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such small mercies

 

It’s five a.m., and the skies have opened up. Once again. The rain pounds and thunders on the rooftops, on the cars parked outside, on the road and pavements. If I didn’t know better, I’d say St. Peter had sent us a deluge of, well, pebbles and gravel. That’s how it sounds. But no. I stare out of the window, looking for the day that somehow isn’t yet breaking, though only last week it could already be seen blushing above the eastern horizon — and all I see is water. Water. Liquid, determined, insistent, persistent, coming out in sheets after sheets, solid-looking curtains of silvery metal rods that somehow disintegrate on first contact. Pooling a bit everywhere. Hurrying down the street. Over the pavements. And if it goes on like this, everything will be waterlogged. Everything. Including my life. Which, right now, seems to be just about nose-above-surface. And it’s only just August. Still only August.

Silently, I drag a chair over, the best I can, nearer to the window. Still gazing out of it, I pull the lace curtain aside and catch it up on the wall tieback. I want to have an unimpeded view from where I am sitting. I shiver. Suddenly. For no reason. It’s nice and dry and warm inside the house. But I am wondering how cold that rain is. Shouldn’t it be warm, seeing that it’s supposedly still summer? But do I really want to venture outside? Just to find out…? Haven’t I before? And on a morning like this? 

True that I’m only up this early because I wanted to go for a little walk. Just the 50 yards down the road, to the children’s park. See what the trees and what’s left of the hedgerows have been up to, or whether they’ve further succumbed to the intractable and inexplicable stupidity of our ruling councils. Just like I wanted last evening, when He-herder came home. But not with the rain, now. Just like not with the rain yesterday. It seems to be some sort of fate or ill-luck. And right on schedule, every time. Every single blessed time I make plans to go out with DigiGirl. Who is not fond of rain at all, understandably: it does not agree with her electronic bones. And then, the fact is that cold and damp does not agree with my bones either, and I fear that going out in this will make the aches and pains and the stiffness worse than it already is. And I don’t need that. After all, it’s only just August.

I like this sound though. Almost chaotic, when considered in it wholeness. There isn’t one rhythm only, but several, simultaneous, and sometimes it is only one that seems to come to the foreground and allow you to follow it; and then sometimes it is another. With time, you learn to identify the different sounds and rhythms of the rain falling on the roof, the porch, the patio, all of them. How it falls. Where it falls. Its strength, its volume. Which way the wind is blowing. And it is thus that the rain brings back the comfort of the known, of the recognised, of some measure — even if only slightly — of familiarity to you.

 

I always stayed out playing far longer than I should. Always. Child that I was, and a lively, curious and mischievous one at that, the outdoors seemed to offer a myriad things I had never seen, never had before. And so it had fast become a privileged learning ground, as well as a fascinating, adventurous setting for all my flights of imagination. Except when it were spiders we were talking about, but by that age I had already learned how to avoid them quite successfully. And in the last resort, there was always the good old climb onto something and scream your lungs out. Everything else was fine with me, even those critters that other girls were apparently quite squeamish about: mice, rats, moles, snakes, frogs, toads, lizards, geckos, salamanders — you name it, everything fascinated me.

But the one most valuable thing my new village life was affording me were companions to play with, even though they were only the street urchins who so infuriated Nan every time they came about, hanging outside the door, calling me to go play with them. And even if it was only playing marbles or racing bottle caps or spinning tops along the pavement down the front of our house, or, the best one of all, rolling bike rims down our sloping street, the seemingly disappearing metal ring connecting to little flesh arms, thin and tanned by the outdoors life, by the almost invisible tether of a rickety wire. How we run. Furiously. Such great fun. Our thin, bony legs trying to catch the rings’ speed. If the wire were to hold it back, the ring would twirl and turn and collapse, and we’d lose the race.

