky seemed an apt backdrop, that Durban night at the Open Air Theatre as Steve and his band played Jackson Browne’s Everyman building up the mesmerising rolling thunder of drums to the final crescendo.  The song’s momentum pulled the crowd into a vortex of sound that kept us all in breathless suspense until we exhaled as one into wild applause.

Today, almost 40 years later, he’s standing at my gate.

‘I don’t breathe too easy anymore,’ he says as he hands me his heavy guitar case so I can carry it inside for him.  It has cost him to walk from the car to my gate. He smiles, ‘but hey, I can still sing!’

He’s here in Cape Town for a number of gigs and he’s invited me to sing with him, a song we’d performed often together several decades ago –  Dylan’s Mozambique.

Steve Fataar Durban KZN campus c 1981

Nina & Steve singing Mozambique at KZN University Concert c. 1981

 In the mid-70’s Steve traveled to Mozambique on a road trip with friends.  They slept on beaches, playing their way across the border and through road blocks.  On one of their adventures, they came across a fortress-like crenellated building with barred windows.  Curious, they looked for a way in – and discovered they were trying to enter a prison.   The guards had long since fled, believing Frelimo was on its way,  but the two remaining prisoners continued to lock themselves dutifully back in after going out for supplies, taking care of the place, not realising the war was over and they could go home.

Dave Barkham

The Prison in Mozambique Photo: Dave Barkham

In those days Steve wore an iconic bright red poncho and he shows me a recently discovered photo of him wearing it, guitar slung round his back as he’s peering into one of the windows of the jail.  Now 50 years later he says, someone remarked the photo would make a great album cover.

‘I like to think,’ says Steve chuckling ‘that somewhere on one those beaches, there was a young Jewish man writing a song about Mozambique the same time we were there.’ (Dylan first released the song on his album Desire in 1976)

We’re sitting in my lounge and as we talk, Steve’s idly pulling a tapestry of tunes out of his favourite battered nylon string acoustic guitar. I’m remembering playing music in Durban decades ago; Rapson Rd, Overport  Rd and attending word-of-mouth  impromptu concerts in the Valley View house.  Those houses are now long gone.

Practice sessions were ramshackle as the commune houses themselves, wreathed in the earth-smoke aroma of cigarettes, marijuana and rooibos tea brewing on the stove. If my memory of those times is a pleasant drifting haze, there were vivid and sharply lit moments too. The astonishing never to-be-repeated guitar riffs, ringing vocal harmonies that hung like bright resonating bells riveted in the air, a staccato muttering drum sequence that kept everything stitched together.  It was a kind of loose spaciousness that Steve created which allowed music to move through freely, while at the same time stay held in place by a collective desire to capture it alive.

Memories of Steve’s younger brother Issy surface in the melodies Steve’s threading together.  Issy’s sheer wizardry, the way he drew enchanted chords out of his guitar with that wide-eyed smile of surprised delight at his own genius  is what we’re both remembering – both missing –  right now.  Issy and I had done a couple of our own shows too at the time. The longing is ephemeral, hollow as the feeling of empty space, a silence that shouldn’t be there. Issy was just 44 when he died of leukaemia.

Issy Fataar

Issy Fataar c.1981

‘And Abby?’ I ask ‘what became of Abby Joyce?’ Abby and I had sung a couple of soulful songs together with the band then.   I had had a huge crush on the beautiful young Sydenham man with a voice that ripped my heart out every time he sang. In my fantasies, with all the privileged blind arrogance of a white girl, I carelessly shrugged off the hazards of South Africa’s immorality act. This was traumatic territory Steve and his girlfriend Marianne were traversing themselves at the time.

Now Steve tells me Abby had become well known as a performer in Melbourne until he too died in 2008.

Zane Adams?  Is he still around?  Zane with his soaring vocal showmanship, his sexy-sleek elegant stage strut.  Steve goes quiet. I thought you knew.  Mark Park, Charl Phyfer, the list goes on of people we once knew. Now gone.

steve Fataar, Issy Fataar

Steve, Zane, Issy

But we’re still here.  And it’s time to rehearse.

‘I’m gonna have to learn this song all over again!’ laughs Steve as he searches his guitar, looking for old chords, excavating the tune.  He comes upon it suddenly, stumbling on it like an ancient seam of gold, the old familiarity of it gleaming.  We fall easily into the harmony, the words coming back to us, returning verse by verse like slightly forgetful migrating birds.  We go through it just once, no repeats or bridges.

‘That’s it!’ exclaims Steve. ‘We got it down.’  Really? After going through it once? I’m left unsettled.  Too much uncertainty for me.

He hands me his guitar so he can take a call.  It feels warm, used, loved.  I start playing a few chords, riffs my fingers remember all on their own. I haven’t picked up my guitar in 2 years.  Once he’s done with the call, we talk about me doing a song on my own.

‘How about the one you’re playing right now?’ says Steve. ‘It’s beautiful! In fact, I’m gonna ask Errol to play it with you.’

Right then and there he calls Errol Dyers.

‘Hey Errol! You know this song….?’

He holds the phone in front of me. ‘Sing a few bars, Nina…’

I’ve heard of the guitar maestro Errol Dyers of course, but I’ve never met him.  I play the opening and sing a verse of Manhattan Transfer’s Scotch & Soda into Steve’s phone.

‘You got that?’ he asks Errol. All I can hear is muffled static in response.  ‘Yeah, Errol says he already knows the song … ok great…. We’re gonna do that one too.’ It’s rehearsal Fataar style – riding the wave that’s here now, a singular trust in the inventiveness of the moment.

Now Steve’s playing an eloquent dark chord sequence, elegiac, somehow wrenching.   ‘Here’s a song I wrote in 1969. I dunno why I never recorded it. And now I quite like it. All those years I coulda been playing it.  It’s called Dove.’

