Telling Tales

Goa February 2017

I have devoured books in these last few months living in India, once a week I make a trip on my scooter to restock, I head to Palolem, a tourist beach with a long jumble of shops. I pass the endless vendors of tourist tat, the grog shops, the fast food stalls, the lines of taxis & tuc-tucs  and park up outside the Book Shop. The Bookseller is always there standing in the doorway, or rather filling it, he is at least six foot two or three, built like a proverbial brick shit-house, he sports a black bushy beard, arms like tree trunks, hands the size of dinner plates, he smiles when he sees me, reaches out a hide worn hand and shakes mine firmly.

He strikes me as the kind of chap that should be doing something else entirely, maybe he would make a good all in wrestler, or a heavy, not really the kind of fella you expect to have a Book Shop.

He ushers me into his little kingdom, his dusty domain, piles of books balanced haphazardly in stacks on the floor, some have become the victims of gravity and tumbled earthwards, there they remain from one week to another gathering dust, the tales that nobody seems to love or care for. The four walls are filled with long shelves packed from floor to ceiling, a jumble of confusion. Rosemary Colneys hip and thigh diet cosies up to Nietzsche, Rumi snuggles against Frank Sinatra, I rummage through these shelves of curious bed-fellows looking for inspiration. Each visit I select a few titles, predominantly Indian authors, I would like to understand this country I’ve spent so much time in recently a little better. I hand the bookseller my pile, he examines them, cogitates for a while and then from the ether conjures a price, I use the word conjure advisedly as it always strikes me as a feat of magic, not based on any reality, it is never a good deal, and so begins the eternal infernal game game that is to buy from a shopkeeper in India. This is the only game in town, the same one plays north or south east or west from the Himalayas to the southern sea, the bargaining-arguing game, for the shop keeper it is a kind of rite of passage, the way things are done, for me I am bored with it now, tiresome bloody game, on automatic I converse and give the impression of wanting to play along, but truthfully I just want a fair price and to go. But we go through the motions, of offer, rebuttal, of exclamation and surprise, head shakes, counter offers, suggestions, and so it goes, my eyes settle on his two young sons, always close to their father, trying to get his attention, I figure he has mouths to feed, that soon the tourist season will end and there will be no customers, it’s only a little money, after all. I agree to paying more than I need to, the deal is done, money proffered and sealed with another horny-handed shake.

I tend to read most late in the evening, it fills the spaces when hot nights make sleep elusive, I like that time, tucked up with a tale, peoples thoughts etched out on paper. I used to considerer reading  fiction as a complete waste of time, I would only read factual stuff, travel, history, biography, this seemed to make far more sense to me, reading and learning from “real”. Now I think differently, a story, a fiction has just as much relevance, sometimes more so than books which deal in real.

Story-telling is nothing new, it has been around for ever, thirty thousand years ago man drew out stories, before he had the words and language to speak them, he was telling stories, of experiences, dreams, thoughts & ideas and they were coloured in earth pigments on cave walls. It strikes me that as much as to be human is to be sapient, it is also and has always been to be a a story-teller, to be a listener to stories, and to be part of a story. To be human is to be the story.

Each of us has our own tale, whether we choose to tell it or keep it to ourselves, every other person has theirs, these tales sometimes touch and coalesce, sometimes they meet in strange unimagined places, or they bounce off one another, perhaps move in tandem for stretches, sometimes we become characters in other peoples stories, leading figures, or just bit part passing players. The stories are as diverse as those who tell them and in turn they cover the entirety of human experience, light and the dark, turbulent, gentle, meandering, the great and the good, the mad and the bad. We can listen to the stories that we encounter, be moved or affected or inspired we can turn and head away, bored and disinterested or even disgusted by them, sometimes we remain too wrapped up in our own stories to notice those around us , but we are always in the depths of a story, as listener, as story-teller or as character.

A chap by the name of Christopher Booker spent more than thirty years of his life coming up with the book Why we tell stories* his research led him to the conclusion that every story ever written slots into one of seven plots.  Given that he spent such a long time on this project it’s fair enough to hear him out  but I have to say that the idea of every possible story every told or that can be told boiling down to one of seven stories pisses me off, I want more possibilities than that, I want an infinite field of possibilities.

