Sorry, Scribe Doll is snowed under with work.
Wind-swept, East of England skies. Shapeshifting clouds. Swirls of white puff that stretch into mountains, curl into castles, swell into dragons, rise into chariots, then metamorphose into angels. Skies mottled with lead-grey, steel-grey, velvet grey with undertones of purple, shades of pink, hints of blue and glints of gold. Ever-changing skies. Skies so big, they come all the way down to your feet.
Elms that rise proud against the sky, copper beeches that glow in the afternoon sun, weeping willows swaying by the river, oaks – hundred of years old – that stand strong against the hurricanes. Trees that have witnessed generations parade before them. Trees with stories full of magic to tell, if you would listen.
Winds that howl in the night, winds that rattle wooden window frames, gales that push against you as you struggle to walk up the street. Winds that tear off scaffoldings. Passionate, exhilarating winds that stir your soul.
The river that rushes beneath your favourite bridge. The bridge that overhears your secrets you whisper to the river. The river, that washes away your worries and to which you confide your dreams.
Autumns of scarlet, ocher and gold. Springs bursting white pink and white blossoms.
Contrasts. Passion. Change. Light. Colour.
The news of the Red Room closing down reached me at a time when I especially feel the need for continuity and something solid under my feet.
I am preparing for my fourth house move in eighteen months. A few close friends and family members are going through very challenging times. Challenging. Challenge. I hate these words. This isn’t a sporting event, or a job interview, or a Power Point presentation, so let’s call a spade a spade. These friends and family members are having serious problems. There. Problems. No point in putting a positive spin on it. Positive. Another word that makes me wince. Let’s use happy, instructive, fortuitous, optimistic, or any other specific, meaningful adjective and leave the insipid positive to blood groups and polarities.
But I digress.
So, on the morning of 4th July, I dragged myself out of bed after an almost sleepless night full of worries and a draining sense of powerlessness. Sipping my lemon juice and warm water, I switched on my laptop, checked my e-mails and saw Ivory Madison’s message about the Red Room becoming part of Wattpad, and going offline on 8th July. As you can perhaps imagine, coming on top of every other instability, the news made me feel as though I was standing on a boat that had suddenly been rocked by a wave.
The Red Room is closing. Slap!
Closing down in four days‘ time. Slap!
This isn’t happening.
Is there anything stable in my life?
Four days‘ notice to migrate to Wattpad. Slap!
Four days only?! What are they thinking?! Where’s the fire?
What the hell’s Wattpad, anyway?
I stood up and walked to the French window in the living room. After a day of glorious sunlight, the Brussels sky had recovered its customary bleakness. I felt oppressed by greyness. Sun. I need sun. I need colour. Light.
I switched on Radio Klara and the light, colourful notes of Baroque music breathed life into the living room.
Meanwhile, my brain was trying to process the information received and its consequences. A list ran through my mind of all the people whose blogs I regularly read on the Red Room. Wonderful writers whose thoughts, whether in prose or poetry, have inspired me, encouraged me, given me joy, provoked thoughts, made me laugh, taught me and – in a way – gradually made a better person out of me. People whose writings have broadened my horizons. I thought of these women and men. The one with a subtle, wise and deeply humane outlook. The one with the fierce intelligence and the courage to expose the harshest realities. The one whose zany stories make me giggle out loud. The one who describes food and smells in a way that touches your every sense. The one who doesn’t balk at describing pain and trauma in raw detail, yet keeps a sense of the goodness of the world. The one who takes you travelling – often on foot – to magical lands. The one who captures the seemingly most insignificant human story and turns it into a microcosm of warm-hearted humanity. The one who writes poetry that touches the heart with the clean, innocent touch of a child’s heart. The one who writes elegant verses that bewitch you. The one who entrances you with sophisticated poetry and fascinating historical figures. The one who drops brain-stretching non-sequiturs. The one who weaves words and music into a harmony of colours and sounds. The one who – but I cannot list them all. My yet un-met friends. That’s what I realised. Even though I have never met them, over the past couple of years since I joined the Red Room, many of us have become friends.
Suddenly, my plans for the day were capsized by the need to do everything I could to keep contact with these un-met friends. I checked whose personal e-mail addresses I already had, and exchanged them with others. I tried to find out if anybody published their blog anywhere else besides the Red Room and immediately subscribed to it or bookmarked the site. I noticed many other Redroomers were doing the same thing. Rushing to exchange contact details, thanking one another, sharing sadness at the closure of the Red Room, saying goodbye, expressing hopes of meeting again, on new roads, in new lands.
My heartfelt thanks go to Huntington Sharp and Jennifer Kathleen Gibbons for the kind retweets and generous Editors‘ Picks, and to everyone else at the Red Room for creating a unique writing community that has meant a great deal to me – perhaps more than I had realised until now.