Dawn sees a dove

lift its wings to the sun

While a leaf gently glides

to the ground

 Love lifts her head

Smiles a smile and sighs a sigh

While the dew on the grass

goes to sleep

Why do I suddenly want to weep?   The way the melody cuts open my chest is like surgery.  A clot of emotion that needs release.   Steve’s chortling quietly to himself. ‘It’s about an accidental acid trip I went on. I was in California in some house we visited. This woman just popped something in my mouth saying, here, you’ll enjoy this. Turns out it’s Orange Sunshine. Suddenly the world came alive in a whole new way…. But man, after 18 hours you’re kinda longing for it to stop, y’know.  Like the stairway to heaven has turned into the road to hell.”  Even as he speaks, Steve’s listening to his own playing like there’s a message hidden inside. His head tilted to the side as if maybe listening at just the right angle of obliqueness will give him the answer he’s been waiting for.

It’s a conversation and the part I can’t hear is the part I feel.

A week later I arrive at the Alma Café at the appointed time ready to do a sound check. But the doors are locked and through the windows I see the chairs still piled up on the tables.   I briefly wonder if I have the right night. I wonder up and down the road and a while later a young woman arrives, cigarette in hand.  She lets me in and I tune my guitar while she energetically sweeps and then washes the floors, cigarette now clamped between her lips as she works. The minutes tick by.  My mouth is dry. She’s taking the chairs off the tables. It’s just an hour until show time.   I have no idea how this evening is going to work out and no one has arrived.  I’m clinging to the idea that at least Errol knows the song I’m about to play with him without a single rehearsal.

It’s only later, when I’m already on stage in front of a full house that I find out the truth. I’m telling the story of how I came to be playing with Errol when we’ve only just met for the first time.  I get to the part about Steve asking Errol whether he knows the song after I’d played him the first verse over the phone.  And Steve interjects with “Yeah, and then Errol said to me ‘Well I do now!’ ”

Not that I need have worried. Errol played seamlessly, with an attentiveness to the shape of the song that was not so much embellishment as a fresh restructuring, his guitar revealing new arrangements I could never have imagined. Even as he played, I was aware of him listening intently. Not to me, but to the idea of the song.  Reinventing what he heard through his guitar.

The least trustworthy part of the whole thing was me.  We could have had any number of rehearsals and that would always have remained true.  Where Steve and Errol were fluent deep-diving inhabitants of that soul-sea of sound, I would always be one who’d just learned to swim on the surface. In these waters, my classical training kept me afloat, it didn’t teach me how to ride the unpredictability of waves.

Nina & Errol Dyers at The Alma Café Nov 2016 Photo: Alex Boyle

Nina & Errol Dyers at The Alma Café Nov 2016 Photo: Alex Boyle

That evening, Steve’s friend Dave Barkham had arrived with a painting tucked under his arm.  The background is a muted whitewashed wall. In the foreground, a man wearing a red poncho, Gibson slung around his back, is peering  into a jail-room window.  The words ‘Knocking on Heaven’s door’ in pale blue cursive written alongside.  When the time comes to sing Mozambique,  it’s this story of a painting of a photograph that stands on stage in silent chorus, the whole room echoing with history.  It had been Dave who’d taken the original photograph and he’s gifted Steve with the painting.

Steve Fataar Dave Barkham  

The original photograph of Steve in Mozambique Photo: Dave Barkham


Painting by Dave Barkham

Painting by Dave Barkham

From the moment I saw that painting, I wanted it,’ says Steve when the song is done. ‘Thanks so much Dave.‘

‘That’s ok,’ replies Dave from the audience. ‘It’ll just cost you an album.’

The past has a way of claiming its dues from the present. The songs are waiting.  The cover is done. And it’s a fitting image: a man with a guitar looking through the bars of a prison window from the outside. Steve was never inside the machine.

Whether or not the album ever becomes reality is immaterial.  It’s by living from this place of freedom that Steve Fataar will always be legend.

Steve (Abduragman, Marnie) Fataar,  together with his brothers, Ricky and Edries (Brother),  was one of the founding members of the band The Flames (aka:The Flame formed in 1963) which became one of South Africa’s most famous bands of the 60’s and early 70’s recording a total of 5 albums and 15 singles.  

 The Flames were “discovered” by Carl Wilson of The Beach Boys while performing in Blaise, a London club in 1969. One of the first bands to be signed to the Beach Boys’ label, Brother Records, The Flames recorded their first internationally-released album, The Flame, the following year.  

 The Flames disbanded shortly afterwards with Steve and Edries returning home to Durban, South Africa while Ricky and drummer Blondie Chapman joined the Beach Boys’ touring band.  Steve went on to build a music career playing gigs collaboratively with a host of well-known South African musicians around the country. Today at 74, Steve feels deep gratitude for being able to continue doing what he loves best, playing live music with other musicians for audiences who love and appreciate the magic they create together.

Purchase albums here.

undressed in aachen

Undressed in Aachen

I’m in a tropical downpour.  At first the rain is soft and warm but then it starts pelting down heavily, the rain needle-sharp and coming at me from all directions in cool streams.  It stops abruptly and I step out of the curved tiled space I’m standing in and consider where I will go next in Aachen’s famous and fabulous Carolus Mineral Spa. The Tropical Shower is just the beginning, and here I am, naked in public once more.

The spa brochure tells me there are sound health reasons for requiring guests to go unbekleidert in the sauna areas.   While it’s acceptable to walk around in a bathrobe and waterproof sandals, complete nudity is obligatory within the shower areas, saunas, steam rooms and in the pools.  It goes on to say that for those women who prefer greater privacy, there is a very pleasant Feminarium sauna and steam room, however the majority of the spa offerings are open to both men and women together.  And it’s this which makes me pause.  Apart from segregated sports changing rooms, public nudity is unknown in South Africa.

But I am a visitor in a strange city, I know only the 2 friends I am staying with, Michaela and Gabriele, and the idea of being naked in front of strangers doesn’t seem all that troubling to me.   In fact, looking around on this very quiet Monday afternoon, I see mostly elderly men and women, walking around quite uninhibitedly naked.  Their nudity is neutral and has no sexual undertones; it all feels very unthreatening and gemütlich.

