Sunday, 20 November 2011

Third Part of the Prologue of American Daughters

They walked slowly over to the Atwood Commons Dining Hall, where the lunchtime crowd was beginning to thin out. John sat down as Hilary offered to wait in line to get their meals. He asked her for an omelette, fries and coffee.
After the bleakness of the campus up at the dorms he was happy to be surrounded by all the noise of undergraduate feeding time. It was also a further respite from the hand-to-hand struggle with Hilary. The students were the classic New England co-ed mix in their Middlebury College hoodies and sweat tops, dark blue, purple, green and grey seemed to be the predominant colours, with a few girls in more refined cashmere and a few guys in warm-up suits. They were noisy but not boisterous, more like junior professionals in an office canteen than students in a campus cafeteria. They carried their trays to the long tables, oblivious to an older, overdressed stranger in their midst.
When Hilary returned to the table with their food, two female classmates accompanied her. Debbie, a slight, dark-haired pixie of a girl with bright, mischievous eyes sat down opposite John alongside Hilary. Her home was on the outskirts of Keene in upper New York State, across the lake from Middlebury. The girls would often repair en groupe to her place for their short breaks, as they had for the previous weekend, with Robin in tow, to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was a large modified ranch house, from which her parents, who were both vets, ran a successful practice. Later Hilary would confide to John that they all thought her rather spoiled by her doting parents.
John talked with her about skiing in the area as he’d been to Lake Placid many years before. He amused them with his tale of a traumatic descent he’d experienced on the Mount Van Hoevenberg track in the Budweiser bobsleigh, comparing it with the slide down the La Plagne run in le taxi bob and the complimentary glass of champagne at the finish. He resisted telling them that the French locals called their white four-man taxi bob with its high, protective sides the fastest suppository on ice. Somehow he didn’t think that description would go down particularly well with his daugther’s friends.
Hilary looked on quietly, with a self-contained nonchalant air, as she demolished her vegetarian lasagne. She would have been proud of his restraint, he fondly thought. At his side sat Virginia, a lanky, pale, blue-eyed blonde from Minneapolis, very much quieter than the animated Debbie. She had struck up an instant rapport with Hilary in their freshman year. Both worked in the library to supplement their living allowance and one summer Hilary had joined her working at a summer camp in Minnesota. Neither she, nor his daughter, contributed much to the winter sports conversation.
It was something of a relief for John when Brad joined them. He was obviously a long- standing butt of their jokes and took them all with a good grace. He’d placed a salami sandwich, coffee and a Snickers bar on his tray, his selection the subject of gleeful derision.
‘Brad, can’t you eat anything else for lunch? You seem to have the same items on your tray every time I see you,’ Debbie charged.
‘I’ve gotten kinda used to them. Saves me from thinking.’
‘And we know you have to go easy on that score, don’t we?’ This from Virginia.
‘Yep. No doubt about it. Need to marshal my limited resources.’
‘Poor Brad, the thought miser. You can always revert to that box of Oreo cookies your mother sends you every couple of weeks,’ Hilary observed.
‘Yeah, sure. And that’s the last cookie you’re ever going to beg off me, Hilary Swift.’
John sensed there was a deeper link between his daughter and the cookie monster from New Jersey. He queried her about it as they returned up the hill after lunch.
‘Brad’s a good friend, nothing more. I think he secretly fancies Debbie. She’s more his size. I think Virginia and me are just too big for him. Too tall, I mean. But I’ve told him what I think about that. He and Debbie would be a disaster together. She’s got this weakness for jocks and wild parties. Brad just isn’t that interested in sport, the clubs or the party lifestyle. He’s resolutely not a joiner. And neither am I. I’ve stayed away from all the clubs, the replacements for the fraternities and sororities that were banned on campus a few years before I got here, and haven’t regretted all that one minute.’
‘Why banned?’
‘Simple. Alcoholism was the prevalent social disease on campus.’
‘Did it work?’
‘Er, no. The frats moved off campus. And there are still plenty of students who come here to get wasted. Middlebury still has the rep for being a social school. Club Midd they call it. I just keep out of it.’
‘But you’ve got your rugby crowd.’
‘Oh yes. Now that’s altogether different. A load of laughs. But with Brad, for all his playing dumb he enjoys nothing better than a glass of red wine, a book and a philosophical conversation. That’s why we get on so well. Except I prefer the occasional brew.’
John laughed. This was one aspect of his daughter he hadn’t put into the equation.
‘Pick us up at seven, then,’ she said when they reached the car.