And always the It’s not proper for a young lady to play with street kids. And those are boy’s games. And it’s not proper for a young lady to be seen playing boy’s games either. Who could this young lady be? I hadn’t seen any other girl playing with the boys. But I answered Yes, Nan in any case, and then returned to the play. It was… exhilarating. Irresistible. I still have with me the sensation of the wind in my face as I ran with all my might down the street, its freshness contrasting with the fire increasingly burning inside my lungs as I ran and ran, and tried to match the boys speed.

Soon I learned to control my breathing so that my chest hurt less, and my legs ran faster. But I never got my own so-dreamed-of bicycle rim and wire, never mind how many times I asked, so that I could race my own instead of having to borrow all the time. Those were prized possessions, and the boys always wanted something in return for the “borrowing”: marbles, bottle caps, coloured pencils, a peak under my skirts, kisses; and each go on somebody else’s rim was getting dearer and dearer every time. The skirts thing was easily sorted with a pair of shorts, but I was at a loss as to what to do about the kisses thing. It became a real, serious, huge problem: my tab was becoming a tad too high, and the boys were beginning to demand payment in kind.

Then one day the boys disappeared. They didn’t come that day, or next, or the next, or yet the next. Or the whole week. Or the week after. It wasn’t until months later, when we got to talk over the school wall, that I found out Auntie had been to talk to their parents, who then made them go hang around and race their rims somewhere else.

Soon too summer was coming to an end, and I, now returned to my mostly solitary explorations, still stayed out far longer than what I knew I was allowed. True that I had strict instructions, had had them all summer too: if those horrible boys come around, come back inside immediately, do you hear me?

Or if the sun becomes too hot, you’re not to stay out in it, do you hear?, just look for the shade of a tree, under the pergola, or come back inside the house… and never take your hat off, do you hear?

Or yet if it starts drizzling, you come back in immediately, you hear?, all that damp isn’t good for the bones

But my skin loved the sun, its hot caress, and drank it in amazing quantities. I could stay out in the sun with any of the half naked village urchins without ever getting sunburn. Soon my rosy pink had turned to a lovely golden brown, the length of my sleeves and the legs of my shorts clearly marked against my forearms and thighs.

The same with the rain, which I loved when it started falling on my bare shoulders and arms, while I ran and twirled and danced as if I had lost my little confused mind. As for the village urchins? They could now stay as long as they wanted, and as long as nobody realised they were there: we had found a secluded enough place at the bottom of the valley, and we’d retire to hidden corners and talk in nearly inaudible whispers. We couldn’t race rims, but there was an infinity of games we could — and did! — play. For the first time I had not been completely alone, playing games with only my imagination for company, under the scrutiny of some well-intended but unimaginative and prejudice-ridden adult. I was only five or six, can’t have been older than that. It was the summer I was dumped on at the village, to live with my Gran and Great Aunt and Uncle.

And then autumn had finally come, and with it a different, more constant rain. It did not drop on your skin with pregnant, rhythmic drops, but in a constant, uninterrupted pattern. The time it took to run to the back door was enough for your braid and your blouse to get soaked to the core, and dipping all around the floors. The village kids had disappeared with the first autumnal shower, and I had had no choice but to resume solitary play within walls, a space that I considered absolutely sterile and uninteresting, by comparison with the outdoors and all the marvels nature — and the unexpected company — had to offer me. I had resumed my reading lessons, and had eventually been allowed on my own on the upstairs living rooms, among the china, the linens and the books. And uncle’s things, which I was not supposed to touch.