I start with the indoor saunas and select one which offers an intriguing AufgussHoney Unction.  It starts at 4 30 and I see the time is just after.  I step inside quickly and immediately 12 pairs of naked eyes swivel towards me and then narrow with disapproval.   I’m late, I know it. Rapidly I find a place, lay out my towel and sit down. Looking around me, I see men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes, some on their own, some in couples. They look vulnerable in their nakedness, their skin glowing palely in the twilight mist of the sauna.

Why do they all keep staring at me like that?

 Then I realise: I’m still wearing my bathrobe and I begin to appreciate that context is everything.  It’s the exact opposite of those dreams when you’re at a formal business meeting and look down to see you’re in some mortifying state of undress.  I only just have time to tear off my bathrobe and scrunch it into a ball behind me, when a Spa assistant enters bearing a tray.  “Please put your feet on your towels,” she advises.  She appears to be addressing the space above our heads but she’s really talking to me for I see I still have my rubber shoes on. Embarrassed, I shove them out of sight beneath the wooden slatted bench I’m on and pull my feet up onto my towel.

Now she hands out small containers filled with pure honey, mixed with finely crushed almond shells.  The honey, she explains, has excellent skin beautifying properties and the pulverised almond shells make a wonderful skin scrub.

As soon as we’ve all smeared ourselves with honey (some of us more thoroughly than others; the grey-haired well-built man lying next to me with knees splayed apart has spent a long slow time voluptuously rubbing the honey mixture into his hairy nether region), the assistant returns with a bowl of herb scented water which she throws onto the hot sauna stones. Immediately, a delicious cloud of steam erupts and we’re all bathed for several minutes in wafts of herb-scented mist.  It’s so hot, my outbreath sears my upper lip and whenever I blink, my eyeballs feel scorched.  With the air hot and redolent with the sweet stickiness of honey, I close my eyes and lie back, relishing the warmth of honey melting into my skin, inhaling the steamy green fragrance of herbs and  begin to fret about my shoes dissolving into a rubbery puddle beneath me.

After 15 minutes of honey-saturated bliss, I retrieve my well-baked but still recognisable shoes and emerge in search of a shower.

Undressed in Aachen 2

Outside, there’s a notice informing me of the next treatment in 30 minutes.  But penis-fondler is idling around too and I decide to give Yoghurt and Tropical Fruit Unction a miss. There’s so much else still to explore and I head off outdoors.


In the Baltic Saunaland, the décor is Finnish stone and timber-cabin style and the sauna rooms are situated in pretty flower-filled gardens where the roofs have grasses and wildflowers growing on them.  I decide on a sauna called Bakoven.  The name suggests a particularly hot sauna but I haven’t taken into account the German penchant for literal-minded practicality.  I discover it has in fact a baking oven built right inside it. The notice outside announces that in a short while Brödchen will be baked and whoever happens to be there will receive a freshly baked snack straight from the oven. It sounds delightful!

Having hung up my bathrobe (I’m learning fast), I open the door and instantly freeze – if such a thing is possible at 75°C.  What I see makes every instinct scream at me to turn around and flee at once.  Inside the small sauna, 3 enormous naked men are talking boisterously.  Two are shaven-headed and heavily tattooed all over:  the one, dark, swarthy and Hispanic looking is covered in a jumbled cacophony of designs, the other is ginger-bearded and menacingly illustrated with a huge leering skull on one shoulder. The third man is blonde with a Wagnerian Norse look to him – he’s clearly built to take medieval armour –  and has only one tattoo on his chest in the form of a gigantic lock over his heart. He also has two large solid black stretcher flesh plugs in his earlobes and a flaming gothic dragon winging its way down one thigh.  It feels as if I’ve stumbled into the Götterdammerung version of a Druglord’s den and much as I remind myself I’m in a fake Baltic timber-cabin called Bakoven with breadrolls in the oven for godssakethe cognitive dissonance continues to jangle.

The thing is, I’m standing in the doorway and can’t back out now without feeling ridiculous. So assuming an air of worldly assuredness and with all of my naked middle-aged years cringing, I step inside.  The Druglords register my entrance with barely a flick of a sideways glance and continue their conversation.  I try to arrange myself as far away as possible and settle down to eavesdrop since I don’t seem to have much choice in the matter.  Thor the Norseman is speaking and Swarthy Dark and Ginger-beard listen intently.

“So there was this time where I took a really big tough guy into the sauna and he was like hey, I’m so tough, I can take this heat, this is easy. But you see, he hadn’t drunk enough water beforehand during the day and there he was showing off how tough he is.  Then he refused to leave when it was getting too hot for him and eventually he gets up, goes out the door and the next thing, I hear this big crash, and boom – he’s down, fainted from overheating!” Thor sniggers and slaps his great gothic thigh.  “Hope you guys have drunk enough water today!”  The other men laugh uneasily.

“Man, I am so hot” mutters Swarthy Dark under his breath shaking his head as sweat streams down his face.  He’s the man closest to me and his tattoos gleam in a sheen of sweat, shining with iridescence as he shifts uncomfortably on his towel.  “This is my first time in a sauna and man…I don’t think I’ve drunk enough water… man it is hot!”  He casts a queasy smile in my direction. I return the smile, uncertainly.  Am I being invited into the conversation?  I’m unsure of sauna etiquette with Druglords.

A trim good-looking man enters and Swarthy Dark darts a longing look at the door feeling the brief drop in temperature but then visibly checks himself. Nah. He’s tough.

“It’s the weirdest thing,” says Ginger-beard  “but every one of my girlfriends loved saunas and was also a vegan.”  At which point all 3 Druglords begin discussing favourite vegan restaurants they have been to.  Some ironic grinning thing prods at me inside as I listen. Vegan?  It’s painfully obvious my assumptions about heavily tattooed men are flummoxed by such placid dining preferences.