And, of course, my gratitude goes to all the writers who have shared their prose and poetry, and read and commented on my scribblings.
Please, let us keep in touch.
To quote Robin Goodfellow,
“So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends”
The journey from Norwich to London was supposed to take two hours. It took a little over four. When we left Norwich, all seemed on schedule. Then they got us to leave the train and wait on the platform in the cold East of England wind. By the time we got loaded back on, the Abellio Greater Anglia train company had somehow managed to squeeze three trainloads of passengers onto one (if animals were to travel like that the European Union would probably intervene).
Next to me, a young woman, apparently impervious to the discomfort of close physical proximity to her fellow passengers, pulls on a ball of wool at the bottom of her tote bag on the floor as far as the thread will reach, and resumes crocheting. I’m not sure whether to get irritated by the space – already reduced by circumstances – she lays claim to, or admire her refusal to have her plans altered. I stare at the purple and orange egg-shaped dome forming between her fast-moving fingers. Is it a future baby mitten? Or an aspiring sock? Leaning against the gangway wall opposite me, H. is absorbed in a volume of Georges Simenon. I wonder if I have enough room to open my Donna Leon novel and hold it far enough for my long-sighted eyes to focus on the print. My reading glasses are in my rucksack, and there’s definitely not enough space to turn around and take it off my back.
I ask if delays are usual on this line. Heads nod, long suffering. The tall, youngish man on my right has earphones plugged into his ears. “Are you listening to the match?” I ask.
“Yes, do you want the score?”
“Belgium’s just scored.” He looks around, as though checking for anyone who might be listening. “I’ve probably spoilt it for everybody else now.”
A slim, elderly lady with a short, blonde, spiky haircut with a shock of pink, overhears. “Are you Belgian?” she asks.
“No, but we’re currently living in Brussels. Have you been there?”
She shakes her head, while the man nods, saying he’s been there once, briefly.
“It’s quirky,” I tell them. “Fantastic Trappist monk ale.”
The train stops in the middle of the countryside. Are we in Essex or Suffolk? There’s an announcement on the loudspeaker but it’s too faint to hear.
“Excuse me… Excuse me…” A very young man wearing glasses, in train company uniform, edges through the crowd. I tell him we can’t hear the announcements. He nods and says that’s what he’s here for. He steps over people’s bags, feet and bodies and finally reaches the staff cubicle to make an announcement. This time, it can be heard loud and clear over our heads. We’re informed that there’s a broken down train ahead of us, and we can’t move until that’s been removed. Sadly, though, nobody has any idea when that will happen. Then he fights his way to the buffet and brings out a large bagful of small bottles of still water. They get passed around. I hand one to H. “Aren’t you thirsty?” he asks, offering it to me. “Yes, but there’s no room to get to the loo, afterwards,” I say.
The train moves. A man in a suit wants to get past me, and I squash myself against the wall to let him through. He says he needs to get off at the next stop. No sooner does he speak than the train slows down and grinds to a halt.
The man with the earphones turns out to be a book illustrator. He often travels from Norwich to London and says such delays are not infrequent. “Oh, so that’s why Norwich rents are so low,” I say.
He says the train company has received funding for new trains which will travel a lot faster. The only problem is that no funding has been received yet to upgrade the rails. So the fast new trains will have to go slowly, anyway, since they can’t whizz on the old rails.
The train starts again.
The lady with the shock of pink hair asks me about Bruges. I tell her it’s beautiful but that she should also visit Ghent. “How they brought the good news from Ghent to Aix,” says the man in the suit. “Or is it from Aix to Ghent?”
The illustrator and I stare at each other for a second, trying to remember. I don’t recognise the quotation. The lady with the shock of pink hair thinks it’s “from Ghent to Aix”.
I turn to H. “That’s one for you.”
He looks up from his book. “‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix‘ – Robert Browning.”
The train reaches the next station, and the man in the suit gets off, saying goodbye to us.
The illustrator slides his finger in the screen of his smartphone. “Here it is. ‘How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix’.”
He hands his phone to the lady with the shock of pink hair. She reads:
I sprang to the stirrup, and Joris, and he:
I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three;
‘Good speed!’ cried the watch, as the gate-bolts undrew;
‘Speed!’ echoed the wall to us galloping through;
Behind shut the postern, the lights sank to rest,
And into the midnight we galloped abreast.
I feel my knees have locked after hours of leaning against the wall. Outside the train, the East Anglian countryside is flooded by a magenta sunset. The train speeds up. We listen to the lady with the shock of pink hair.
And all I remember is, friends flocking round
As I sat with his head ‘twixt my knees on the ground;
And no voice but was praising this Roland of mine,
As I poured down his throat our last measure of wine,
Which (the burgess voted by common consent)
Was no more than his due who brought good news from Ghent.