‘For what?’
‘Thanks for everything. For being you. For seeing me. For letting me into your life just a bit. For not being too hard on me.’
‘No problemo. Anyway you’ve had it easy so far. You’ve only had to tackle me.’ Turning on her heel she gave him what appeared to be a pre-prepared parting shot. ‘Robin is something else altogether!’       

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Way To Go, San Diego

   The platitudinous response to San Diego is Sea World, the Zoo, Old Town and the Gaslamp Quarter. Coming away after my longest stay here I have other notable memories. As the plane mounts skyward the living Google stretch of topography shows you so much more.
   From the beaches to the mountains it is a city blessed by its lack of density. The mesas, canyons and arroyos mean there is no endless plain of ticky-tacky development. The cityscape is vertically varied with its heights and depths. The coastline offers everything from easy access beaches with smooth walking, jogging, cycling, rollerblading and skateboarding paths to towering cliffs of sandstone and mud where the rich seem to be engaging in the brinkmanship of real estate poker with sumptuous developments precariously close to the edge. The vegetation enriched by its decorative imports (palms are not a native species here) and nourished by the scarce commodity of water is semi-desert to cultivated. Fresh produce is abundant in the travelling street markets that show up one day a week in a neighbourhood parking lot and move on to the next.  Choose from the sweetest of grapes to fresh picked strawberries, plucots (new to me), green, white and yellow beans, organic breads and pickles. Vendors are friendly and know their regulars. It’s a city that gets on with its life without fuss and a camaraderie rare in the US.
   It’s relatively easy to get about. Public transport is well organised with trolleys, buses and trains for which you can buy a $5 all day ticket. Good value. Drivers are generally laid back. One rarely hears a horn blown in anger or with bravado. Cyclists have lanes on many city streets and convenient racks on the front of buses.
   My plane tracks back eastwards out of the Pacific. I can see the brown kelp beds off Point Loma, the magnificent stretch of beaches from Mission Bay up to La Jolla and to the south the spread-eagled harbour with the military airfield and the Coronado hotel on the island made famous by the Curtis, Lemmon, Monroe comedy. Further off lie the cloud-shrouded mountains of Mexico, the border only ten miles from the city centre.
Take a walk to the Cabrillo Monument celebrating the discoverer of the city on the heights of Point Loma. On my day there I was lucky to have sparkling clear views of Tijuana, on its inclined plain above the border, and a further ten miles down the coast of Baja beyond. Below the point the sailing ship used in the film Master and Commander was bending to a gentle breeze. A flotilla of dinghies fought each other for the lead in their race like demented white-winged moths in slow motion. It was Veterans Day weekend and as many families were visiting the graves of their loved ones interred beneath the lawns of the military cemetery as were trekking through the lighthouse or exploring the tidal pools below.
The equilibrium between the conservative military presence here and the radical surf ideal is curious. Each culture goes its own merry way, not without some crossover. Likewise one can set a thriving art scene against the scientific research of the universities and the bio-tech businesses, the latter now sadly downsized. There are also racially, religiously and sexually diverse communities where tolerance is practiced if not always entirely upheld.
   This is not a black and white city. It is intriguing to see the burgeoning Asian American community dominating the demographic at UCSD while latinos are a dynamic presence at SDSU. The overall mix of the city is true to the American spirit of welcoming all. This is what makes San Diego tick, the 21st century melting pot.
   The city is not without its problems, of course. Housing is prohibitively expensive, a shock to the system for anyone moving here from the American hinterland. I was based for my stay in North Park, a community of small artisanal houses slowly gentrifying into a neighbourhood to rival the adjoining South Park. The streets are wide, designed in the nuke phobia of the 1950s to accommodate tanks and tractors to clear the anticipated rubble.  
   As the name suggests it is adjacent to San Diego’s Central Park, Balboa Park. This rises from the flats of downtown to the heights on its eastern edge with hills aplenty. There is even room for a municipal golf course in the centre of the city here. Sports activities range from walking, jogging and cycling (including a velodrome) to tennis, swimming, association football, and baseball. A collection of museums that would do many other cities proud lies within the park limits, including arts, science, ethnic and the military. For local or visitor alike there is plenty to do, places to go, people to see, events in which one can participate.
If one is a true masochist one can support the two local professional teams, the Chargers in football or the Padres in baseball. Appropriately ironic names, perhaps, the former full of unfulfilled ambition, all offence, no defence, the latter without a prayer. It seemed strange to see Raider fans more in evidence and certainly more vociferous than their Charger counterparts at the Qualcomm Stadium where true to type San Diego lost their “local” Californian derby by giving up a key interception in the dying seconds.