“Man! It’s too hot! I just gotta get outta here!” blurts Swarthy Dark suddenly and bolts out the door.  The other two smirk at each other.

“Well I haven’t heard a crash yet, so I guess he must be ok,” says Thor after a moment’s silence.  Ginger-beard mops sweat from his face. “You think maybe we should go check up on him?”  There’s a note of hopefulness in his voice.

“Yeah, sure!” says Thor knowingly.  And both Druglords depart, leaving me alone with Handsome Forty-something.  The oven clicks with heat and I think with pleasure of the rolls baking inside.  An electric mechanism now hums softly, activating a copper bowl which has been collecting drops of water, moves it slowly along a copper rod, tilts the bowl so the water gets poured onto the sauna hot stones, raising the heat.  A brief hissing and then silence.

“So,” says Handsome Forty-Something who is sitting on the level above where I’m lying.  “You must be Nina from Cape Town.”

I think if I can survive being naked in the presence of Druglords, I can survive being stunned by this new turn of events. I turn my head towards him.

“How,” I say very carefully “do you know this?” He laughs.

“Ah, they announced it in today’s Aachen newspapers!” I lie there bemused.

“No, really.” I say.  “How the hell do you know who I am?”  He chuckles again.

“Actually, I bumped into my friend Gabriele outside on my way in and she told me I’d find you in here.”

Hah! I smile. Wicked Gabriele.

Feeling at a disadvantage, I sit up. “Then since you already know who I am, perhaps you’d like to introduce yourself?” He grins.

“I’m Georg.”  And we shake hands. Do I need to say that this is the first time I’ve ever met someone socially stark naked?

I notice I’m holding my towel in front of me, suddenly shy. Absurdly, it seems I can manage being naked in front of strangers, but the moment we’ve introduced ourselves I have to cover up.  Are my breasts suddenly more modest now they’re attached to Nina from Cape Town?  Am I sexualising nudity and would I feel the same meeting another woman?

As Georg and I chat, a Spa staff member is taking hot steaming bread rolls out of the oven and putting them into a basket.  He offers them to us.  They are perfectly formed, darling little rolls sprinkled with some salt and look adorable nestled in their basket.

Georg and I exchange the usual social histories – our respective professions, our travels, our shared acquaintances and once again, I’m struck by the quick intimacy that being naked encourages. The social cues of clothing are absent and there’s no image to uphold. Together, we nibble on delicious Brödchen and laugh, bantering pleasantries back and forth for all the world as if we’re at some cocktail party.

“It’s too hot. I need to get out of here.” I say after a while. I’ve finally reached my own limit for absorbing heat.

Once outside, I stand in the cool refreshing air and catch sight of the Druglords disporting themselves in the outdoor pool. Even at their most playful splashing about in the water, their tattoos writhe and twist, projecting an aggressive rippling confidence, an unmistakeable aura of sleek, dangerous masculine power.

Georg emerges from the sauna and casts an appraising eye over the Druglords.

“At least one of them is gay,” he observes and laughs merrily at my doubt when he tells me which one, for secretly I believe I know better.


I end my day at the Odorium, a fragrant dimly lit sanctuary where herbal and floral scents are released into the warm air as you relax on comfortable reclining chairs.

And I contemplate all the different ways we undress ourselves, what we allow others to see and what we keep covered up. I see how people wear even their nudity as they might their clothing; it can be just as much of a disguise.  Naked, we may feel exposed or empowered, but we can just as easily hide in our nakedness.  And while the naked body shows something of our inner being, I think we say more in how and when we choose to cover ourselves, hide what we don’t want to be seen.  Wrapping my turquoise oriental flower print bathrobe around me, I wonder what I reveal to perfect strangers when I write about how I got undressed in Aachen.

I suspect it may be more than I imagine. And perhaps mean a lot less than I think.



Friday Fictioneers: free time

Dammit, I’m addicted. Two weeks in a row and I just can’t help myself.  So here we go again with another flash fiction story challenge courtesy of the wonderful Rochelle Wishoff-fields (her story is fab, by the way!) and her ever-inventive story-telling band of Friday Fictioneers (going to check them out here just as soon as I’ve posted this) The challenge as always: using the picture prompt, write a 100 word story with a beginning, middle and end. Here goes:

Thief of Time

Now the school has closed, Alice thinks back.  Remembering how each event of the day was heralded by the bell;  how even before it was a school, the cloisters had rung with its compelling voice, calling the nuns to prayer.

Her phone chimes once.  A reminder.

It chimes again, this time two short pings. Her daughter Melissa, exhorting her not to forget her appointment.

Alice sighs. It seems her life is still regulated by bells after all.

The bright flowers outside grow wild, following their own rhythm.  Dropping her phone into their blooms, she knows they won’t be listening either.

Friday Fictioneers: the colour of memory

Friday being valentine’s day, it seemed impossible not to weave the theme of romance into this week’s Friday Fictioneer challenge.

Go here to find out more about Rochelle Wishoff-fields and her Friday Fictioneers.  Read all the other entries here.  In brief, the challenge is to write a 100-word story with a beginning, middle and end inspired by a picture prompt. The restriction is strangely addictive!  Here’s my story below:


They’re celebrating my exhibition in the gallery next door, laughing as they drink Zednya’s famous fruit punch. She’s skillfully showing the collectors around, telling them about each Memory Painting. How like apparitions, they flash into my mind when I’ve forgotten everything else, even my name.  All I remember are those vivid images just before the explosion, tormenting until I finally release them onto canvas.  Then they disappear, no longer troubling me.

Except this one.

Zednya believes she’s just another ghost from that time. Girl Unknown.

I think about her crushed strawberry lips.  Wondering if she survived somehow, remembering her dress.

Andy Couturier: A Different Kind of Luxury

If you have a nagging disquiet in you which senses there has to be an alternative to this life of stressed high pressure, wired yet numbing pursuit of status, income and possessions driven by the pressing need to make a living instead of a life, then this book: A Different Kind of Luxury written by Andy Couturier is for you.

