More Things in Heaven and Earth…

There has been much news coverage, during the past week, of the experimental Mars probe, Schiaparelli, which is now suspected to have exploded upon landing on Mars.  No doubt, in time, another spacecraft will be sent to the Red Planet with the purpose of investigating whether there has ever been, or currently is, life there.  Personally, I fail to see how this astronomically high expense can be justified, given the lack of funds alleged by our various governments to tackle the pressing problems on this, the Blue Planet.  But that’s an issue apart.  Listening to various scientists speculating about whether or not there is life on Mars made me wonder – how would we know for sure?

If the sophisticated machines show that there is life on Mars, then I suppose the proof will be irrefutable.  If, however, they find no evidence of life, how could we be 100% certain that these findings are accurate and true, in other words, that they correspond to actual reality? I can’t see how lack of evidence can possibly be considered as proof either way.

It’s been widely observed that animals exhibit unusual behaviour and sometimes even flee before an earthquake.  I don’t mean domestic animals, of course, many of whom have been overbred to serve and depend on us to the point where they have lost many of their survival instincts (once, as a teenager, I woke up in the middle of the night because I felt my bed being jolted and saw a couple of books fall off the shelf, while my dog, curled up at my feet, was fast asleep, snoring away).  How do these animals know there’s an impending earthquake when human machines are unable to predict them? One can deduce that they possess a way of sensing them either through glands or other perception organs that are more refined and sophisticated than human-made machines.

In medicine, successful experiments have recently been conducted with dogs and cancer detection.  It appears that dogs can “sniff” certain cancers with an accuracy rate of over 90%.  This suggests that their senses are far more developed that those of humans.  Many pet owners will have observed that their cats and dogs know instinctively which grass or herbs to eat in the field when they are ill.  Most humans are not so in tune with their own bodies and require a doctor to tell them what to eat or not eat.  One could say that the authority of technology and science has bred instinct out of us, too.

My cat, Genie, knew when I was coming home despite my erratic working hours.  I’m told that about twenty minutes before I arrived, she would go and lie by the door, thus announcing to anyone at home that I was on my way.  How did she know? Do you sense when your spouse/partner/flatmate is about to come home?

There are countless examples of cases where animals are aware of realities we, humans, are not, which goes to prove the limits of our perception of the world.

*   *   *

Humans have manufactured technologies, machines, tests and probes that are supposed to reveal more than our senses can, especially in the field of medicine.  The purpose of a blood test, scan and X-ray is to detect what is, we believe, undetectable by our five senses.  Machines have been known to show more sensitivity than humans.  I remember one particular instance where my own experience showed this to be true.  When we were living in France, a nightingale sang on the hill outside our balcony every morning at about 4 a.m.  One day, my mother got up and tried recording the bird’s song on her National Panasonic cassette player.  When we tried listening to it over breakfast we couldn’t hear the nightingale over the numerous rustling, humming and clicking sounds made by the other creatures of the night, which our ears were unable to pick up.

Still, I think it’s a fair assumption that we can only manufacture machines that our imagination allows us to manufacture.  After all, we cannot make what we cannot imagine to be possible.  By extension, our imagination is limited by our sensory perception, since it is the latter that informs us of the reality that surrounds us.  Therefore, the same way as, being someone with “bat ears”, I can hear distant sounds people around me generally can’t, our knowledge of reality is made possible, and consequently also limited, by what we or our machines – designed within the span of our sensory abilities – can perceive. Just because we can’t see, hear, smell or touch something is not sufficient proof that it doesn’t exist.

*   *   *

On occasion, when the topic has arisen, I have been challenged by atheists to prove that there is a God.  I can’t.  Their conclusion was that because I can’t prove the existence of God, He doesn’t exist.  I’ve responded by pointing out that they, equally, are unable to prove that He doesn’t.

I have come across people, in England, who assure me that not only do fairies exist, but that they have seen them with their own eyes.  Personally, my automatic reply to anyone asking me if I believe in fairies would be, “Of course, I don’t,” but, if I were consistent with my reasoning, I would have to reply, “I don’t know.  I have no experience of fairies.”  After all, do I not see fairies because there are no fairies (or unicorns, or ghosts, or other apparitions) to be seen or because my senses are too obtuse to see them? I can’t answer that truthfully.

*   *   *

Back to Mars.

