Thursday, August 21, 2008

The pied piper of ghosts

A quiet little miracle happened on the 5th of august. No one saw it.

The meeting in Blantyre finishes early. I phone the driver to collect me, but a solemn voice in the phone says 'your credit is low. please load talk time.' So I walk up the road to find talk time. This road, so familiar, so embedded in my cellular memory. At first, I'm walking towards the petrol station on Chileka road. The one opposite Brereton drive, which leads towards my old school. But I find a lady selling talk time at the side of the road. We exchange greetings, then names, then stories, as one does in Malawi, with complete strangers. I have talk time now. I should phone the driver to fetch me, meet with the photographer, plan our next move. Have coffee. But some spirit has taken over my legs. My legs are remembering being 16 years old, fuelled by a saturday morning trip to town, returning to the hostel.

Now-self, responsible and anxious about the workload: Er, excuse me where are you going, we have work to do.
Other self, urgent and striding. Shhh. This is important. I have something important to do. We have time. Its at least 3 hours til your next meeting. No-one will miss you.
Now-self: yes but
That self: Shhh. Just let me do this.
Now-self: Can't you just let it be? It won't be the same. Just let the memories be memories. Don't -
Shaddup, says the other me. Just shhush.
Noisy head sushes. Looks at my feet. My dusty black shoes that look like school shoes. How many times did we walk this, me and my girls, long legs, short legs, lazy legs, slow with the heat of the tarmac, pregant with ambition, all of us. The dried brown stumps of grass clinging to the grey dust. The old red brick of the Blantyre mission to the left. The battered black sign with white writing, probably been there since the 70's. Its a curious kind of meditation now, and I let myself be there, taking it all in. The tyre repair man on the side of the road with the sign saying 'Plumbing. Funsa pano'. I am here. But I am also there. 18 years ago when I last walked this stretch of road. I know the petrol station that will appear on top of the rise is not an Oilcom anymore its a Petroda. But the majestic old Anglican cathedral where we used to take the shortcut, past the cemetery filled with long dead Scots, is still the same.

Ego-head is complaining again - 'this is silly. its indulgent.' Shush. My legs are powered by something else, following the well worn grooves in the dust. I have to do this. What? What is it you have to do? I have to go and get something. Retrieve. Someone.

The sign is the same flat smug blue it ever was, except now it says Saint Andrews International School, instead of Secondary School. Too late now. You can't turn back now theres the old staff houses didn't I spend a night there with some family after it happened? Images are downloading slowly, foggily, but theres a welling up of something very ancient and familiar in my chest, my blood. Its dread.

The gates smack me with that dry throat feeling. I'm not going to go in. Just peer in from the outside, thats all. That's enough. I tell the guard - I'm just - goiung to look. Sure. He doesn't care. I go in. There's the library, the history block. New labels - modern languages. Aint that fancy. Aah, the parking lot, where I first arrived with nervous family in the rattly old short wheel based landcruiser, all awkward in my blue checks at 12 years old, terror nesting in my belly where my parents can't see it. I'm going to walk boldly towards the main entrance like I did the day I came back to write my A-levels, defiant and with something to prove. But I see someone walking down from the boys hostel and I panic, take a short right down, past the maths block, ducking down the stairs to the field.

Empty field. The school is deserted, of course, it's holidays. But my ears are full of clamour and I see little scrawny legs in yellow tshirts doing the hurdles, the faded limewashed stripes powdery on the dried winter grass. I hear war cries. I see me and Foy, sitting on a concrete bench, sharing gossip and advice and tender friendship. My heart is literally thudding in my ears. I take a deep breath and talk to her - 'its ok. its ok, i'm here. you will never need to be an athlete. you will never need to play good tennis. it will be fine. i know its horrible now, its humiliating. they tease you. you're crap at hockey. but it really doesn't matter.
I could swear she's listening. That terrified 13 yr old who 'had her period' 3 out of 4 weeks a month, just to get out of swimming.

Suddenly I am calm. I realise just how deserted the grounds are, and that's ok, this is right. This is what I came to do.

I'm walking next to her. It's the strangest sensation. I'm comforting her. Not the ghost of her, the actual her. I've called her back to me. The girl who used to hide at the bottom of the guava trees by the cross country course. She who had to stay behind and prove something. That she was a good girl.

Times slides into itself, turns inside out.
For a brief glimpse,
for a long stretch,

I am her.
I feel it in the itchy awkwardness of my growing dangly arms. In the tight terror in my chest, the what will they think of me sweaty palms. But as I walk, past the changing room steps and the tennis courts towards the scout hut, I am suddenly comforted. I am dimly aware of a presence at my right shoulder. An older, wiser, calmer presence. Like a big sister or an angel, whispering to me that it will be ok, reminding me that i have a bigger, longer life than all of this.

The swimming pool, where battles were lost and won, where hearts blossomed with pride, and one very cheeky night we went skinny dipping with boys.

Spooled out, split off, merged, we are side by side. Its real magic. Not Harry Potter.

Past the 6th form common room, to the bottom field, where I would take solace by the white limbed bluegums. They are taller, more solid, but they speak the same whispering clacketty language. I see her lying on her back, listening to Bruce Springsteen on her yellow walkman. That year, when all the tuckshop gang friends had flown the happy crowd and gone to other schools, other lives.

Backtrack, back past the pool where Tom knocked out his tooth and won the Victor Lodorum for swimming and I realised too late I wanted to still be his girl. Back up the steps, and now the real confrontation. The hostels. I peer into the dining room, site of grey meals and jostline hungry boys. Gulp,over the threshold, past the surgery where you got the sick note for sports. Through the common room, the phone that brought crackly moments of home. Vipya dorm, Zomba dorm.