Chris Morrison writes an excellent review that captures beautifully the essence of A Different Kind of Luxury. What he says resonates with my own experience, both because I happen to be re-reading the book right now, and because I have personally met 7 of 11 people profiled in the book while travelling around rural Japan with a small writing group led by Andy. I’m concurrently reading Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything by F S Michaels, her brilliant but disturbing analysis of how the economic narrative is the story which permeates every single aspect of our lives – without us even realising it.

This turns out to be perfect reading companion for A Different Kind of Luxury lending it even greater authority as a satisfying antidote to the monoculture of city life as we know it.

Thirty-Two Minutes

A Different Kind of Luxury coverAndy Couturier
A Different Kind of Luxury
(2010, Stone Bridge Press, 316 pages)

Many of us know at least one person who is resistant to the attractions and complications of modern, frantic, high tech, commercial life. Some people take action – small, achievable steps like growing some of one’s own food, joining a food co-op, riding a bicycle or walking to work, using less electricity, and so on. A few go even further in taking themselves “off the grid.” Subtitled “Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance,” Couturier’s lovely and valuable book – based on articles he wrote for The Japan Times – profiles eleven men and women who have given up contemporary Japanese urban life and found more sustainable alternatives living in the countryside. Most of these eleven people share characteristics, aside from the fact that most of them know (and, in a couple of cases, are married…

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the language of moonlight

Moonlight’s Children by Jeanie Tomanek.

It’s a traveller’s legend that no matter what, there will always be one crucial item you didn’t pack because you thought you wouldn’t need it.

I was on a writing tour with a small group in rural Japan.  Our last stop was the tiny high mountain village of Kamikatzu in the Tokushima Prefecture and we were staying in a guest lodge overlooking lush green paddy fields surrounded by mountains. It was there I found out that sure enough, I’d packed for every eventuality except that one, the one I hadn’t foreseen.

On an evening brimming with aliveness, a full dazzling moon floated in paddy fields thick with stars. The air was luminous with the fragrance of night flowers and the warm darkness hummed, throbbing with primordial frogsong. That night it seemed as if the whole world were paying homage to the moon, including my own body because the following morning there it was; the unscheduled bright spot of blood heralding problems I’d been quite certain wouldn’t be mine.

My writer friend Deirdre and I were sharing a room. It was a large and airy light space furnished only with tatami mats, our two futons on the floor and a breath-taking view of the mountains.   The futon and duvet, which had delighted me with their plush snowy whiteness, now struck me with horrible foreboding. Incredulous that this should be happening to me, I asked Deirdre if she had brought any tampons. She hadn’t.

Nor had Anne, the third woman in our group. My disbelief grew; this wasn’t natural. Not a single tampon between 3 women?  It peeved me too, that neither seemed the slightest bit concerned about my plight, in fact they seemed to think it was rather funny.  Thank the moon goddess they didn’t have the problem I imagined them thinking to themselves, smug and untroubled by their bodies.

Left to my own devices, I considered my options. The obvious thing to do was to tell Andy our group leader and writing teacher. He was fluent in Japanese and our life-line in a country where little English is spoken.  He’d easily arrange what I needed in a matter of minutes. And why not?  Our many conversations had revealed him to be a warm and sincere man and of course he’d be only too willing to help. But in my mind’s eye, I imagined myself asking him, saw him valiantly strive not to be that Klutzy Guy Who Can’t Handle A Menstruating Woman, saw him solicitous and kind, being everything I could possible need him to be.  And I couldn’t stand the thought.

I know.

So while in this irrational state why not approach the Japanese wife of the guest house owner?  But I baulked at the undignified sign language I’d have to use to make myself understood. In the end I decided to visit the two general stores both within easy walking distance of the lodge. At least one of them must have what I needed and I had made purchases there before without needing to exchange a single word.

In the first store I wandered up and down the aisles scanning the shelves for what I needed.  Amongst the tinned soups and noodles, I discovered to my joy what looked like familiar packaging but joy quickly turned to dismay. For one thing, all the packages were covered in a light film of dust and it occurred to me that in this village of postmenopausal women, there was probably little call for this sort of thing. There appeared to be just the one brand. The packages were soft and bulky, and they were pads, not the tampons I was really after.

Secondly, labelled as they were in Japanese kanji, I had no idea what size or thickness they might be. I turned them over and over, feeling them, prodding at them, trying to decode their contents; and then noticed out of the corner of my eye the elderly shop assistant shuffling towards me, enquiry and possibly concern at how I was mauling the merchandise beaming out of his kind old face.  He was asking if he could help me.  “Are these extra-large sanitary pads and would you happen to stock tampons? “  I did not say.  Instead I panicked and bowing and smiling, backed out and bolted in the direction of the other general store. There had to be an easier way.

The second shop was instantly more promising. I was encouraged to see a full set of three shelves devoted to personal hygiene with the usual soap, dental and hair care stuff. And best of all 5 different brands of sanitary pads.   No sign of tampons though but still, I felt closer to my goal.  I was greeted by the sales assistant, this time a spotty adolescent boy of oh…17 maybe?

I was starting to feel more than a little desperate.

“Look.” I said firmly. In English. “Is there a woman I can talk to here?”  He gazed at me, rapt, as if frozen by my words and unable to move until he’d extracted their meaning. Finally he nodded.

“I will ask my mother,” he said in carefully articulated English. Heaven be praised for Japanese school English! At which he turned around and walked out leaving me alone. Well, I had to assume he was fetching her.  I looked over the rest of the shop as I waited, marvelling at the Japanese capacity for trust, thinking I could scoop up whatever I wanted and walk out the store and there’d be no one to stop me.

Some moments later the boy’s mother arrived, bowing and smiling.  Konnichiwa.  But behind her smile I could see apprehension as she wondered what linguistic feats beyond her abilities she might be asked to perform. I was pretty much wondering the same thing about myself. The boy had vanished. I smiled, took a deep breath, and pointing to the sanitary pads said:

“Tampon. Tamp. On.”