If our machines eventually detect a life form on the Red Planet, that would suggest that there is.  However, if they don’t, it is equally possible that there isn’t life there and that there is.  There could be a life form unlike any we can imagine, therefore undetectable by our machines and probes.  It is also possible that creatures of this life form have destroyed the Schiaparelli probe, to discourage humans from encroaching on their space.  And if it were so, who could blame them?

There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophies…

Scribe Doll

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Last week, when I was visiting my mother, I found an old toy spinning wheel.

I had forgotten all about it and yet, by a mysterious coincidence, it had briefly surfaced in my memory last June, when H. and I were in Rome.  We were on our way somewhere and I suddenly noticed an almost identical one in a shop window. About 20 cm tall, made of solid walnut.  I remember pointing at it and saying to H., “I used to have one just like this when I was a child,” and I suddenly felt a powerful tug somewhere deep in my chest, almost pleading to be let out, though I couldn’t make out what it was exactly, or whether it was happy or sad.  We were in a rush and as we walked away I forgot all about it.

“Look through this box of old toys I found, will you?” my mother said last week, “and throw away what you don’t want.”

Toys? I knew that couldn’t be the case.  My mother has kept practically nothing from my childhood.  She’s not the type.  She has always given or thrown away any object steeped in emotional memories with a determination bordering on ferocity, as though holding on to it might somehow hinder her or weigh her down.  Almost as though she is afraid of getting trapped in it.

Part of this is linked to our frequent house moves.  There was no attic where any material companions to various stages of our lives could be stored.  It was by a whisker that I managed to save my favourite teddy bear and, after my grandmother passed away, her old family photos and the censored letters her own mother sent her from the Soviet Union.

“What do you mean, Mum? We didn’t keep any toys.”

“Yes, yes, wooden toys,” she said, pointing at a box in the corner of her bedroom.

With my customary ungracious huffing, I opened the said box and began unwrapping various chipped, discoloured wooden knickknacks.  Not toys exactly but ornaments – mainly gifts from other people – that had stood on top of the television, on the book case or a shelf and which, yes, had unofficially featured in my games.  Russian dolls with the smallest ones missing, a decorated wooden egg, and other junk not even good enough for the charity shop. I couldn’t begin to fathom why my mother had kept this stuff when she’d got rid of much better possessions.  She must have packed it all in haste during one of her house moves, some twenty years ago, and only just got around to looking through it.

I must have gasped so loudly when I found it that my mother came in from the next room.  A small, solid walnut spinning wheel.  “I remember this,” I said to her.  “In fact – it’s so strange – I saw one just like this in a shop window in Rome when we were there last June.  You gave it to me when I must have been about five or six.  Where did you get it?”

My mother couldn’t even remember ever having seen it before.

“Everything in this box can be thrown away,” I said, “but I’m taking this home with me.”

*   *   *

I have wiped the wood with a soft, damp cloth and replaced the rotted dark brown elastic that was tied around the wheel with a piece of gold string I found in my sewing basket.  Every time I hold the spinning wheel, and run my fingers along the smooth, dust smelling wood, a powerful emotion presses out from inside my chest.  But I can’t find where exactly it’s coming from, or even work out if it’s sad or happy.  I have but the faintest impression of playing with the spinning wheel, pretending to be Sleeping Beauty.  I can recall nothing else.  I have no idea if this beautifully crafted object was designed to be a child’s toy or an ornament, but it has the energy of one of those objects that have been made by a craftsman who imbued his craft with great skill and much love and thus gave life to his creation.


As I look at it now, it suddenly occurs to me that I don’t know the Italian word for a spinning wheel.  I look it up.  Arcolaio.  What a beautiful word.  Its sound fits perfectly the carefully sanded edges of the dark walnut.


At this time in my life when I’m shedding so much of what is old and no longer needed, it feels very appropriate that I should suddenly discover this beautiful spinning wheel.  A spinning wheel that now has a golden thread running through it.

Scribe Doll

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The catalyst was a book I was translating, referred to by my friends simply as that book, since I don’t divulge the titles of jobs I hate.  Luckily, although not all the books I’ve translated so far have always captured my heart and imagination, most have made a tolerable if not pleasant day’s work.  But, after a few pages, I began to hate that book with every fibre of my being.  I hated the plot, I hated the characters so much that I kept hoping against hope that they’d meet a swift, painless demise over the page. I prayed for a deus ex machina to kick that book out of my life with a bend that would make David Beckham envious.  As the weeks dragged by and no supernatural force came to deliver me from it, that book slithered deeper and deeper under my skin and began spreading its venom through my veins.  I felt as though I was trudging through a dense, sticky, malodorous fog, my legs weighed down by thick, gluey mud, and my very life force ebbing away.

