“We’ll get that sorted f’ya, luv,” the neck-tattooed hotel receptionist tells me as he hands me a city map that dates back to 2001, and it hits me that I haven’t been on this island in seven years. Before Birmingham for conference, there had been Edinburgh for graduation, and Bristol for business, and London for pleasure.
It takes all I have not to say,
“Have you ever read Redburn by Herman Melville? A young American sailor explores Liverpool using his father’s old guidebook from fifty years earlier in that novel. Or the documentary series Great Continental Railway Journeys, where the 1913 Continental Railway Guide is used to retrace what is left of the Edwardian perception of Europe a hundred years later?”
I shut up and ponder this apparent Anglo-Saxon fascination with belated maps on my own. Portillo and Melville are not even remotely similar, after all, and The Cube and The Mailbox would find me later through unmapped routes anyway. The receptionist would not have that sorted for me, luv, but my room would be cleaned despite my saying no housekeeping please. Some nations can afford not to be up to speed with the world, I guess.
Blessed Britain, where, thanks to a rampant regal Y-chromosome from five hundred years ago, women can today be ordained as priests.
Where a conference colleague can talk about his husband with the exact same pride I have when I brag that “my boy reads Pynchon.”
Where club managers look like Del Boy and the drunks are waited on by ambulances scattered on Broad Street Gomorrah like watchful birds, without even being summoned. I tried to imagine what that cost in comparison to this and this. But hey, at least the drunks came in all shapes and sizes. “Birmingham is very diverse,” my Pakistani cab driver would tell me on the 4-a.m. ride to the airport.
Victoria was elusive that night. She was supposed to be a beacon towards a far-from-the-madding-crowd pub, but she kept disappearing up and down Broad Street, as if somehow weightless in her stony majesty, and I would see The Floozie in the Jacuzzi* sooner than Victoria. When we finally found her, she did not care. I thought about how magnanimity comes from leisure, and freedom from oppression, where your dirty work is done for you and you have the luxury of drop-kicking your shameful to the other side of the globe. Blessed Britain.
I found shelter in the far-from-the-madding-crowd pub, after leaving the cliques and neuroses of fellow humanities’ freaks at the hotel along with my heels. I encountered a vernacular soul who had read “that terrible book” Moby-Dick twice, and made me laugh more than any of the two hundred fellow neurotics earlier. I was told that my favorite Edinburgh pub, The Blind Poet, was still standing, and I could feel it pulling at my heartstrings from seven years ago and five hours up north. I remembered that you hail a bus in the UK and say “Thank you” to the driver, I remembered how you tip over there, I remembered to look right then left, and how much I dislike ‘circuses.’ I found the Cube, the Mailbox, and the geese in the canals. I found rowdy Jamaicans in the Peace Garden, and cathedral spires craning their necks like sunflowers growing from glass and steel.
“God bless you, my sweetheart,” my cab driver would say as I left. We will have talked about qawwali and Sufism and Nusrat, and curry and cab drivers’ working hours, and the children that Britain had taken possession of and misplaced over the centuries, that were now identifying the mother ship by her wake and claiming her back.
I found my breath in displacement once more.
I realized, once again, how much I feed off my dissociation.
It had been too long.
I returned to a freshly painted apartment with no doors, to a country which has a constitutional ban on gay marriage yet has just approved two people to officially change the gender in their documents without undergoing a sex change operation. I returned to a plastic recycling plant aflame half a mile from where I live and a toxic cloud of DeLilloesque proportions. Mine is a wicked and cruel lot sometimes, and more often than not I wish a cosmic flood could wash them clean again.
I returned to find my bird on its last legs. I genuinely thought I would lose him in a matter of hours. He’s never going to recover, but he has picked himself up since I came back. My fantastic veterinarian sister reminded me that parakeets are sensitive buggers who sometimes pluck all their feathers out in protest if their owners go AWOL. Flattering as it is to think he might have just gone sicker missing me, and there’s precious few things I value more in this world than animal loyalty, my bird is a loner and I love him for it. He might be dying but he will bite your finger off if you touch him. In the face of human desperation for someone to just keep us safe and warm and hold our hand as we leave this world, I am stunned by the dignity of animals who prefer to die alone, dissociated enough to return to the very same nature that bore them.
My other "Mad people across the water" writing can be found here:
* I am told that Dubliners' own Floozie, or Biddy in the Bidet, or the Whore of the Sewer, predates Birmingham's: Anna Livia Plurabelle.