Outside the train, it’s now dark. The train pulls into London Liverpool Street. We say goodbye to our fellow passengers. Everybody smiles. “It was really nice meeting you,” we all say.
In the heart of bas Saint-Gilles, the cobbles of Le Parvis are lined on both sides with cafés, brasseries and a couple of Moroccan cake shops. Tables are put outside at the first glimmer of elusive Brussels sunshine. People sit drinking beer or coffee and smoking until late in the evening. Some bring babies in prams, fast asleep to the lullaby of human chatter, traffic noise and music. I like it that the Bruxellois consider going out for a drink as a family occasion.
On the corner between Le Parvis, the police station and the church of Saint Gilles, stands the Brasserie Verschueren. When there is no more space on the pavement right outside, tables and chairs spill out across the street, under the swaying acacia trees, at the foot of the eclectic style stone church. Something about people drinking beer and smoking by the steps of the church seems to humanise the stern building and make it more of the world.
At one of the tables under an acacia tree, a young man with blonde hair and beard is sipping a lager, his attention and thumbs on his smartphone. Every so often, he reads a message on the display screen, laughs with visible delight, raises his head to look around, self-conscious and, for a few seconds, watches the passing cars. Then he looks down at his phone again, and starts tapping a message.
Further along, in the blazing afternoon sunshine, a group of thirty-somethings. The men are wearing T-shirts with writing across the chest. One of them smooths a square of cigarette paper, licks the edge, then arranges a pinch of tobacco onto it. He then rolls it up and puts the tip between his lips. Another is telling a story. The woman at the table is wearing a short black dress that exposes her bare white legs to the sun. She twirls her long dark hair, takes a sip from what looks like lemonade, and emits a short laugh.
The regular beggar in the stripy sweatshirt reclines on the church steps and asks passers-by for spare change.
A young father and his son are having a drink together. Their serious expression suggests a man-to-man talk. The father, sitting on one of the brasserie’s slated chairs, says something. The son, comfortably installed in his own, wheel-equipped and lower seat, frowns, ponders, then responds with an earnest waving of the arms. Their respective drinks stand face-to-face on the table, like equals. The father reaches out for his glass of beer and takes a gulp. The son watches intently and waits for the father to hand him his beverage – milk in a baby bottle. He grabs it with a manly gesture, lifts the rubber tip to his mouth and takes a swig.
A middle-aged nun in pale blue and white comes out of the church and stands on the top of the stone steps, observing the secular world for a moment. Then she slowly walks down and disappears around the corner.
A young woman in a brilliant white hijab draped around the shoulders of a long-sleeved, ankle-length navy-blue dress walks past the tables, followed by three little boys carrying satchels.
A toddler stumbles after a pigeon who picks up the pace then spreads its wings and flies off. A young woman runs after the toddler, catches him by the shoulders, turns him around and leads him back to the family table.
A couple at a table by the windows of the brasserie have positioned their chairs strategically, so that his pale skin is in the shade and her darker complexion in the sunlight. She has threads of white in her dark hair. He looks a decade or so older. Both have books open in their laps but their attention is on the life that surrounds them. She puts her hand on his arm and comments on something that has caught her eye. He follows her gaze, laughs, then smiles at her, as though seeing her for the first time. She stares at him, as though to make sure he is real, and smiles back.
A young waitress with a dragon tattoo curling up her arm and shoulder, a round tray laden with drinks, waits at the edge of the pavement for a scooter to drive by, before crossing the street to the church side.
An old man in a checked shirt meanders between the tables, playing the accordion, giving a medley of Italian, Jewish, Russian and French tunes.
A familiar, strident call streaks across the air above the church steeple. A couple of lime-green and cream parakeets whizz across the sky.
The early evening light bathing Place de Bethléem carries flecks of sunlight. Since moving to Brussels, I’ve had to arrange my timetable according to the sun. In other words, as soon as I glimpse a rare hint of a sunbeam, I drop whatever work I am doing and rush out for a walk. After all, there’s no telling when the grey Brussels sky will grant you your next glimmer of sunlight.
In the middle of Place de Bethléem, across the street from the red brick school building, the paved, vaguely ovaloid area is crowded with the neighbourhood children playing. The square is filled with excited, happy shrieks as a football is being kicked and bicycles or tricycles slalom among the miniature footballers. Some are taking it in turns to have a ride on a skateboard. Others are sitting with dolls, while others again are teasing their dogs who are barking in fun, eager to be included in their humans’ games.
On the low stone walls surrounding this daily improvised playground, sit the mothers. Many are wearing hijabs, others sleeveless tops or jeans. While keeping an eye on their children, they are chatting among themselves. Many in Arabic, others in French. I also hear snippets of Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Italian, Greek and the odd bit of Flemish. We’re in the Saint-Gilles area where, I am told, live about one hundred and thirty different nationalities.