Encased within three feet deep adobe and pebble walls, I had finally found other things to marvel at. Rain and its sound had been one of them. The silence in those rooms was amazing. And so were the acoustics. The ceiling lining was very thin, and that little space was where the singing of the clay tiles under the rain began to echo and gain body — and it then erupted into the living room, bouncing from wall to wall. Sitting on the slate window seats, my bum skillfully perched on a pile of old pillows, wrapped around head to toes in some woollen blanket stolen from the bed and unthinkingly, automatically reciting the alphabet and the times tables, became one of my favourite things. I could stop my recitation any time and listen to some dissonant, discording rain drop hitting this specific tile at a different angle and making this extraordinary sound… All together, it was like a song. A symphony. And I was safe. Safe and warm and comfortable and cocooned… and doing my own thing… and the rain, the rain, the sounds of the rain drops falling on things, everywhere, were the soundtrack to all that. It was almost as if they were dropping on my bare skin: at times, I could almost swear one had done just that; I’d pass my hand over my shoulder expecting to find it splashed, and I’d find nothing there. To this day, the sound of rain brings me comfort and relaxation. It somehow takes me back to those days, no matter that the the walls are thin, the slate seat is now an armchair, and the song is now so different. Amazingly too, it can still lull me to sleep like nothing else will. We are definitely made by all our experiences as children.

 

This raindrop symphony has got nothing to do with those of my childhood, those that still live in my memories. Yet another thing mass production has cheated us of. The terracotta tiles on the old farmhouse roof were just that, clay worked by hand into slabs and then laid over cylindrical moulds in order to dry out in the sun, before being fired. They were of a varying thickness and length, even if just by millimetres, and they had a host of imperfections. Apart from that, they were made from clay from different quarries, with slightly varying geological makeups. I can’t be far from the truth when saying that there really weren’t any two alike. Especially in a two-hundred-and-fifty-year-old-roof, which must have seen so many repairs as for Nan and Auntie to lose count.

That is why they sang so differently, so individually, as if they were human voices: because there weren’t any two alike. And moreover, because the rain didn’t hit them always at the same angle. Except when there were stormy showers: then, the tile song was constant, unchanged, no hidden patterns, no disparate notes or assonances or dissonances or cacophonies, a melody finally patterned, each tile singing its same, constant note, the sudden deluge suddenly whooshing from the gutters and down the pipes at rhythmic intervals. It’s a symphony with much less interest though. But had I been able to write music back then, and surely I would have written their symphony too. And yes, I was that weird and geeky a child: but isn’t it good to now have such a good place of refuge?

There’s no individuality in these modern roof tiles, and that is why the song is so constant and monotonous. Listening to it, I can no longer feel the raindrops landing on my bare shoulders. And I no longer have that overwhelming wish I used to have grabbing and pulling me from the inside, whispering to me to go out in it and dance, dance my hours away. All I feel now is an unpleasant sensation of getting soggy and cold, and this deep wish that I could have all that summer rain back, and my village cobbled roads — and maybe be five-years-old again — to go out in it unthinkingly, and dance. It still lulls me to sleep though, even if only out of boredom now, and not from being slowly rocked into the land of nod by their melodically unpatterned song. At least that. So let us be grateful for such small mercies.

 

Still wondering how cold the rain might be, like this, of an early morning in a truly English, August summer day, I let the curtains back down and drag the chair slowly to its original place. Man and the cat persons are still fast asleep: far too early for them, though Marmie woke up and sniffed the air inquisitively, as if it could tell him what I was up to. Satisfied that there was no place on my lap to accommodate his humongous size, he had turned around and curled up to sleep on top of the duvet again.

As I turn around to go fetch myself the first cup of coffee of my morning, I reflect saddened that my misbehaving biology has deprived me of even that simple a thing as walking — and dancing and madly singing — under the summer rain, even if by some miracle I were to have it all back again: those summers, those showers, that hillside to run madly up and down, as if things would always stay the same. And my old people. My old people and those walls, most of all.

The rain song still lulls me to sleep though, even in all its modernity of adulterated, deeply unsatisfying but domesticated, tamed and compliant form. Even if only out of boredom now, and not from being slowly rocked into the land of nod by the tiles’ unpatterned, melodic singing. But at least that. A small thing, and not the same as before, but still precious. Almost as precious as the memories it now invariably triggers. So let us be truly grateful for such small but Oh! so glowing mercies.

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