Looking back I realise it wasn’t that the power of logic was defective in me so much as it had defected altogether. It had quite understandably fled, taking up residence in a much more receptive mind elsewhere.

With my thumb and forefinger I indicated the length of a tampon. Waving this imaginary tampon about, I now gestured – not too precisely I admit – in the direction of my lower abdomen and then as an afterthought and for greater clarity added a short upward thrusting motion. The woman tracked the movements of my hands with great attention nodding all the time with an expression of wide-eyed wonder. I began to feel hopeful. Then without pausing, the nodding abruptly turned into shaking and now her eyes narrowed as she regarded me with doubt and some suspicion.  How could she not get it?  I rubbed out the previous gesture in the air and tried miming again with more graphic emphasis. At the same time I said Ta. Am. Pon. enunciating each syllable with care.

There’s a curious belief held by tourists everywhere that when in a country where your mother tongue isn’t spoken, breaking down already unintelligible words into their basic syllables and pronouncing them slowly and loudly will have the magical effect of reversing their unintelligibility making them suddenly understood. I’m here to tell you this does not work. For the poor woman’s perplexity only deepened and it dawned on me that I should be worried – what with all the upward thrusting motions I was making – that she may begin to think I was asking for some kind of sex toy.

I gave up on the tampons.

“Ok, let’s look at these pads.”  I said and taking a packet down indicated with my hands, “how big?”

Her face brightened immediately. This she understood.

“Oh big!” she said gesturing a length of some 20 cms. I stared hard at the package which was smallish and compact. Either these pads were folded into origami-like minuteness and there were just 3 in the box or we both understood the word “big” differently.  “I need to know size,” I said pointing to my eyes and then at the box. “How big – please can I see?” This too, she understood. For without further ado, she eagerly began ripping open the box. And before I could stop her, she reached up and grabbing a different brand, began tearing that one open too, now accompanying her actions with a voluble running commentary. I couldn’t imagine what she might be saying with such forcefulness.  Despite all my burbling protestations (which she seemed to interpret as me urging her on) within no time I had five open packages standing before me.

There was a stunned silence as we looked at each other across the boxes. Me in astonishment, she with triumph.

Then came another great flurry of activity as she excitedly displayed each different pad for my inspection.  “Oh yes!” I could see her thinking to herself, eyes blazing in a passion of shopkeeper’s zeal “I will not to be confounded by a mad gaijin’s strange requests.” Indeed, I had to agree, this was Japanese service at its unstinting best.  With great guilt mixed with profound gratitude, I chose two brands. They were both more or less the same, in bulk quantities it was true, but they would do the job and I took two because I felt terrible about leaving the 3 other opened packages – surely she couldn’t sell those now they’d been opened?  Unless there was a trade in single servings of sanitary pads I could know nothing of.

I walked back to the lodge with my hard won bulky purchases. These were not the inconspicuous little boxes I had hoped for. Anyone could see I’d been shopping and I prayed I wouldn’t meet anyone inquisitive on my way to our room.

My prayer answered, I slipped unseen through the paper sliding doors back into the privacy of our room. Deirdre was sitting on her futon writing in her journal and looked at my large packages with interest.  When I finally unfolded the super-sized super absorbent vast sanitary pad I had bought, she collapsed in a heap of helpless laughter.  Well, we both did. I mean, it was the mother of all sanitary pads. The size of a healthy toddler’s nappy and of a sturdy robustness I could easily have given birth into.

I squashed the sudden unwelcome suspicion that perhaps these really were nappies I’d gone and bought. What on earth had possessed me, Deirdre wanted to know?  But of course it was the futons I was thinking of. Feeling like John Wayne, I waddled down the stairs to lunch followed by Deirdre snorting with mirth behind me.

Later that day, a more subdued Deirdre sidled up to me and muttered out of the side of her mouth, “Guess what?”  It wasn’t hard to figure out. That night, as we lay under our beautiful pristine duvets it was a shared discomfort that neither of us could quite close her legs.

The following morning when I went down to breakfast, I found Anne alone in the dining room gazing out of the window. She swivelled round and immediately launched herself at me.

You!” she hissed, waving a finger in my face, “You are responsible for changing my whole cycle!  What are you, some kind of Alpha Woman?” And then clutching my arm she whispered fiercely:

“Did you manage to find any tampons?”

“Well, no.” I said and her face fell. “Not exactly.” Little did she know what lay in store for her.

“Hey! What’s happening guys?” asked Andy as he sauntered in, catching the tail end of our conversation.

I wasn’t about to tell him.

“We are all indisposed.” I said with Victorian obliqueness and left the room together with Anne, leaving Andy scratching his head.

Alpha Woman?

I didn’t think so.  It was the moon, that goddess of shadows. She may be subtle, her tarnished silver light casting mystery on everything she touches, but she won’t hide you.

Instead she laughs as we drop our boxes into trolleys in the fluorescent glow of our supermarket nonchalance, thinking just because we’re well lit we’ve nailed our shame.  Still pretending it’s not happening, not showing a thing.

And then she has us tell the truth, own it, makes us write it in our own blood.

Acknowledgements: Paintings used with kind permission by Jeanie Tomanek. See more of her magical and evocative work here:

junk detox

“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside which holds whatever we want” Lao Tzu

“We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside which holds whatever we want” Lao Tzu

To the friend who sent me these words today, being in the same boat:
the first step to getting what you want is having the courage to get rid of what you don’t

You said it reminded you of some advice I’d given and I want to say I’m sorry.
About the advice I mean. It was a glib show;
dressed up in the satin-slippery glamour of poetic quotes
it got in the way of nakedly saying I don’t know.

For the state I’m in right now lends itself to purging
In between bouts of nausea I’m prowling madly through the house, making a mess
as I dig like a dangerous animal searching for prey
killing anything that doesn’t give me beauty, joy or usefulness.