   But why pay to watch professionals lose when you can go out and be active yourself? This seems to be the San Diego way. The beaches offer first class surfing for all, especially when the Santa Ana is blowing offshore. It’s deceptively cold so wet suits are de rigueur. And the further north one moves to the outskirts of the city the better the waves. I meditated in the tranquil gardens on the cliffside at the Golden Lotus Temple designed by Paramahansa Yoganananda before taking to the line up at Swami’s beach at Encinitas. I sipped a schooner of Natural while watching the surf school newbies return from a session at Mission Beach as the sun fell down the sky behind lifeguard station 19.
   At night the Gaslamp Quarter comes into its own with the bars, pubs and clubs. My friend Monique, a gorgeous redhead from Mexicali, who works in the downmarket Hooters, led me on to the dance floor at various watering holes. I thought Onyx had the best vibe, more latin than the others we visited. For eats I rated George on the Cove at La Jolla, my favourite, for lunch on the upper deck looking down on the pelicans, seals and sea kayaks. And a big shout for Aaron, a great bartender there, who really knows his wines. I have become addicted to fish tacos, that Baja specialty, now seemingly ubiquitous. And there is nothing like the challenge of an enormous plate of pancakes with fruit and the bottomless coffee cup at The Mission on University Avenue, rated in the top 25 breakfast experiences in the country.
   Way to be, San Diego! I will be back.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Second Part of the Prologue of American Daughters

He held her shoulders, looked her straight in the eye and choked out ‘Hi you.’
‘Hey, John. It’s been a long time.’
‘Too long. Too long. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Let me look at you.’
She was uncomfortable under his gaze and her ghost of a smile, which had faded the longer he held her, now disappeared altogether. He could see her face had become more like her mother’s. It had lengthened, become slightly fleshier. She was not at all heavy set but he thought she might become more voluptuous in middle age. She was taller than he had expected, even in her loafers. About five six he guessed. Her green eyes were flecked with brown, a throwback to his own hazel colouring.
‘Come on up to my room. Let’s not hang around out here. It’s freezing. Can you walk ok? What’s with the crutches?’ She refocused on his injury.
‘Oh that. Nothing too serious. Managed to pop something in my calf playing tennis before I left London.’
How he had cursed his brother-in-law for roping him in to a late season doubles match at Campden Hill. He hadn’t warmed up sufficiently and fell down like he had been shot, reaching up on only his fourth serve. It had been an annoyance to have to be helped from the court, an annoyance compounded at the Westminster Hospital when his leg had been strapped up and he had been handed the crutches by a kindly nurse.
‘No. It’s not too serious,’ Hilary admitted in a flat, matter-of-fact voice once she had heard the details.
‘I should be off the crutches in a few days time. Just have to keep the weight off the leg. Before I left England they told me I could put twenty per cent of my weight on it, whatever that means. Was a bit awkward getting up here.’ No, he realised too late he shouldn’t have said that.
‘You could have postponed the visit.’
‘Not likely. It’s been a long time coming.’
‘But now? Why, after so much time?’
‘Let’s talk about it when we get up to your room, may we?’
‘Robin’s got classes all day, as I think I told you on the phone, so she’ll be with us tonight. In thirty minutes we can go down to the cafeteria for lunch, if that’s ok with you? Then later on I want to do some work. So you can go on over to the hotel and check in. Ok? Make sure they don’t give you a room in the annex. The main part of the inn is genuinely colonial but the annex is fake. It’s just a modern building dressed up as old. They seem to place new parents in there unless they know what to ask for.’
‘Thanks for the advice.’ He thought he might have figured it out for himself. He was getting over the shock of hearing how Midwestern her accent was, with even a few traces of a southern drawl, no doubt the legacy of her high school years in Atlanta, and an occasional tendency to end a statement in a rising pitch that suggested the speaker was unconsciously questioning its veracity. The early years on the East Coast seemed to have left little vocal impression. There was also a throaty lack of inflexion about her voice, as if it was the product of some professor’s invented automaton. He’d noticed it on the phone but reasoned that the connection was partly responsible. Now hearing it in person he knew he had been wrong in his perception.
He looked forward to seeing Hilary’s top floor room in the dormitroyit with a sense of expectation. He knew at a glance it would give up more clues to his daughter’s Weltanshauung.