So, when I finally sent off the translation of that book, I did something that goes against the grain of any thinking individual.  I burnt that book.  As a matter of fact, the prospect of annihilating the thick volume was what kept me afloat for the last couple of weeks of the job.  I planned the act in its minutest detail to ensure there would be no danger to anyone or anything.  I went to the hardware store and purchased a metal incinerator manufactured in accordance with health and safety.  I waited for a day when I knew a couple of my immediate neighbours would be away, warned the others that I would be burning “some old papers” and apologised in advance for the smell of smoke.  I made sure the area in the courtyard was clear and placed the incinerator away from any potential gust of wind.

I tore the pages out a couple at a time and pushed them down the funnel as the flames glowed through the air vents.  In my mind it wasn’t just that book I was burning but all the physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, all the anger and resentment, all the fear and despair of the past few years.  Moreover, I was willing the dancing flames to clear away the old and no longer needed so that a Firebird might rise from the ashes, with the plumage all glossy and so bright не в сказке сказать, не пером описать*.

Three hours later, I poured the cold ashes into a bag and gave them to a neighbour who said they’d make a good fertiliser for her allotment of fruit and vegetables.

Burning that book triggered an overwhelming desire to do some major cleansing and clearing.  Outside and in.  And so I’ve begun…

*   *   *

I pull out from under my desk boxes that were packed two house moves ago and haven’t been opened since.  Papers from when I used to teach English as a Foreign Language.  Lesson plans, newspaper articles, colour and animal idioms, vocabulary of interest to journalists, doctors, MEPs, politicians, bankers and miscellaneous.  Why keep all that? I don’t want to teach again. I fill large black bin liners.

Out with the old, the stale, to make room for the new and fresh to flow in!

I drag a box of cassettes from under the bed.  Treasures of radio plays, music and inspiring interviews.  Treasures I have not listened to for at least five years.  I keep a few.  The rest is thrown away.

Out with the old, the stale, to make room for the new and fresh to flow in!

It’s the turn of our small, cluttered kitchen.  The shelves in the wall cupboard H. calls “the pantry” are crammed with foodstuffs we can’t see because they’ve fallen behind other foodstuffs under the shelves.  I discover enough packets of spaghetti to open an Italian restaurant and, unnoticed on the floor, several boxes of fennel teabags I kept buying because I thought I’d run out.  I decant all my infusion herbs from their scrunched up plastic packaging into glass jars which I label.  Vervain.  Rose Petals.  Skullcap.  Lemon Balm.  Plantain.  

I can’t bring order into my mind unless I bring order to my surroundings.

I sift through my clothes.  Elegant shoes that pinch so I never wear them, comfortable shoes that are so old they’ve lost their original colour and shape.  Skirts I’ve kept on the off-chance I might regain the figure I had in my thirties.  My misplaced optimism makes me laugh.  The smart black coat I’ve never really liked but bought all those years ago because it was a bargain in a charity shop in Notting Hill.  I shove it all into bag destined for a local charity shop, then peruse the online catalogue of a ladies clothes shop I rather like.   I set my sights on a coat to dazzle all coats, russet, with a wide collar, generous and warm, a coat for an entrance worthy of a Jerry Herman musical.  A coat that requires a cameo appearance by my credit card.  They don’t have this coat in the Norwich branch of the store.  “We won’t be getting it,” the sales assistant says glumly.  “That’s a Chelsea or Kensington branch kind of coat.”

So much the better, I think, that I will be the only woman in Norwich wearing such a coat! And I ring Kensington and get them to send the coat over here.  The sales assistant smiles when I try it on.  “It’s my only opportunity see this coat in the flesh,” she says.

Under the coffee table, there’s my fat, black Filofax, bursting with loose bits of paper.  Names and addresses of people I’m no longer in touch with, of people who have passed away, of theatre, film and TV contacts I had when I was a theatrical agent.  Why keep them? I don’t want to be a theatrical agent again.  Business cards with names I don’t recognise.  Contact details of friends from whom I’ve drifted apart but which I keep in case… in case of what? It’s time to let go of some people, and to make room for new friends to make their entrance.  I copy about 10% of my original address book onto a small, light turquoise organiser, and feed the rest into the shredder.

