Monday, January 01, 2018

a meeting

I thought ..... it was the hat!

You're smiling!

I might have replied that Kalle was smiling too.

It's been so long. So very long!

Long enough, my friend.

Where had we met? I couldn't bring it to mind. I wanted to refer to something from our past and to see the sly understanding on Kalle's face. But was it that this seemed unnecessary, given the roundness of our grins.... or was it, that I feared some disappointment?

Come and sit here, by me. I don't hear so good these days.

Nor me!

And I must ask you.... but settle yourself first.

Now I looked at him for the first time. The face with its untidy beard, its generosity, its anger. A little wintry. Thinner than in my memory. Perhaps my feelings showed.

I have not been very well. We won't go into that. But I have not been been well.... for rather a long time. My friend. (He smiled at me again.) Are you well?

I dismissed myself with a wave.

As it happens, I am a bit better today.

In illustration of this point Kalle suddenly raised the tips of his elbows like wings, rose from the café table and, ignoring other customers, sang out the words Vi ska ställa till en roliger dans, accompanying himself with dance movements.

His energies exhausted, he sat down abruptly. I applauded, much relieved that the performance had lasted only a single line. Years spent knocking around with Kalle had made me familiar with the song. The chorus crescendo of Hej hopp! would have caused dismay, I thought.

Do you know how it feels, that first morning when you rise and something at last feels right within your breast, and you know you are truly on the mend? Perhaps it will only last a week, or a month... at our age we don't know. But life has returned, something in all its gentle fullness. I felt the gratitiude and the humility -- of Beethoven. You know? For example, I took a shower this morning. In my shower there hangs a fern. ... a potted plant.  And I thought to myself, Ah, how I do love ferns!  Yes! I thought it in all sincerity. Yet the truth is,  in all my life I've never spent two minutes thinking about ferns. I don't even know their names. Even this one in the bathroom, I had nothing to do with it.   

I like ferns too, but yes, I know... it's only with the back of my mind that I notice them. I know some of the names. Not many.

You had better tell me the names of the ferns.

Oh! Well.... maybe when I've mugged up a little, we could --

No. I shall not be interested then. Only now, is the time for naming the ferns.

And indeed, Kalle betrayed no great enthusiasm. As for me, my beetroot flush of pleasure at the incredibly rare experience of actually being invited to talk about something I was interested in, was immediately followed by a complete mental blankness, in which I couldn't remember any names at all, nor even what we were talking about. The sensation was becoming familiar.  It didn't bode well for my idea of taking up teaching.

Ok... well, for example, there is the Hart's-tongue Fern, which has a simple leaf like a pointed tongue, and grows in the wet woods of the south-west. And then, well there's Bracken of course, that's easy to recognize because of the tough smooth stems which elevate the leaves above the ground. Actually they're not really leaves, or stems come to that, but never mind. Erm...  those little ones that grow on walls.... Oh well, how about Polypody? That's a nice fern. Quite small, with simplistic wavy fingers. It grows on logs and things. Oh, there are actually three sorts, I think. Maybe, if I just check on my smartphone....?

NO! commanded Kalle, really alarmed. Please don't, I beg of you. Pardon an old man's vagary.

Yes, of course. Well, let me see.... Ah yes, the Male Fern and the Lady Fern, two common ferns of woodland.

I imagine they differ, Kalle smiled, by the former bearing some sort of appendage.

No, not at all. No appendage. They both look, well,  like normal ferns. Actually they look about the same as each other.

This didn't go down well with Kalle. He buried his head in his hands. No wonder, he said, no-one bothers about ferns.

I mean you can tell the difference, if you look at the underside of the leaf, the shape of the spores....

Kalle was not placated.

So let me get this straight. I find myself in a wood where there are about a thousand ordinary-looking ferns. I turn over the leaf of the nearest fern and I see it is a Man Fern. Good. I look at another fern that is growing ten meters away. It is another Man Fern. I examine a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, and a sixth. They are all Man Ferns. Yet, I say to myself, that still leaves 994 ferns who might be Lady Ferns. Maybe only one in twenty is a Lady. That would still make the Ladies quite common. So I turn over the leaves of another twenty ferns, and then another twenty, and they are all Men. But perhaps the Lady Ferns live all together in a different spot? Perhaps I should hike to the other end of the wood and begin all over again? God, what a wretched existence! What an absolute nightmare!

I had the impression we were done with ferns for the time being.

The sky was a uniform colour, too pale for grey. White with a touch of ash in it, maybe. I kept eyeing the corners of the sky as if searching anxiously for some variation in it. Meanwhile, the street before us was busy with big hard-faced women in puffer-coats, dogs, push-chairs, anxious male halves, men who liked a drink or a bet, naughty boys on scooters, shop-staff outside for a smoke, thin men in trackies, pretty plump girls, young Asian men in near-identical clothes from TopShop, mop-haired students home for the holidays, a Big Issue seller, couples who may have been in love, fat African ladies in headscarfs, three local characters around a colonnade, musicians, sweet smiling girl toddlers resembling their mum, gawky Christians with partings, short-cropped bulky girls with piercings, bodybuilders and runners in lycra revealing too much anatomy.

I couldn't see it any differently. Like every man of my generation, my conceptions were veined with sexism and racism. My reason and my beliefs were better than that, they were quite up to the mark, I thought. But my eyes! They were unregenerate. And how did I see Kalle? First and foremost, as a foreign man. That meant many things to me, most of them positive. But the fact was, I stereotyped him.

A man came by picking up litter with a grabber. Everyone had a reason to be here. It was all a comprehensible pattern. But I never took any notice of it, usually.

Nature, said Kalle, doesn't want us to know its names.

People who say that are usually about to justify dirty fuels or hacking down a rainforest.

I spoke more sharply than I intended, because I was feeling so disgusted with myself. Kalle, however, was not offended.

I am not talking about science. I am not putting a blot on the great Linnaeus.

Relieved, I found myself smiling again.

I mean only this. Those who live closer to nature, people of instinct as you may say, are careful about revealing their names. They know that a name can be like a photograph and gives away some power to the one who knows it. On the other hand you, my friend, would tell your name to anyone, with relish! For you pursue fame.  But nature is unobtrusive.

And once again, I blessed Kalle's hat. How lonely, I thought, my life has become.


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