It was inevitably a small, narrow oblong in a residence hall that was one of the more recent additions to the two hundred year old campus. But she had made the most of the space by doing away with the bed and putting her mattress on the floor. The pillows were strewn with a haphazard collection of stuffed animals. To his throat-clenching delight John noticed that a pudgy, lambswool teddy bear, which had been sent over from England by his aunt after Hilary’s birth, seemed to have pride of place. Her mother had derided it as too heavy and unwieldy for a baby and put it up on a shelf. There it had stayed, to be later joined by a sibling, with the arrival of Robin, some two years later. But, by the time Hilary was five, John had reintroduced the bears as robust playmates that could withstand all sorts of physical punishment, not the least of which was catapulting them to the ceiling of the girls’ bedroom. It was a game they loved called bears in space.
Above the makeshift bed a large collage of images and text attached to a corkboard with coloured drawing pins. Extracts from Nature, press cuttings from the college newspaper showing sports tables with Middlebury highlighted in green felt-tip, a magazine page showing the bejewelled, oily alien leader in Stargate clipped to a large poster of the pyramids, a couple of sayings from The Prophet written in a flowing script, a poem in Elvish and Roman lettering from Tolkien, and a facsimile of the matrix taken from the film of that name with its lurid letters and numbers glimmering menacingly against the black backdrop. Higher up the wall a couple of shelves carried textbooks, a few sci-fi and fantasy novels and a couple of photo albums. Between the bed and the door the cupboards were all closed, revealing nothing of Hilary’s wardrobe, or sports equipment, save for two pairs of skis, one alpine and one cross-country, stacked in the corner.
Her desk was positioned in front of the window, through which could be seen, round the corner of an identical building next door, the wooded farmland stretching down towards the southern reaches of Lake Champlain with the purple haze of the Adirondack Mountains beyond. On it’s top was an untidy conglomeration of books, folders, writing pads, a frog mug, which contained a variety of pens and pencils and other stationery necessities, a desk light and a framed photograph of Hilary, Robin and their mother, all in parkas on a beach, their hair blown every which way by the wind, laughing at the camera. He noticed that Brenda looked very young with her daughters on either side, almost like their elder sister.
‘You’d best sit here,’ she said, offering John the only chair, and removing from it a pile of books.
He handed her his coat, which she put over her parka on a hook behind the door.
‘I’d prefer it here,’ he said, releasing his crutch and lowering himself painstakingly onto her mattress beside the stuffed animals. ‘That’s better.’ He stretched out his left leg across the floor. Better, he thought, to allow Hilary the high ground, sitting on the chair.
‘You sure you’re comfortable?’ she asked, leaning her bum against the edge of her desk.
‘This isn’t going to be easy.’ She had kicked off her shoes and was twitching her toes impatiently.
‘It’s alright.’ He wished he’d also taken off his jacket. The room was too warm.
‘I don’t mean that,’ she riposted quickly, indicating his leg with her foot. ‘I mean what happens next.’
‘Go on.’ John had braced himself for this. He’d heard it, rehearsed it, and never resolved it in his mind.
‘I just want to have my say. When you left I didn’t exactly even get to say goodbye.’
‘Not exactly.’
‘Please, John,’ she demanded firmly, pent up anger making her speak through tightly controlled lips. ‘Hear me out. I was seven; Robin was five. I didn’t understand. Brenda told us that you had gone away and left us. I was ashamed to go to school. It was the start of a new school year and I didn’t have a daddy. It was not until I tearfully fessed up to my teacher that I realised that lots of kids didn’t have one. Lots of kids I knew. It was like a secret society within the school. Suddenly Robin and I were reluctant and unwitting members.
‘It was not until years later, when you had ceased to exist for us, you may as well have been dead, that we began to get cards from you. Out of the blue. It was like a message from the grave. You can’t imagine. We had a complete family by then. And we’d moved to Georgia. We didn’t like it as much there but Mom was happy. Steven was our daddy then and for a while he did a very good job.’ She looked penetratingly at her father as she said this, as if to ensure she was inflicting pain.
‘You were not in our minds. The cards were an intrusion. That’s how it felt. We opened them, read them and put them away. Out of mind. And, like with this visitation now, what suddenly spurred you to send them? What are you doing here? A sudden whim?’ This last rhetorical question she uttered with as great a combination of disgust and contempt as she could muster. ‘Then all that stuff about college. Why did you think you could suddenly come into our lives by suggesting we should go to an English university? What was that all about? We’d been brought up in the States. By our mother. We’re American, and we wanted to go to college here. All those prospectuses you sent us. They went straight in the garbage.’