The lockers, where I got the news, late at night. "They've done a spot check, they found your bed empty, you have to go and see Mr Garbett NOW."
First Offence, the time the gate padlock was left open and we leapt out of the room in the boys hostel where we were doing homework (Serious! We were doing homework. Ok, so we had gin as well, but we were, we were sharing books...)

What fun to discover that Nina's room key at home could open the front door of the hostel. Key MC9 or some such secret number of freedom.

The hostel is too much for me. My throat closes with oppression, with the sticky smell of 200 girls living in close confinement, the fights, the bitchiness. I am heading towards my old room, but I hear someone around the corner and I turn to go. I don't want to see anyone. I am a ghost, operating through the folds of time, I can't converse. I don't go to the bottom dorm, the first dorm, where I wet my bed and spent nights trying to turn the sheets around so that they wouldn't be spotted inmorning inspection. Or the flat next door, where the Second Offence took place. Where Tom and I sat up til dawn, resolving our old hurts before he took off for Holland the next day, Expelled.

Aaah, they were picking us off one by one by then.

But I do go to the Art Block. Scene of the Third and Final Offence. Where I was courier of a small half jack of brandy, purchased by someone in the Art class the day of the Zomba field trip. Handed over to one of the Tuckshop Gang, discreetly, but not discreetly enough. I peer in.

Ghost in the window.

I stand very still and call them back to me. The fragments of old me, torn off and floating round the corridors. I am the Pied Piper to my ghost selves. They have flocked around me and are following me now, out the gates, down the road, towards the rest of my life.

Postscript - please don't misconstrue - reading this post may give you the impression that I was permanently sad, lost and abandoned at school. Not true. We had wild joyful times. We had keys, we had accomplices, we had volumes of fun. I had to leave suddenly, prematurely, and so this little bit of soul retrieval was entirely necessary. I am so very glad I went to this crazy, co-ed, multinational, rollicking school of mischief, and that of all the friendships I formed there, some are still alive, some are dormant, some recently reawakened.


Miranda said...

Ah, Tam. I am lost for words. Love this post. Love love love it. I cried. Great pics...bloody weird man!

macjanet said...

So lovely. So haunting. Hot listless memories, half grasped, half remembered, completely vibratingly alive. Bought back floods of my earlier years, even though they were so different.

tam said...

thank you so much, both of you. You are very kind. It was a day to remember - in both senses of the word, I guess. And it was amazing the difference it made to my energy - as i left I full more full, more real, more alive. huh.

I'm waiting for your blog, MacJanet

Val said...

tammy this is awesome writing; really lovely. It is strangely surreal to walk in past footsteps - did a bit of that once and felt time in layers all happening at once; its good i think....
love the ghost in the window pic!

Chimera said...

This is a magical (Not Harry Potter..more Angela Carter) post. I hold your hand going back on that ghost tour. I couldn't even go into the buildings of my old school last year when i was nearby. I can't even breathe properly when I see the name of the village as i drive past in the bus. And like you..I wasn't always sad..but it did break soemthing inside which is still in need of healing.
Lovely lovely post me girl.
T xxx
Definately need to meet up with you and the girlz. I am going to try and finagle a loan and come and find you.

pam said...

Tam - beautiful evocative writing and yes, sort of surreal - memories put together in a heartbreakingly stunning way with incredible pics to go with them. I just loved reading this

david mcmahon said...

G'day from Australia,

I was told I simply had to come here and read your post.

It's a top read. Well done.

tam said...

Wow thanks for all the positive feedback.
Val, I remember sitting at some Everard Read exhib after this, and telling you blow by blow about how I got 'kicked out' of school, and Pam, you were the best the way you went and tuned the fat men in charge at the time.
Tan - thankyou. I don't think its something you can just go and do. I never intended it, it really just happened, things lined up and sort of took me there...
David Mcmahon - G'day! I'm honoured, thank you so much.

CrazyCath said...

What brilliant, soulful and inspiring writing. I am glad you clarified at the end too as I was afraid of some catastrophe. There may have been one to cut your days there short - I hope not - but you have evoked such memories in my mind...

Thank you for sharing. I came via David's.

tam said...

Thanks Crazycath! There was something of a catastrophe, or at least a gradual accumulation of small ones. Another post, another time.

Deb said...

I wandered over here from authorblog - and am so glad that I did. Powerful writing - and in some ways I could relate - even though our experiences in life seem so different. My belly was in knots as I read - and I look forward to reading more of your posts. Enjoy your day!

Miss Understood said...

Wow. You painted that like a picture. It was amazing.

Anonymous said...

What a compelling read. Your words pulled me through the story -- fearing disaster -- as your past pulled you through the school. Very well done. When you retrieved your lost selves, you retrieved mine as well.

David has featured this post as one of his top links of the day.

tam said...

Thanks Deb, I also look forward to reading more of yours.
Miss Understood - I like the look of yours, especially the snail dance.
And quill dancer - how do you do it? You seem to have such a lot of activity at your spot.

Thanks all of you for your very kind comments. I was happy to share this strange little morning with you.

Dominic said...

Great writing ... Though I only vaguely remember you and though I left before you and though I was a privileged boy and did not know the confines and restrictions imposed on the girls other than the 5 pm sadness of seeing them locked away, I really enjoyed your writing and part of me wishes I was in that Tuck shop gang and perhaps even that I was Tom!