All these corpses. It’s not just objects past their goodbye date I’m hunting down;
I’ve unhooked myself from every online magazine self-help program and blog
business or otherwise I’ve collected over the years
sick of their reproachful unread status cluttering up my inbox

I want surfaces. Space. Emptiness.
Sell up. Sweep out all the stuff inside my head I think I know
and start all over again. Beginner’s Mind.
It’s all marked down. Like those huge sales where everything must go.

Being empty I’ll have no more advice to give
nor can it come regurgitated from the mouth of social media, a thousand-fold said
I’m blocking those channels; trading aphorisms seems a poor exchange
when something risky, still unspoken, intoxicating could be said instead

So it’s quite uncanny you sent me what you did
for it’s only from this newly spacious mind that I can say
how much I like it that someone on the other side of night
thinks of me in the emerging light of day

Making me wonder
what I want to make all this space for

Friday Fictioneers – Taken Apart

Today I was in the mood for an inspiring challenge that was also fun.

And it arrived. Click here if you want to find out more about Friday Fictioneers and read all the other entries here. Briefly the challenge is to write a 100-word story inspired by a picture prompt. Here’s this Friday’s prompt and my story below:

Copyright: Sean Fallon

Copyright: Sean Fallon

“Jesus Miles!” his wife laughed.  “You run just like a girl!” She and Sally exchanged amused glances.  Bruce grinned.

“Well done, old boy!”

Miles, breathless and puffing, felt himself go red.

Wordlessly, he handed his wife the soft pink scarf the wind had snatched from her neck.  Philippa had shrieked and Miles had immediately raced after it – rescuing it from the wind’s grasp, bringing it back to her like a prize.

She accepted it graciously. “Thank you my precious sweet! ”  she said solemnly and patted him, smiling at Bruce.

Everyone liked Philippa. You couldn’t fault her.  She was so disarming.

travels in a story without borders

dinner combo

I never thought I’d do this. But it was because of my enjoyable interactions with Misha which got me thinking about how planes, trains and the internet connect us to people who live elsewhere and yet enter our lives bringing in a whole new atmosphere. This story begins with food, but it’s also about what happens when people’s inner worlds collide and we find ourselves tipped into a new country.   

We were expecting an interesting guest for dinner – a visitor who’d arrived from the Netherlands.  He’s a well-travelled medical doctor who now does wonderful work in organic farming development.  A man who has met both kings, queens and farmers in remote rural areas in the course of his work, and who was instrumental in pioneering the first Dutch health insurance scheme in the 1980’s to accept alternative practices such as homeopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture.

And being the cook of the family, I begin to muse on that maddeningly unresolved-until-the-last-minute daily question: what to make for dinner?

Short on time, I look in the fridge to see what remains of the weekly organic Harvest of Hope veggie box we subscribe to: a pack of gooseberries, an avocado. Sweet potatoes. Some lettuce leaves.  Dash to the shops to buy other ingredients. And what emerges is this: a sweet potato recipe remembered from reading a foodie magazine years ago.  Now I’m no good with quantities so please don’t ask me. Just sweet potatoes – I like the orange Beauregard best,  chopped and baked with a little olive oil and salt in the oven covered until just tender and then uncovered for 30 minutes to brown-roast them a little.

Meanwhile mix a good wedge of butter – oh gosh, I don’t know – 4-6 tablespoons? – with a bunch of freshly chopped chives, a grated thumb of ginger, the zest of one orange, 3 or 4 cloves of garlic and some salt.  Add this mixture to the sweet potatoes as soon as they come out of the oven and let it stand so the butter melts and the flavours meld.   When you taste this, you will want to say to yourself: mmmm it’s the garlic which makes it so… no…wait… actually it’s the orange zest….although no …  really it’s the interesting addition of the ginger… and of course it’s no one of those ingredients. It’s in the mix.

The Japanese have a wonderful expression for the indescribable good taste of something that isn’t just salty, sweet, sour or bitter: it’s a fifth taste they’ve called umami. Roughly translated as yummy deliciousness, or a pleasant savouriness.

It looked so pretty when it came out of the oven I decided to take a picture. Which made me think of Misha and his wonderful blog the poor man’s kitchen. I’ve enjoyed reading his recipe stories and have even tried a few of the Japanese ones myself – albeit taking great improvisational liberties in following them. We’ve pleasantly exchanged a comment or two. But here’s the thing; it’s because of those exchanges that I’m writing about food,  something I never thought I’d do.

Sweet potato dish

But that’s not all.

It seemed we had a visitor at the table who knew how to tell a good tale and the story which unfolds is unexpectedly personal. Riveting. Deep. By the time he’s half-way done we have all stopped eating.

Our guest pauses in his narrative and takes a mouthful of guacamole with warm melted cheese-drizzled nachos. He pronounces it to be very good.  The crunch of the nachos a satisfying complement to the soft creaminess of avocado.  This somehow gives us all permission to eat some more, spellbound as we have been with the story.  I have – weirdly I know but it was because of the avocado in the fridge – chosen this along with a fresh salad and a dish of olives to accompany the sweet potatoes.  The guacamole I make, with its usual ingredients of avocado, garlic, lemon juice, salt and pepper, is probably not to be reconciled with its Mexican origins including as it does dried black olives, fresh diced baby tomatoes, roughly chopped piquant coriander leaves and slices of soft goat’s cheese. The trick – taught to me many years ago by a friend –  is to mix these ingredients together very minimally so the avocado is still chunky and the different tastes – and colours – don’t get smudged into each other.

Guacamole 4 1500 x1125

Once told, his story lingers and although we began the evening as relative strangers,  it now feels as if we’ve stepped over the borders of each other’s lives. As the dishes are cleared and I prepare the next course,  I think about how we open a window to ourselves in our stories.  And perhaps because our guest is a man of a certain age who has traveled a long way bringing his story with him,  I am reminded of how another stranger offered me just such a vivid glimpse into his life that remains with me still.

