Tuesday 28 August 2007

Real Life

Once upon a time, there was a king and a queen. They lived in a castle in a kingdom in a land far away. One day they decided to have a child and sure enough the queen soon had a little baby princess and everyone was very happy. And they called the princess Princess Pink

We are enjoying the last days of the holidays, without papers and television news updates, in the watery heat of the summer’s end. I look out from my favourite vantage point above the back garden. My wife is reading at the green metal table, while my daughter plays next to her in the paddling pool, sunlight flickering on its silvery surface. The hosepipe lies nearby. Earlier I had pointed out a rainbow in the fine spray, sliding into the flowerbed. “Look, there it is! Can you see it?” “In real life is there a rainbow?” my daughter asked. She is very keen to work out what is real and what is not nowadays. “Yes, in real life I said. “Oh yes! I see it!” she replied, beaming.

But soon the queen became ill and the king was sad and all the subjects were sad too. The finest physicians in the land tried to find a cure but they couldn’t. So the king took care of Princess Pink. And in return she slept in a little basket next to him every night and kept the sadness away.

I’m not near enough to smell the sun lotion, but I can sense it. The splashing and the singing and the giggling I can hear. I look at her playing and I can see she’s happy, or at least not unhappy. But I worry she’ll not be as happy later, on her own. It doesn’t matter now, of course. To everyone else it might seem that a brother or sister could come along. Many of her friends have them already. But it is unlikely to happen. I know that. And I hope she won’t mind. I’ll explain one day and I know she’ll understand. As for me, later on in the day she makes me happier than she could ever know. Just by lying there asleep against me, story books scattered on the floor, her light breathing matching mine.

In the end, a clever wizard came to the kingdom and he found the cure for the queen. She returned to live with the king and Princess Pink in their castle and got better over the years until she was the same old happy queen. But the king never forgot what Princess Pink did for him and he always tried to keep the sadness away for her too.

Monday 13 August 2007


It’s bedtime, in fact past bedtime, as usual, and my daughter lies in her little bed beneath her little duvet with little fairies embroidered on it. I have kissed her good night and moved next door to the room with the computer. There is a bit of rustling and then I hear her voice, clear and steady.

If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands!

Slowly, then quickly …

If you’re happy and you know it, andyoureallywanttoshowit,ifyou’rehappyandyouknowitclapyourhands!

Verse after verse of clapping hands, stamping feet, being happy.

Does it mean she’s happy? I think so. I’d like to think so. Does she know what happiness is? Do any of us? Is feeling loved happiness? Knowing someone else you love feels loved? I know that I am happy, listening to her at that moment.

Did the sad boy in the photo sing contentedly to himself as he fell asleep at night? I hope he did, at one time. I asked my mother who he was and she said she thought he was her half-brother. You can imagine he might have been a little sad, if you know the story. You can imagine she might have been sad if you know the story. Her father, one moment here, the next on a different continent. Then with a different family. There was a lot of sadness around, in those days. You were lucky if you weren’t gripped by it. You took happiness where you could find it; in small things, in minor, everyday, joys.

The singing has tailed off into thumb-sucking. A couple of moments later I peer through the doorway and her thumb has slipped from her lips. Her head is in profile, as if in silent communication with the gaggle of soft toys. The pillow is splashed by her milky-coffee curls. She looks content, serene; asleep in her little, happy, world.

Friday 3 August 2007

Family Gold

A few years ago my great aunt gave me a little black and white photograph, in a mottled brass frame. It shows a boy in dungarees, about three or four years old, standing with his hands to his face, looking contemplative and a little sad and lonely. Yes, that’s me, I thought when she handed it over. I wondered where and when it was taken and treasured this little link to my past. A few years later my mother told me that it wasn’t in fact me, but a relation. “I didn’t want to tell you before” she said, and seeing that I looked downcast “I thought you might be a little upset”. That’s how secrets start, I thought. But in fact it’s a bit of a relief. There’s something about the child all alone with that worried look. I wonder what happened to him and if he still has that expression.

My great aunt was Polish and lived in a creaky house in Fulham, long after her husband, an artist who had survived time in a gulag, had died. I used to stay there from time to time when I was between flats. In a little self-contained apartment downstairs that had a 1960s kitchen with formica cabinets, a fridge that smelled of fridge and a cooker with a grill pan that slotted in at the top. I would go upstairs to eat with her and sit in her own little kitchen while she told me about her past and how much I looked like her brother. She was in her seventies then but she seemed much younger, and we chatted like friends. She would offer me gin and tonic in a grimy glass and cheese straws from a big square tin that were probably as old as their container. I would wander around the studio containing all my great uncle’s paintings, creaking across the shiny parquet floor and leaning down to look at the sun-faded spines of his old books, layered on shelves.

Eventually she became ill and moved somewhere she could be looked after. The house was sold and is probably a banker’s palace now, with slate bathrooms and recessed lighting. Although she died before my daughter was born, shortly before her death she gave me the gold coin she had brought with her when she first came to this country as a refugee. It was her emergency money, and she had carried it deep in her clothing. She told me it was for my daughter. Wrapped in a little cloth it still shines warmly, the eagle gazing out imperiously and proudly.