There is a Greek café, where they serve the most exquisite coffee, and three Greek restaurants. And then there’s Posto al Sole, where you can eat generous portions of scrumptious pasta or pizza, made by a friendly team of Moroccans who apparently spent some time in Naples before opening the restaurant on Place de Bethléem. You’re greeted with the warmth reserved to old friends in composite sentences of French, Italian and English, then seated at one of the square wooden tables with checked oil cloths and dark red paper napkins. In the small front room, you spear olives onto a toothpick, waiting for your meal, entertained by the histrionics of the Moroccan pizzaiolo who stretches, pummels and tosses the thin circle of pizza dough into the air several times, before flattening it and sliding it into the wood fire oven. Whatever you order, it tastes wholesome and comforting. If you’re feeling brave enough or – like me – have just come off the Eurostar and foregone train sandwiches, then you can undertake to share a pizza demi mètre. That’s right. A rectangle of pizza half a metre long, served on a board that takes up the whole table. You can ask for two different toppings. And so you and your companion start cutting each into his/her end of the pizza… and meet in the middle – that’s if your stomach capacity allows you to reach the middle.
Italian food, prepared by Moroccans, in Brussels. You can’t beat that.
In the Place du Jeu de Balle/Vossenplain, the flea market is being packed up. Small china ornaments, wood carvings, worn-in leather jackets, incomplete sets of cut-crystal glasses and frayed canvasses with oil paintings of forest clearings are wrapped in creased newspaper, crammed into crates and loaded into car boots and transit vans. The sky above the plain, red-brick gable of the church of Notre-Dame Immaculée is drifting into a tired grey after the effort of glowing with blazing sunshine all morning.
On the cobbles outside La Brocante, on the corner of the Rue des Renards/Vossenstraat, a cluster of square wooden tables is arranged beneath a large tree, crowded with people drinking beer and smoking. A jazz trio – drums, saxophone and electric guitar – are competing at who will produce the loudest, most alive sound. The drummer’s pleasure beams through his face. He beats out crashing rhythms which spark off a dialogue with the electric guitarist. The latter plucks the strings and makes them vibrate in a tone of measured irony.
Standing between them, the saxophone player blasts a cascade of notes like fragments of coloured glass. Then he lowers the sax and draws closer to the mic. A gravelly voice, a staccato tone reminiscent of Jimmy Durante and a rasping Gallic ‘r’ come out in a warm rendition of On the Sunny Side of the Street.
Suddenly, a brassy, nasal beeping sound starts to beat time in unison with the drums. A young woman at the wheel of a van stuck in traffic on the corner of the Rue Blaes/Blaesstraat is tapping rhythmically on her klaxon. The musicians grin and launch their instruments into a playful match with the van horn. The young woman throws her head back and giggles, her brown fringe flopping to the side. Encouraged by a burst of laughter and applause from the audience, she sets out to tap out her own rhythm pattern on the klaxon. The road ahead of her is clear. She waves and drives off.
The sax player resumes On the Sunny Side of the Street. H and I have been standing till now, so when I see a table become vacant, I suggest we take it. It is next to an iron fountain shaped like a wide bowl, with a pillar rising from the centre and four spouts dripping water halfway up. My attention is immediately attracted by the three figures at the top of the pillar. Three women in long dresses, aprons, lace-up corsets, loose sleeves and long, rectangular headkerchieves tied under their chins. They are carrying pitchers of water. Porteuses d’eau. The tallest of the three is holding her pitcher on her shoulder, leaning her head against it. They are standing in a conspiratorial huddle, perhaps gossiping. One of them is partly turning away from her companions, as though commenting with arch disapproval on someone across the street. The tall woman with the pitcher on her shoulder is smirking knowingly. The shortest – and perhaps youngest – of the three is cocking her head, eager to hear more.
I tell H they look Flemish. “Why not Walloon?” he asks.
I say it’s something about their features. The round cheekbones, the retroussé noses and the arched eyebrows. Like faces from a painting by Van Eyck.
A boy comes to clear our table. Shouting over the music, I ask for a lait russe. He says he doesn’t take the orders but that his colleague will be along shortly. We ask the next young man with a short apron who walks past but he says we need to order from another waiter, and that he’ll send him over. Soon afterwards, the man with the correct job description comes up to our table and, a few minutes later, my lait russe – complete with ginger biscuit – and H’s Hoegaarden are on the table.
The jazz trio ends the set with It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing. They tell the audience they play here every fortnight.
We stay to finish our drinks. When we ask for the bill, the young man clearing our table says he does not handle money. It seems we need to ask “John”.
“OK. What does ‘John’ look like?” I ask and listen to a physical description.
Opposite me, beneath the rustling leaves of the large tree, the three Flemish women carrying water start gossiping again.