On the platform waiting for the train into London at Heathrow, I stand next to a man from Bahrain.  I know he’s from Bahrain because I’ve overheard him telling someone on his phone that he left there yesterday.  He looks like a business-man, expensively dressed in a suit and coat, briefcase and carrier bag in one hand, his suitcase on wheels standing next to him. Although he has grey hair and appears to be in his mid-60’s, he has a smooth olive complexion and despite his dark melancholy eyes an air of anxious excitement.

“Are you going to Paddington Station?” he asks me.  I am and we exchange the relieved smiles of uncertain travellers who have confirmed with each other they are in the right place after all, and if they’re not, well there’s now at least two of them who have got it wrong.

He takes a peek inside the carrier bag he’s holding as if to check that what he’s bought is still the right thing, and impulsively shows me the purchase of an ipad he’s made at Duty Free.  “For my daughter, ”  he says and his eyes shine with a sudden intense reverence. “The one I thought I’d lost for 42 years,”  he adds, a huge smile of sheer happiness breaking open his face.  And now he has my full attention.  So it seems quite natural that when it arrives, we should sit next to each other on the Heathrow Express as it speeds us towards evening in London.

He begins. “Her mother and I…well…”  and then pauses, glancing at me as if to check with himself that he should be even telling me such intimate things.  Something in my face must have reassured him because he continues.

“It was not a successful romance.  So we parted ways and then she let me know she was pregnant. You can imagine,  I was beside myself.  I couldn’t stop thinking about this child of mine.  When it was born, she told me I had a daughter, only she refused to let me see her. I missed so much.” His face softens with regret, crumples momentarily.

“It was as if she were punishing me somehow, for the relationship not working out. That’s what I think now of course. At the time all I could see was her irrationally refusing to let me see my own child.”  He sighs heavily. Looks out of the train window at the shadowy landscape rushing by. Our reflections against the darkness.

“I begged her, you know. But she continued to refuse and one day she was no longer there. She simply disappeared and I lost all contact with her.”

He tells me of his ongoing struggles, his frustrations as he tried everything in his power to locate his daughter. “ Eventually, after 40 years of searching, I just gave up.”   We are silent for a moment.

“And then what happened?”

“What happened? Well, then a miracle happened!” he laughs at the memory.  “Two years later when I’d given up all hope, I receive a letter out of the blue.  It’s from her…my daughter!  Can you believe it?   For all those years I was searching for her, she was  looking for me too!”   And his eyes fill up suddenly.  Now we both have tears in our eyes and we look away from each other.  When he speaks again his voice sounds muffled.

Almost to himself, as if he can hardly believe his own ears he murmurs “and so of course I  immediately jumped on the next plane to the UK.”  He looks at me now, eyes bright. “Once I reach London I still have a way to travel to get all the way to Liverpool. That’s where she lives now. ”

At Paddington we say our farewells.  Incredibly, a brass band is playing on the platform as if to welcome us and my friend is waiting to greet me.   I turn to watch the man from Bahrain as he walks away clutching his carrier bag, his pale trench coat flying in the wind of departing trains.  He half turns then as if remembering something he forgot to say, as if he thinks he may have left something behind.

And  in a way he has.  I feel tilted, held for a moment at an odd angle to the earth by what he has told me. Because although he could not possibly have known this, he chose to tell his story to a woman who was exactly 42 when she went in search of and found her own unknown Japanese father. She too found him by writing just such a letter, a letter out of the blue.

We affect each other – sometimes subtly, sometimes overtly and often profoundly.  We need only walk into a room to change the mood of it. And even when we hurt each other, there’s redemption in it. We learn. We shift. The pain presses us into adopting a new position.  It’s just that sometimes we forget how much even the smallest of what we say and do can impact on another in a big way.

Stories have a way of meandering; they divide and multiply, straying along unforeseen paths ending up in the strangest territory.  How could the man from Bahrain ever have imagined a part of him would end up here.

And let’s not forget the gooseberries. They were cooked lightly with sugar and then blended with custard and thick cream to make gooseberry fool.  At the end of the meal the only sound was the clink of spoons scraping wistfully against empty dessert dishes.

There was nothing left over.

What needs saying

When I first encountered zen gardens during my time in Japan, I never quite ‘got’ them. On the surface they appeared boring, they lacked sensory appeal and they spoke in a language peaceful yes, but strangely dull to me.

It was only years later that I began to catch a glimmer of understanding; how their quintessential ‘changelessness’ is a key to grasping their true value. While the landscape around them blossoms into spring,  turns ravishingly beautiful in summer, falling into the glory of autumn and then the austerity of winter, the zen garden remains seasonless, still, everlastingly the same in the midst of change.  And so it is when contemplating the deeper truths of life in the midst of the chaos and churn of every day living.

What follows is not a poem inspired by zen gardens; but it seemed to share a similar feeling in its landscape, mood and intention as I wrote, puzzling over a life problem which could be seen to have its roots in Japan.

Zen garden 800 x 661

From my personal photos: Ryogen Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto

Silence has many tongues
all untranslatable
I can no longer find you
in the mapping of words

Your silence says everything
and tells me nothing
transparent as a veil, unforgiving as stone
both mute and eloquent
in ambiguity
sealed in the armour
of staying unknown

So hard to know then
what really needs saying
and right now I can’t find the words
but I can search in two possible places

One is my heart
long unable to mend
the other my soul which in daily rebellion
kicks at how language
can’t hold us together
just this silence
which binds us invisibly as surely as love would have
if we’d been able to trust where it took us

So I search in the breaking
which grieves the unfinished
the squandered awakening
the reunion undone

and I still see so clearly
the greater intention
not this fugitive love
which cannot give more than

this silence for silence
which seems like an ending
but is really a listening
a dowsing for stillness
in this landscape of words

And out of the stillness
words rise to the surface
massive like islands
to say what needs saying

They rise up to answer a call from the future
a freshly made country not yet known or mapped out
with the naming of words

It will wait

And how we next meet will find its own way
like a mysterious traveller speaking in tongues
who returns to your doorway delivering a message
steeped in a language vivid with meaning
but which cannot be heard or translated
except by a much larger love

Not yet here