Last month I had to cancel a planned trip to Scotland because of the sudden decline and death of our beloved cat Mumbai. He was a rare, sunny-natured, empathetic being, sensitive to our least physical or mental anguish, and always generous with his comfort. He was with us fourteen and a half years, a stretch of time I now recognize as akin to living with a guardian angel. I do not say this lightly. His compassion was palpable, warm as his fur.
Had the journey to Scotland gone ahead, I would have been visiting the gravesite of one of the kindest persons I have ever encountered – my grandmother Jessie MacIntyre. She is buried in Glasgow’s Lambhill Cemetery with her parents. I last saw my grandmother when I was five, the year my parents immigrated to Canada. She doted on me, her only grandchild. I was aware, even at that young age, of her tender concern for others’ well-being and her always gentle nature.
Sentenced to two years’ hard labour for so-called “gross indecency, Oscar Wilde spent his first month in prison bound to a treadmill. Six hours day, he laboured up the same short, steep incline, with five minutes’ rest every twenty-five minutes − activity lacking all purpose other than degradation. His next punishment, carried out all day alone in his cell, was picking apart tarred rope to extract the fibre known as oakum. This work split open the flesh of his hands.
He suffered regular bouts of dysentery and diarrhoea as a result of the wretched prison diet and unsanitary living conditions. An ear infection, which prison authorities refused to treat, left him partially deaf. The glittering, self-created dandy who delighted in outraging convention was no more. Gaunt, with shaven head and coarse prison garb, he had come to resemble the statue in his children’s story, The Happy Prince, rendered repulsively drab once his jewels and gold leaf covering were stripped away.
One of my most treasured childhood books, Jennifer and the Flower Fairies, is all in pieces. The pages have come away from the buckram spine. Pages 41/42 have fled altogether. In an historic raid, one of my younger siblings tore page 49 in half and defaced many of the delicate line illustrations with crayoned scrawls. Fortunately untouched is the flyleaf inscription in my mother’s small, neat hand: “To Wendy on her fifth birthday, with love and best wishes.”
The book’s cover is also still exactly as I keep it in memory, a deep blue border embellished with buttercup yellow drawings of the characters one will meet inside: Alfie the gnome with his teasel duster, the handsome Bluebell Prince in his billowing cape, the silly, arrogant high-hatted Lords and Ladies who fancies himself a fairy knight, and of course Jennifer herself, soaring on her newly acquired wings. Inset in this blue border is a photo portrait of the teenage Jennifer Gay, the host of BBC’s Television Children’s Hour. She has a lovely open face and smile, and a smooth pageboy hairdo secured by a red Alice band. She wears a flocked print dress of yellow-green with an immaculate white collar.
In this time of pandemic and primeval fear, it is bracing to revisit Andrei Tarkovsky’s final film, The Sacrifice, where one man’s potent prayers reverse the world’s destruction.
We first meet the aging actor Alexander on his birthday. He and his young son, Little Man, are planting a leafless Japanese tree on the shore of the remote Scandinavian island. “It looks dead,” Alexander says half-ruefully, then tells his son the tale of an Orthodox monk who planted a dead tree on a mountainside and instructed his apprentice to water it every day. The novice did so dutifully, until one morning he found the mountainside covered with blossoms.
In my copy of Simone Weil’s Waiting for God I keep an art postcard given me by my friend Rhona. It is a colour photograph of a group of sculpted figures atop an interior column of a Spanish Romanesque church. The church is St. Martin of Fromista, a traditional pilgrimage stop on the Camino de Santiago.
Rhona and I visited there together, spending a lavishly quiet hour looking up at the hundreds of human and animal figures the eleventh-century artisans carved into the stone capitals. Some of these stone-beings tell us stories we immediately recognize, like that of the naked Eve and soberly attired Adam beneath the tree with its enticing, and one fatal, fruit. But there are other figures, joined together in either torment or ecstasy, whose stories are long lost, gone with the medieval artists and worshippers who knew their plots intimately.