Out with the old, the stale, to make room for the new and fresh to flow in!

My dear new friend, the sunny Bernie Strachan says that, actually, I should be grateful to that book, since it’s been the trigger for all this much needed, long-awaited clearing.  I hadn’t thought of it this way, so I’m grateful to Bernie for this creative perspective.

And the clearing continues…

Out with the old, the stale, to make room for the new and fresh – and the Firebird.

* “that no fairy tale or quill could describe”: a set phrase in Russian fairy tales to refer to something extraordinarily wonderful.

Scribe Doll

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Should these Connotations Always Apply?


Just read any book or film review.  Dark implies deep, complex, fascinating, intelligent, and, therefore, somehow worthy.  I tend to think that dark is just dark.  It’s not good, it’s not bad.  It’s just dark.  But, since we’re on the subject, I believe that, for reasons possibly akin to the force of gravity, which bodies obey without needing to make any effort, it is easier to depict something dark that something Light.  The same way as it is easier to write a tragedy than a comedy.  The elements of tragedy are the same throughout nations, cultures, and centuries.  Their weight keeps them fixed, unchanged.  Comedy, however, is therefore ever-changing.  A sense of humour alters over time, and doesn’t necessarily translate from one culture to another.  So, surely, writing enduring, internationally appreciated comedy requires true genius.


You hear this word and you think weightless, low-fat, superficial, not requiring much thought, lacking in substance.  And yet think of the actual meaning of the word Light when it’s a noun.  Light.  Sunlight.  Daylight.  How many of us can stare at a light without wincing and shying away? Brightness.  Truth.  Speed.  All the colours of the spectrum.  Understanding.  LIGHT.

Comfort Zone

For some reason, people described as “not wanting to leave their comfort zone” are always viewed with disapproval.  The comfort zone is a synonym of limitations, of fear, of narrow mindedness.  What exactly is wrong with comfort, anyway? Besides, a comfort zone could be a choice that fits our strength and abilities.  In my experience, people who accuse others of remaining in their comfort zone are, quite often, people who are very firmly set in their own comfort zones.

Can I be honest?

Since when has the term honesty equalled negativity, insult, rudeness and unsolicited opinions that are too personal? Someone says, “Can I be honest?” and you can bet all you have that a negative comment is about to follow.  Not only, but that the speaker feels that the word “honest” somehow entitles him/her to impose their opinion on you, and judge you.  “Can I be honest? I don’t like the way you’ve furnished your house.” “Can I be honest? I think you have such or such a defect.” When was the last time you heard, “Can I be honest? I think you’re a wonderful person”?

Real People

For some reason, only working-class, underprivileged, socially and financially disadvantaged individuals are referred to as Real People.  A play, film or book about Real People.  So not Downton Abbey, then.  Rich, privileged people are therefore imaginary.

I once had a play workshopped in a London theatre.  The characters were a barrister, a Cambridge academic, and a polyglot photographer.  During the feedback session, the man chairing the discussion asked the audience, “Yes, but don’t you think this play isn’t about Real People”? At that moment, I mentally measured the distance between my fist and his face, and wondered how real or imaginary he’d feel my punch landing on his nose.


The buzz word of the decade.  Of course, I do believe that everything should be grown organically, i.e. without harmful pesticides, or GMOs.  But I do find that the word Organic is being somewhat overused and abused.

I ask, as I order breakfast in a café, what their baked beans are like.  “Oh, they’re organic,” the waiter replies, as though that means the baked beans are automatically in a league of their own in terms of high quality, flavour, health benefits, and probably ability in guaranteeing eternal youth.  I have had food poisoning from so-called organic vegetables just as I have had from non-organic ones.  Organic is politically, correct, healthy, tasty, and generally superior.  The other day, swayed, I bought a box of organic cherry tomatoes.  Their skins were so hard, I could probably have used them to re-sole my shoes.  There’s a wonderful scene in the film version of David Auburn’s play Proof.  A do-gooder older sister is insisting her rebellious younger sister try a hair conditioner with jojoba.  The girl asks if it’s a chemical. “No, it’s organic,” the older woman replies.

“It can be organic and still be a chemical.  Haven’t you ever heard of organic chemistry?”


There is Natural, and there is good.  They two are not necessarily synonyms.  A hairdresser I used to go to kept asking me if we should have my hair look “natural”.