Mr Bookers seven plots are as follows:-

Rags to Riches
Voyage & return
Overcoming the monster
The comedy
The quest
The tragedy
The rebirth

Amongst the stories in Goa that I have seen unfold two have stood out for me more than most, perhaps it would be better to call them chapters, for me they share a theme, what happens when a person is faced with mortality, when they come face to face with their demons & ghosts. I’ve changed nothing but the names, the rest is as best as I can recollect and am able to describe.

Nicholas

I met Nicholas at a Yoga class, well to be strictly accurate I should say I heard him first, long before I set eyes on him. Nicholas as I was to learn was the man behind the voice, the grunts and the groans and the moans, the loudest I have ever heard in a Yoga class. There I am, on the mat, listening attentively to the teacher, moving as instructed through the asanas, doing my best, but from behind me a wave of sound accompanies each stretch and twist, each bend. I begin to think not of the practice, but of some poor wretch being stretched on a medieval torture rack,  the sound of moaning in exquisite high decibel pain. It’s no good, I have to look, surreptitiously  I peek behind, at the mats and their occupants. I look at each in turn until my eyes rest on a middle aged man sitting in his underpants, his face is rosy red and contorted, his eyes scrunched up. He sports a white goatee beard, slightly mad white hair which is tied down with a rag around his forehead. Yep, that’s him. I return to my asanas and do what I can to ignore the wailing.

Over the next couple of weeks Nicholas is there at each class, he remains eternally noisy, I begin to accept the sounds as part of the experience, in a way I kind of begin to like it, it makes me smile, and unyogic me each time he cries out or moans in an Asana that I find easy I get a feeling of smugness, of being more able than he is, better somehow and as we are quite close in age I am happy about that.

Nicholas I decide is great comedy value, he arrives at a class, the life and soul of a party, he talks animatedly about his exploits the night before, cracks a joke or two and settles down to the class in his baggy old pants, then moans for the next hour and a half. This continues class after class, until one morning he arrives with his waist wrapped in a cloth. When he gets to his mat he explains to us in a hushed tone that the teacher had called him aside at the previous class and talked about his pants.  It was suggested that it might be better, in order not to disturb other students if he were to invest in some shorts.

So, I did. he says, he unfurls the cloth around his waist, and triumphantly stands there in his new striped shorts. Now whilst the replacement of a baggy old pair of pants with smart new shorts one would imagine was straightforward enough, with Nicholas it was something else entirely. As I am in one asana I happen to glance behind me, there is Nicholas, he has taken the teachers suggestion  literally and ditched his pants all together for the shorts. For there like a wrinkled brown paper bag containing a couple of old walnuts are his testicles, hanging out of the shorts. And that way they remain for the rest of the class, Nicholas oblivious to the outage.

As time goes on his utterances gradually subside in classes, I discover the teacher once again had taken him to one side, and said to him that really, if he tried there was no need to make so much noise, and so Nicholas, all credit to him listened and did, make less and less noise………….

I would see him outside of Yoga classes, at the beach, at bars, we would say hello, chat, and then one day we had a longer conversation, more followed. I discovered a very different side of him  to the one I had imagined.

Like myself this was not Nicholas’s first visit to Goa. He came last year, only then as he told me he had arrived in a wheelchair. But perhaps I need to go back a little further, three years ago his life changed completely in the course of a day, let me explain.

Nicholas is from London, he is now fifty-nine, three years ago he was the owner of a successful business, he employed lots of people, he had money. Then a trip to the doctors gave him the news nobody wants to hear, he was told he had cancer. I never went back to work, he told me. Hearing I had cancer changed everything.

Nicholas left the UK, lost himself in Asia, back then he said you could find me on a beach somewhere, off my face, if you offered me drugs I would take anything you had. Last year he came to Goa, in a wheelchair he explained. Back then I was being prescribed twenty one different pills by the doctors, he told me, some to treat the cancer, some to treat the effects of the pills I was taking for the cancer, I was a mess he said. And then, well then somebody suggested I try out Ayurveda, and Yoga. Well what the hell I thought, it cant do any harm. So Nicholas began, ayurvedic treatment, yoga, eating more healthily, doing what he could to exercise, laying off the non prescription meds. You know what, a year on twenty one pills have become one pill a day, and I can move, I am in a very different place.

I began then to see Nicholas in a different way, all that noise in the Yoga shala wasn’t a comedy turn, ok perhaps it was quite funny, but really it was about a  man fighting his illness, doing his best to make himself well. And my smugness, about being better, well, here was a man with a fight on his hands, and he was fighting, and what exactly was I doing? Not a lot………..