Only half American, he thought, immediately repressing the temptation to open his mouth to make a cutting retort. He decided to take another tack.
‘I only thought it might be good for you to broaden your horizons. A summer school in Brittany is not the whole wide world you know,’ John protested feebly.
‘When we’re ready we’ll take off I suppose. And I wouldn’t mention Brittany. Not a good idea.’
The girls had spent a summer in Brittany on a French immersion course. It followed Hilary’s high school graduation, to which John had not been invited. Despite a note from Brenda letting him know when and where they would be in France, in a fit of pique he had used the excuse of a commitment to a dig at a recently discovered Inca site at Choquequirao and refused to change his plans. So the one opportunity he’d had to meet them in Europe had gone begging.
‘And now?’
‘I’m coming to that.’
But the core revelation of her thinking was cut short by a knock on the door.
‘Hey, Lar. You in there?’
A young male voice with a Jersey accent straight out of the mean streets prompted Hilary to pitch forward from her perch against the desk and walk over to the door. She opened it and pulled the student in by the arm.
‘Hi Brad. Come in and meet my father.’ Her aggressive tone was switched off in an instant.
‘I won’t get up if that’s alright with you.’ John offered his hand.
Brad, with his curly dark hair surmounting a swarthy bespectacled face and dark day’s growth of beard, bent over to shake it.
‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Swift.’
‘And I you, Brad.’ Not just for yourself, John thought, but because you have successfully defused the bombshell Hilary had been preparing to detonate.
‘Sorry to disturb you, Lar, but I need that math text you borrowed.’
‘You didn’t disturb anything, Brad. Just having a go at John here.’
‘Don’t worry about it, Mr Swift.’
‘John, please.’
‘Don’t worry about it, John. She has a go at all of us.’ Brad smiled ingenuously at his joke.
‘Brad’s very much one of us. He doesn’t talk very much about his father.’
‘And being in construction he doesn’t talk very much about me.’
A New Jersey builder, Brad’s father had declared Middlebury a total waste of money for his lazy, untalented wastrel of a son, knowing all too well that this description would never win out against his wife’s devoted indulgence. Brad was no jock, the only type of student to impress his father. Nevertheless he looked quite muscular, if short, under his red and white madras shirt.    
‘So how is the math?’ John enquired, eager to change the tack of the conversation.
Hilary held her nose and grimaced. Brad chuckled.
‘I don’t know why she’s acting strange like that, John. She’s cruising to ace it.’
‘Yeah, yeah, so you say. I hate it, but it’s gotta be done, if I want that bio major.’
‘Such a talent, Lar, you should have gone for physics.’
‘That’s even worse for me.’
‘Not from what I’ve heard you say, debunking this quest for the theory of everything.’
‘Oh, sure. You’re the geek physicist amongst us, Brad.’
‘As long as you get the math done.’
‘Well, I won’t get it done as long as you have my text.’
They smiled at each other as if it was a private joke. In any courses they shared they split the cost of textbooks to save money. She handed him the heavy volume.
‘While she’s out drinking her beer I’ll be slaving over this.’
‘I’ve told you the drinking’s part of our training regime.’ She laughed at the thought.
‘Training? Ha! I wouldn’t like to run into your gang after training.’ He informed John that Hilary played outside centre for the women’s rugby team, and that a keg of beer completed their training programme for the week. And they topped off their matches with yet another keg. ‘Bacchantes of the oval ball.’
‘Oh really? The only reason that you know all this is that you come along to matches to perve after Natalie Wolff.’
‘What? Get outta here! That six-foot Amazon who catches all the lineout ball? You wouldn’t get me near any of that pack of yours.’
‘Me neither, if I can help it.’ She grinned playfully at him. ‘I try to keep running well away from trouble.’
Clearly, Brad went along to support Hilary but neither of them would let the other admit it.
‘You coming over to Atwater?’
‘I’ll just drop this on my desk and see you there. I’m starving.’
‘No way! You’re so predictable, Bradley. We’ll follow you down.’
Brad helped John to his feet, and led the way out of the room. Hilary stopped the elevator at the third floor to go and see if by any chance Robin had returned while Brad and John descended to the lobby. Robin’s room, two floors down from Hilary’s, faced south towards the centre of the campus. Brad hustled off and in a moment Hilary had returned skipping lightly down the stairs.
‘Just as I thought. She’s gone missing. There’s a note stuck to her door saying she’ll be back at five.’