“No,” I replied.  “‘Natural’ would mean I don’t come here to have my hair cut at all.”

I have a natural tendency towards being impatient and abrupt.  Left in my natural state, my presence in a social scenario would be intolerable to many.


Sales assistant seem to think that if they tell a customer that a particular item is Popular, then you’ll think it’s automatically worth buying.  This is based on an assumption that the said customer believes that the majority is always right.  Wrong.  Whenever I’m standing in a clothes shop, dithering over a dress or a handbag, and the sales assistant tells me it’s a very Popular dress or handbag, then my knee-jerk reaction is NOT to buy the said item.  I wouldn’t want to turn up at a party and see another woman wearing the same dress.

Scribe Doll

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If Martin Luther had taken some Vitamin C…

In my final year at University, where I was reading for a degree in French Literature, thanks to a new syllabus tried out by the French Department, I was allowed to specialise by choosing four options.  I was only too happy to drop 19th-century Romantic moaning (as I saw it) and 20th-century anxiety and depression (as I saw it), and throw myself into (again as I saw it) the certainty and serenity of the Middle Ages, 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries.  This covered, among others, a course entitled “Literature of the Reformation”.

Eager to get ahead, I took a walk to the Theology Department, and asked if I might attend the relevant lectures, to gain better knowledge of the historical and religious background of the French literature I was about to study.  Dr F., a specialist in the subject, was thrilled with my enthusiasm.  “Yes, of course, you’re very welcome to come to my lectures. It will be a pleasure to have someone from the French Department,” he said in his soft Irish accent, green eyes sparkling with eagerness to share his scholarly passion.

His classes were popular, and for good reason.  Dr F. not only seemed to know everything there was to know about the Reformation, but – unlike some of his fellow academics – was a good communicator and a charismatic teacher.  And, yes, he was also a very good-looking young man.

Then, one day, he set an essay about Martin Luther’s doctrines.  “Oh, no, that’s all right,” I said. “I shan’t trouble you with extra marking –” (Meaning: I don’t want to have to write an extra essay on top of my French Department workload.)

“Oh, please do write it.  It will be a pleasure to have your essay, too.”

He may have added something about how interesting it would be to have the point of view of a non-Theology student.

I was stuck.

It was approaching midnight before the morning the essay was due.  I sat in my room with a mug of coffee, staring at a blank page from my Oxford pad, with no idea whatsoever what to write.  I glanced at Owen Chadwick’s book about the Reformation, on my desk.  I hadn’t read it yet and it was a little too late to start.  I chewed on my pen, put another Lyons’s coffee bag into my mug, reached out for a chocolate hobnob, and thought of Martin Luther.  The monk who married a nun.  The monk who brought Protestantism to Germany.  I suddenly remembered something else Dr F. had mentioned: that Martin Luther suffered from constipation, and spent a considerable amount of time on the loo, where he thought up many of his theories.  Constipation.  I wondered why.  Come to think of it, what caused constipation? I decided to take a little break from the essay and consult my slowly-but-surely growing collection of layman medical and nutrition books.  I had recently developed an interest in medicine, health and anatomy/physiology, and read anything I could lay my hands on on the subject, and which was formulated in a language I could understand.  While leafing through my books, I remembered once accidentally causing myself diarrhoea by taking an excessively high dose of Vitamin C.  Consequently, would a regular intake of ascorbic acid or a diet rich in Vitamin C alleviate constipation? I knew that chronic constipation contributed to toxicity in the blood stream, which – I assumed – could then affect one’s perception.  I also suspected that spending hours shut in a toilet, just waiting for your body to make up its mind to evacuate unwanted matter, could give you a lot of time to think and develop philosophical hypotheses.

Suddenly, I was on a roll, chasing after a crazy theory.  I scattered all my nutrition books on my desk.  I can’t remember the exact details of what I thought I discovered on that long autumn night, twenty-five years ago.  What I do remember is not going to bed at all and writing pages and pages about the effect of a vitamin or mineral deficiency on our cognitive abilities and even emotional states, about the optimum dose of specific vitamins in terms of units and milligrams, of the anti-oxidant effects of ascorbic acid, otherwise known as Vitamin C, and its benefits to – among many other things – a healthy digestion.  Having been drilled by my French academic education that every essay should follow the Introduction-Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis-Conclusion pattern, I set out to prove that Martin Luther’s theological doctrines and thought process was heavily influenced by his chronic constipation which, in turn, had been caused by a vitamin deficiency.  If Luther had taken some ascorbic acid, there may not have been a Reformation.  QED.  I wrote and wrote, almost feverish with enthusiasm for my “discovery”.