Nicholas talked about his cancer, it’s my karma you see. I’m sorry I don’t understand I said to him, what do you mean it’s your Karma?

Well, I have prostate cancer, that’s my Karma, you see I’ve been a shit to women all my life, I left my wife with four children and buggered off to enjoy myself, to screw around. I’ve always used women. Getting prostate cancer was my Karma.

I once thought of Nicholas as a comedy character, I see much more than that now, I admire him. I admire his tenacity, his spirit, that despite the challenges he faces that he always seems to find a smile. There is a  twinkle in his eye and this man who has faced his own mortality is clearly enjoying his life.  I admire him because there is no arrogance in him, just honesty, that he can look at himself and his actions and admit his shortcomings, that above all that he does his best. What more can a person do?

Juliet

I met Juliet for the first time on this last new-years eve, well more accurately  it was two or three a.m. on new years day, at a party at a bar on a beach in Goa. The music was banging away the sand pit dance floor packed, the neon lights flashing & the booze flowing like there was no tomorrow. I was there on the dance floor, dancing away, like plenty of other revellers my legs and arms oiled with drink, for me Old Monk Rum & Tuborg Beer, funny how a little booze can give a person the idea that actually they really can dance.

Well there I was, me and my temporary conviction dancing with my friend, we were joined by two women, both seeking safety, escaping the attention & the active hands of the local boys, who circled unaccompanied western girls on the dance floor, rather like flies drawn to sugary cakes, swarming around and landing every once in a while, only to be shooed away, and then to return a few minutes later. The four of us move to the music and shout to each other over it. Our quad continues like that for a while, Juliet is being stalked from behind, by a young Indian boy who clearly fancies his chances, he is drunk and smiling, all arms and legs,  I shoo him away, he seems to settle again a every few minutes later.

My friend and I take a break from the floor to cool off, twenty metres away it’s cool and calm and much quieter at a table on the beach, we look towards the dancing,

My friend says she is worried, Why?  I ask. Well it’s Juliet, there’s something vulnerable about her.  I look up towards Juliet, she is snaking through the dance floor, followed by the  Indian boy in hot pursuit, I think of a small frightened deer in the undergrowth being pursued by a tiger, a rather ungainly juvenile one , all limbs and awkwardness on his first hunt, and making a terrible hash of it. Juliet slips away from the dance floor and into the cover of the night.

I know what you mean I reply.

Over the next couple of weeks I saw Juliet on a number of occasions, when we talked I began to build up an impression of her and learn a little of her story.

Home for Juliet was West London, close to where I had lived for a couple of decades, we talked about the same cafes & streets & bars and so it was surprising that having lived in such close proximity that we actually met 8000 km’s from the place we called home.

Juliet is forty years old, she is short, has long dark hair, dark eyes, she is a London Girl through & through. In Goa she is almost never without a camera with the most enormous lens slung around her neck, poised ready to snap away at whatever catches her eye, she is here for a month, taking a break from the cold & winter of the UK. She will do some Yoga, maybe a course or two, get in some sun and of course snap away.

Juliet explains that she is single, though when she says it I sense that there is more to it, something in her voice doesn’t sound convincing. I push her and she says she was in a relationship, but now she was single. He died she adds. There is a silence, I wonder what to say, I can only think of the word Sorry. I say I am sorry to hear that. Another pause follows. I fill the space, Do you mind me asking you what happened?. She replies it was five years ago. There is another long pause. I think of all that time, five years, and see in front of me somebody still hurting.

We talk and she speaks animatedly about her man, what he did, what he was like, how much she loved him. Her demeanour as she talks seems to become lighter, the pained look fades and she begins to smile, she looks like a different person.

Then she says that he died of cancer, that she nursed him at home though the final stages of his illness. A haunted look settles on her face, it feels as if she shrinks in front of my eyes, like she sinks into herself.

We bump into each other over the next few weeks, say hi & talk briefly, but no more than that. I feel sorry for her, think of her as a kind soul, one that is lost.

Later I hear that Juliet has had a wedding ceremony on the beach, how did that happen?

It transpires that she had a spiritual wedding, with her man, he was there in spirit, and in a small tin of ashes. This made me feel sad, for her, this rather sweet woman, determined to stay in love with her man. And yet at the same time I am also struck by the waste, by the futility.

