Star Dust Nation
You have seen them. Those men and women who are no longer mad but dazed instead. Medication has culled them. They sit on red plastic chairs eating their breakfast muffins and their eyes are saying something to you. Do you ever reply? Do you sometimes say "good morning" in a breezy manner?
When I was three years old my mother employed an Austrian nanny who did almost have a breezy morning manner- perhaps more icy than breezy - influenced by the cold winds from Russia that swept into the Danube valley she left so abruptly to look after me. I think she must have learned her English from a Dictionary of the Human Body because she would start the day by saying "Good morning little Thomas! How is your heart beat today?"
But this is not what I wanted to tell you about. Not at all.
The calendar on the table by my bed (a present from my mother) marks the precise date, August 9th 2005 when my colleague Nick telephoned me at 2am from a howling beach in Southern Spain weeping broken words and images into my ear.
"We are star dust Tom. "
"Nick? Where are you?"
"Flamingos. Salt hills."
"Where are you phoning from?"
I knew Nick was on holiday in Almeria because I am his boss and have to approve his vacation dates. I seem to remember they filmed Lawrence of Arabia on the sand dunes in that desolate part of Spain. When I looked up Almeria in my guide book it was described as "a lunar landscape" so perhaps he hadn't gone completely nuts after all. He was somewhere on a beach, it was 4AM his time and he didn't know how to get back to his hotel. I could hear him sobbing in the wind as he dropped coins into a public telephone, interrupted by a furious Spaniard who was swearing at him.
"Tom? Are you still there?"
"Yes. I'm still here. "
(seagulls screeching, a dog barking, the thrash of the sea somewhere near )
"My father beat me up all the time when I was a kid. Did you know that Tom?"
Nick's full name is Nikos Gazedis. His father, Mr Gazedis, is a gentle, elderly man who owns a dry cleaning business in Kentish Town. I've met him twice, both times bent over his sewing machine with a tape measure draped over his shoulders. He has never beaten any one in his life.
My father, however, was a Lieutenant-Colonel in the British army. Uncomfortable with the lack of excitement on home leave, he did tend to start small wars against his five year old son- usually with his leather belt. At those moments I used to imagine myself on the moon, a boy astronaut floating head over heels away from Lt-Gen Banbury, away from my forlorn mother, away from the milk jug and toast rack on the breakfast table, away from the thank you's and yes pleases people seem so nostalgic for these days. So you can imagine how I brooded on Nick's peculiar phone call. It seemed as if in some way he was talking about my childhood and not his own.
Three days later, when Nick returned from Spain he wore shoes and socks and a Paul Smith suit like the rest of us and acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
We were about to launch a shampoo and send it out into the bathrooms of the nation. I knew we had to call it MEADOW MILK. I began my pitch, my voice inflected with the irony that defines my contribution to the most famous advertising agency in the South East.
"Milk", I said slightly sinisterly, "is an opaque white fluid secreted by female mammals for the nourishment of their young."
I glanced at Nick. Tears were spilling down his face. His hands still tanned from Spain, hung limply by his sides like the dead pheasants my father brought home from the meadow.
A week later Nick called me again, this time on a Sunday at 3am. I was awake of course. Grinding out my sixtieth cigarette into the hollow of my favourite black marble ashtray. Awake with a bottle of vodka propped between my knees.
"Tom? Um...I'm not feeling right....I'm frightened."
I caught a cab to his waterfront apartment in South London immediately. When he bought it (with a Christmas bonus) the estate agent boasted it had twenty four hour security. Obviously the SAS trained guard sitting in a damp cabin all night doing the crossword puzzle did not make Nick feel secure. Twenty four hour security. That's wishful thinking isn't it? To be safe and secure twenty fours hours?
We do not feel right. We are frightened.
Ask the guard sitting in his damp cabin if he feels right. If you've got the time that is. I had a lot of time for my best copy writer, my protégé and disciple. He wore boxer shorts to open the door. The boy has footballers legs. His chest toned and golden from the beaches of Almeria. But he did not feel right. I could see some kind of agony leak from inside Nick and fill his eyes which were already full.
" I've had a bad night Tom."
"I keep thinking I should visit my mother."
His deep voice broke as he attempted to imitate a high pitched upper class female voice. A voice chillingly familiar to me.
"Devon is lovely at this time of year. We can eat crab sandwiches in that pub you so appreciate in Salcombe."
Nick's mother does not live in Devon. She lives in a council flat in North London with her gentle husband and dislikes the English countryside with a fervour I admire. My mother does live in Salcombe Devon and she always insists we eat a crab sandwich at The Fisherman's Arms when I visit. I sit miserably opposite her, the only man in her life, a forty eight year old wreck in a smart suit. She talks about the weather and how appalling it is teachers don't speak proper English anymore and while she talks I don't feel right. When ever I visit my mother I am in a right old state.
"You are in a right old state, Nick". I patted his beautiful brown shoulders and started to tell him about that afternoon in 1971 when I jabbed a knife into my fathers ribs and ran into the meadow.
"I was twelve years old....the year Britain went decimal..."
After a while I stopped because I saw something move in the hallway. From Nick's open plan kitchen I glimpsed a short woman with long black hair walking towards me with my coat in her arms.
"So you are Tom Banbury. "
She threw the coat into my lap and said something to Nick in Greek. He shook his head and groaned.
"This is my sister, Elena. "
Elena pointed to the door.