By morning, the top knuckle of my right middle finger was black with ink, and, despite the total lack of sleep, my eyes were wide open with satisfied excitement and elation.  I picked up my essay and, after a quick breakfast, went to put it into Dr F.’s pigeon hole.

A week later, we all got our essays back.  Dr F. kept mine till last.  I waited impatiently to see what mark I’d received.  He approached my desk with a slightly puzzled expression.  He handed me my work.  There was a slight frown.  “I’m afraid I haven’t marked it,” he said.  “To be honest, I didn’t quite know how to.  What you say is very interesting but, well, it doesn’t really belong in the Theology Department.  I’d say take it to the Medical Department, but there isn’t one here…”

He was very kind, not once suggesting I’d been a smart arse.  I collected my work with a sigh of slight disappointment.  In retrospect, I realise I was lucky he didn’t throw me out of his class.  He stopped setting me any more essays, though.

Scribe Doll

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Translator or Writer?

I used to write.  A lot. I never set time aside to write but grabbed it as and when I came across it.  At home on a Sunday afternoon, when I had a twenty-minute Tube journey and could get a seat, in a coffee shop between clients, in a classroom while my students were sitting a test.  I wrote while working as a teacher, and as a theatrical agent. I produced short stories, plays, half a novel and a weekly blog.

I write even more now.  Two or three novels a year, short stories, non-fiction and even the odd play.  My style is more versatile than before.  Historical novels, crime, travel, popular women’s fiction, high-brow women’s literature, fairy tales for children.

And yet now I can’t even manage a blog post scribbled à la diable once a week.

Because I now work as a literary translator.  I spend all day writing, yes, but writing other people’s words.  Correction.  The words are mine but I choose them with care, so they may convey other people’s intentions as faithfully as possible.

In order to achieve this, I must shut away my own inner Scribbler in the basement, under lock and key, to stop her from interfering with my work on behalf of other writers.  I must become a medium, a go-between, a bridge.  I must be creative enough to produce a text that doesn’t limp, supported by the crutch of its original language, but one that walks head high, freely, and at the same time remember that it is animated by invisible, yet ever-present, strings.  A ventriloquist’s job, in a way, for which one must develop impeccably-controlled, obedient muscles.  Creative – and shrewd enough, at times – to know when it’s judicious to improve on the original text, which, sadly, is all too often under-edited – if edited at all – because of misplaced and unhelpfully exaggerated reverence towards the original author on the part of the publisher.  After all, you need to watch your back.  When critics and readers like the book you’ve “Englished”, then you’ll be lucky if they take the trouble to mention your name at all (and this omission can, in itself, be a compliment to your seamless translation), but if they don’t like it, they sometimes blame it on the translation, in which case they do mention your name.  You’re not there to protest, “But I’m not responsible for this piece of overwritten, self-indulgent crap! I just translated it!” And so, very often, you tweak the odd word, rearrange a sentence here and there, polish a paragraph, or carry out a barely perceptible cosmetic procedure.  Even so, tempted as you may be to act like Cyrano with Christian, you restrain yourself, always remembering that, as a literary translator, you are the servant of the text and not its master.

In the evenings, after a day of translating, I go and let my inner Scribbler out of the basement.  In the beginning, as I unlock the door, she bursts out, flings her arms around me, spins around the room, tap dances on the ceiling, and runs out into the sunshine glad of the exercise after a day in the basement.  I pick up my fountain pen and write to my heart’s content, pouring out on paper all the ideas I’ve ignored during working hours.

As my workload increases, I let out the Scribbler later and later, often long after the sun has already set.  She greets me with a warm smile but I can see that she is disappointed to have missed out on the daylight.  As time goes by, sometimes several days pass before I can go down and unlock the basement.  I notice that my Scribbler doesn’t smile any more but trudges up the stairs and slumps on the sofa, complaining that she’s tired.  Never mind, I think, we’ll spend some quality time together over the weekend.  I pick up my fountain pen but the words come out with difficulty, spasmodically, and I can’t get my current translation project out of my mind, no matter how hard I try.

That weekend, the first of many, is spent on translating.  A publisher has given me an extra book to do.  Sorry, please help me out, it’s urgent.  OK, I say.  I need to keep on the right side of this publisher.  And other publishers.  I need the money.