However strongly she feels, regardless of the power of her memories of the love she holds this can go nowhere good. There can be no touch, no scent, she cannot argue with him and make up, or hear his heart-beating, the feel of her skin against his, or wake up with him asleep on the pillow next to her. She cannot say I love you, or hear him telling her those same words. She can only love him as a memory, as a ghost.

Love is powerful, for Juliet it is a ghost that haunts her, that she wants to haunt her, and with it she lives in memories. I wonder if she will one day be able to let it go, let that love rest where it belongs and live her life in the present. If she cannot then I can only think for her story as a quiet tragedy playing out, not in the pain of losing her man, of the cancer, as horrible as that no doubt was, but the tragedy of losing herself in her yesterdays, by remaining there in her past she loses the present and the possibilities of the future. Resolution can only be found in being able to look on what was with acceptance, dusting down memories from time to time when needed, perhaps  remembering them fondly for what they once were, but put  them back in the cupboard where they belong, head back to the here and the now.

Was is a yesterday,  been and gone, let it rest.

Now I may sound like Mr.Judgmental, and I am, but the thing is sometimes somebody elses story often shines a little light on your own. I am sad for Juliet, but you know what on some sort of level I am angry with her, part of me would like to be able to shake her up and say look, I like you, you are a really lovely woman, but for fucks sake get with it, you are wasting your time, that man is dead and gone, he ain’t coming back, nothing you think or do will change the reality. So you know what, the best thing to do is to forget about him, I’m sorry if that sounds harsh, I get that you loved him, but believe me it’s for the best. Move on now, it’s been years, how long do you want to carry on this way?

But you know what, after all that is said and done then I might just take a good long look at myself and take my own advice.

I have learnt a lot from these two people, I like them both, very much, but what strikes me most is that it is not so much what happens to us that is important to our life stories, but how we come to view those experiences, that becomes the story. Sometimes an experience will overwhelm a person and break them, sometimes a dark incident or even a tragedy becomes the door that opens to an entirely different world. It appears to me that be it conscious or otherwise we chose which it becomes.

Maybe I’ve been in my own story far too long, at times I have made it into a comedy, some might describe it as a farce, but what the hell it’s my story, nobody elses, When it comes to monsters, the only one I’ve really come across is the one who’s voice comes from somewhere deep down inside, he has this annoying habit of making a lot of noise, seeking attention and talking lots of crap, I try to ignore him as best I can.

When it comes to rags & to riches, I have met people who could be described as rich, even super rich, they did not have happy stories, some of the poorest I’ve encountered in turn struck me as amongst the happiest. I guess from where I am looking right now I believe that riches, the real ones are often found in places that surprise us, that the most valuable are not bought or worked for, or won or even stolen, riches just kind of appear, they stay with you for awhile, a gift that if you are wise you recognise, but more often than not you only realise that you were rich when you no longer are.

I like the idea of life as a quest, I believe that most good tales inevitably have some aspects of the tragic, but that an entire story only becomes a tragedy if the author chooses to describe it that way.

My favourite stories are those of voyages, of exploration and discovery, of curiosities, of the unexpected, of thrills & delights. I like my vistas wide and open, the beauty of nature,  I like lives lived to be less ordinary, I warm to the mavericks and those that don’t walk a conventional path, I admire those from wherever they come that presented with challenges do their best to overcome them. And that’s whats important, trying.

I like a journey on which you meet people that inspire you, and from time to time, just once in a while where you find someone you love.

Mr Booker talks about the voyage & the return as being one single plot of the seven. I cannot agree with him, a voyage indeed, but a return? Can the lead character ever really go back? If he does so then what he finds has surely changed, or maybe it was never really what he once thought it was, and come to think of it any decent voyage changes a person, so if you go back you see what was there differently. Nope, there is no going back, only going ahead. Each story has it’s chapters, it’s story line, it’s turns and folds, it’s beginning and it’s end, as for seven plots, well I think the stories we tell are infinitely variable, we mingle many of those plots together, the only limit to our story is the power of our imagination, and what powers the imagination holds, with it we describe our experiences and colour our world, we tell our stories and in the telling we give them life and they become our reality.

To be human is to be a story, it is also the freedom to choose the tale you tell.

Christopher Booker

Why we tell stories

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Seven_Basic_Plots


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