"I am looking after my brother so you can go home. Shall I call you a cab Mister Money Bags?"
Thanks to our Agency's generous health insurance package, the hospital Nick ended up in looked more like a small castle for the rich and unstable than a lunatic ward. The Abbey even had a moat with two white swans which seemed permanently asleep on the stagnant moss- covered water. Two resident female doctors carried hypodermics between the fingers of their latex gloves as if they were carrying cocktails from one party guest to another. I wondered if the doctors had somehow tranquillised the swans in the same way they had tranquillised Nick? I held his hand in my hand and felt calm for the first time in many years.
Unfortunately his sister was at his bedside too. Elena had to be polite to me because she knew The Abbey was better than the over heated redbrick institution with no windows her brother would have ended up in. Nick lay moaning on two white pillows. When he spoke it was in a voice that was rather like my own.
"I am twelve years old...the year Britain went decimal and John Lennon wrote Hey Jude. The year Clockwork Orange was released and I lost it with my father. Just...um lost it. Afterwards...I ran into the meadow....."
"Nikos?" Elena murmured something in Greek and tried to hug her brother who would not be stopped.
"This is the year my Austrian nanny is picking mushrooms in the meadow on her knees. She has her back to me and she says, how is your heart beat this afternoon ? I am shaking and my shirt is soaked in blood and I say my heart beat is jumping all over the place. Thank you."
Two female doctors suddenly appeared by the bed and injected a large dose of colourless liquid into Nick's nervous system via the azure veins in both his arms. I liked to think the doctors filled their syringes from the water in the hospital moat, which like Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness, helped their patients forget the troubles of their earthy life. Elena kissed her brother's forehead and sobbed.
"Nikos wasn't even born when Britain became decimal..... "
It was vital I spoke to Nick alone. There was so much more to tell him. So much ground to cover. My family owned twenty two acres after all.
I decided to make Wednesday my main visiting day because I knew his sister worked in a South London library on Wednesdays. I had come to think of her as a sort of guard dog. That is how she appeared in my dreams, often with three heads, informing me it was her duty to guard the healthy from the sick. When I arrived earlier than usual, anxious to tell him what was on my mind, the beautiful patient was sitting on an armchair in his over coat rather than the usual navy blue dressing gown I had purchased for him at Harrods. He was watching a Fred Astaire film on the hospital's wide screen television and asked if I'd mind getting him a cup of tea?
Of course. Of course. Earl Grey? I like Earl Grey.
Two sugars? I take two sugars. We are the same.
Elena had got to the canteen before me. In fact, she had put her coat over two of the green leather armchairs in the far corner as if she was expecting me to arrive. She had even bought a slice of the Abbey's home made cherry cheese cake and gestured to me to taste it.
I was forced to sit down with her, uneasy to be so near this enigmatic sister who appeared as a dog woman too often in my dreams.
"You really smell of drink" Elena leaned forward. "You're a drunk aren't you."
"Yes, I'm a drunk."
She closed her eyes as if trying to gather her thoughts. I noticed her eyelids were dusted with dark blue eye shadow. They glittered and sparkled under the hospital lights. When she sighed I could smell garlic on her breath.
" It's very difficult for my family. You see Tom, I know my brother has a lot of empathy...but your kind of problems are not Nikos's sort of problems."
"Yes," I replied solemnly. "I can appreciate that."
One of the female doctors walked into the canteen and lit a cigarette, despite the No Smoking sign displayed on the wall.
Dr. Agnes Taylor waved at Elena with the bottle of mineral water she had just purchased. It seemed like a sign, a message of some sort and
I began to feel anxious when she made her way towards me in her black leather high heeled shoes.
"How are you feeling today Tom?"
" My heart beat is very good today thank you Doctor Taylor."
"Your heartbeat? Well it's good that it's good isn't it?"
Elena took out her mobile phone and studied the screen. When she spoke to me I could hear her London accent more clearly than before.
"Let yerself go Tom...'ave yer own break down. Go bonkers. It's nice here innit Dr Taylor?"
"It certainly is."
Dr Taylor's cold clean fingers wrapped themselves like mice around my wrist. She was feeling my pulse. Her perfume mingled with the sugar and cream of the melting cake.
"Any further contact with Nikos Gazedis is out of the question" she said in a light hearted voice. But the pressure of her fingers was not light. I realised how strong she was.
"Yes" I replied, though in fact what I said was "Ears". Which is how people of my class, even after years working with city boys at the agency, say Yes .
"Ears. Not to worry. I am rather busy at the moment. Ears. I will be in touch."
My forehead was streaked with eczema, the twenty four hour psychosomatic weather that turns my face into a blazing sunset at any hour of the day. A syringe seemed to be searching for a vein in my arm and Elena had disappeared. When I woke up in Nick's former bed on the Abbey's white pillows, my head was tucked under my elbow like the sleeping swans on the moat.
You have seen them. Those men and women who sit on red plastic chairs early in the morning eating their breakfast muffins. You have seen the expression in their eyes. The way the muscles in the face hang down to the floor. Do you know what they're saying to you? Because they are definitely saying something to you. There are tiny shards of your life inside them and their life inside you.
And the life of the Universe too. We are all of us breathing in atoms that were once forged in the furnace of a star. The men and women on red plastic chairs are saying something matter of fact and polite so there is no reason for your heart beat to race.
They are saying good morning.