When I next see my Scribbler, I notice she’s put on weight around her middle, and her shoulders are hunched.  She huffs when she sees me, and goes to vegetate on the sofa without a word.

I have three books to translate at the same time, so I can’t see my Scribbler for a little while.  I forget how long exactly, but not very long.  When I finally go down and unlock the door, Scribbler isn’t standing there as usual.  I look inside the basement room.  She’s sitting on the floor, her eyes blank, her complexion grey, lethargic.  There’s no persuading her to come out.  “I have the whole day off,” I say.  “Let’s spend it together.”

“I’m too tired,” she replies.

“Tired? But you haven’t done anything for days –”

“Years,” she replies, interrupting me.

The shock silences me.  Has it really been years since I’ve written anything substantial of my own? I can’t believe it, I won’t believe it.

I go back upstairs alone, take out my notepad, unscrew the cap of my fountain pen.  The nib leaves blank scratches on the paper.  The ink has dried up.  I find the bottle of black ink and syphon some in.  I draw a squiggle in the corner of the blank page, then stare at it.  And stare at it.  Then I write “Word”.  I can’t think of anything else to write.

I go back down to the basement and slowly pull Scribbler up from the floor.  My ventriloquist’s muscles are now strong enough for me to lift her but hers are too weak to stand up unaided.  I put my arm around her and gently lead her out of the basement room.  She rebels.  I coax her.  She takes slow, sporadic steps.  Her movements are jerky, uncontrolled.  It’s a struggle to climb the stairs.  She groans, she moans, she shouts, “I hate you!”

Tears are streaming down my face.  I wish I could tell Scribbler I’m sorry.  “Come on Scribbler,” I say. “We’re nearly there.  Just a few more steps and we’ll be back in the sunlight.”

She looks up and I see the light from the upstairs windows glow in her eyes.

“Come on, Scribbler, just one more step.”

Scribe Doll


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Summer Night in Trastevere

Streets bustling with tourists who walk slowly, looking up, right and left, mouths half open, stopping abruptly to take a photo, holding up the locals, those whose footsteps have a specific destination, who no longer look at the sights because they carry them within them.

Italian, French, Japanese, German, as well as Old and New World varieties of Spanish and English bounce off the terracotta walls and escape towards the sky.  Waiters outside restaurants displaying tourist menus catch your eye and gesture invitations to sit at outdoor tables covered with crisp, white tablecloths.

Standing or sitting against the walls are sellers from ethnic groups as varied as their merchandise.  Wreaths of plastic and fabric flowers to be worn by girls and young women over their straight, long hair, like Mediaeval maidens.  Silver rings, bangles, bracelets and earrings arranged on brown or black velveteen.  The sellers have Native American features.  An Italian with fine brushes and a large magnifying glass is offering to write your name on a grain of rice.  A South-East Asian is selling a large variety of embossed, leather wrist straps.  A large-bosomed, wide-hipped Central African woman in a brightly-patterned dress and headscarf sits on a low camping stool.  There’s a wooden bowl full of seashells at her feet, and a square of grey cardboard that says, You can see everything in the shells. She makes me think of the character of Minerva in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  Rolls of colourful scarves stacked on foldable stalls, jewellery made of wood, paper butterflies you can stick on the wall, towers of straw hats.  A bearded, long-haired man, pale eyes glowing from his suntanned face, is reading tarots on a makeshift table, a candle flame inside a glass jar casting the shadow of its ritual fire dance on the card spread.

In Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere an artist is trying to create a painting in a set amount of time.  He’s practically juggling with cans of spray paint, like a histrionic cocktail barman.  The acrid, chemical smell of the paint pierces through the inviting aroma of pizza, olive oil and rosemary that fills the air.

A slim young man who could be from the Indian subcontinent is shining a peculiar kind of torch which casts a multitude of bright green dots on the sampietrini and the arches of the Basilica, where the regulation beggar blesses passers-by and reaches out, palm upwards.  I think what fun it would be to shine one of these on the façade of Norwich Cathedral or Castle, but the seller is asking sixteen euros for it.  “Two years’ guarantee,” he keeps assuring me as I walk away.

Santa Maria in Trastevere is lit in a soft golden glow, gently illuminating the 13th-century mosaics.  High up on the campanile, protected in her niche, the Byzantine face of Saint Mary, severe yet oddly accepting, watches over the piazza.

Scribe Doll

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