The Russian Couple

Every morning I go to the same cafe to get my work or writing done for the day.
It’s quiet.
It isn’t too hot or humid. (My brain functions better in the early hours.)
You can meet people here if you like but there is no obligation to interact.
At the same time each day a young Russian couple comes in.
They share a smoothie bowl.
He stirs and mixes the granola into the fruit smoothie and she always has the first spoonful.
They eat from one another’s spoons.
Have deep conversations with eye contact that can melt the walls around them.
I know. I’ve seen it.
They are lean with good postures.
It wouldn’t surprise me if they are dancers – ballet – they have poise and grace in movement and  in stillness.
Today she wears a red skirt.
He is an experiment in monochrome embracing the spectrum of grey.
They mirror body language as they drink their post breakfast coffees. Her’s a flat white. His an espresso. Thought they drink both from the same sized cup.
I wonder if they request their coffee to be served this way.
Light conversation peppers the coffee drinking.
They touch one another’s hands, fingers intertwining often.
When he talks her face opens like a flower.
Receptive, beckoning, yearning, grounded.
Some mornings she writes in her notebook for up to an hour.
Filling the pages with precise clean lines of script.
As she writes he reads but looks up to observe his love often.
His expression softens in observing.
This morning they leave directly after finishing coffee.
They step outside, look deeply at one another and walk off in different directions.
I have not seen them part before.
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The Howling Laments

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She had her first Daahl Bhat in four years last night.
Eating it with a fork felt unnatural.
She worked hard to learn how to eat with her right hand. Never eat with your left hand, that is the dirty one used for bodily things.
Nepali grandmother was pleased when she started eating properly.
Wash your hands before the meal.
Observe the food before you with gratitude.
Scoop a little ball of rice into your hand and punctuate it with daahl, curry, saag, curd or her favourite, achar – a type of fresh pickle made with whatever is seasonal. Repeat as necessary. Forgive yourself for the messy curry marinated hand.
At the end of the meal go outside and rinse and wash the platter.
Yesterday’s evening meal has pulled her slightly out of place or it could have been the whispers of Nepali she could hear leaking out from the kitchen or the pictures of pre earthquake Kathmandu and Pokhara.
It was visceral.
She could feel how the air texture changes as you cross that invisible line at Dombre.
The dust shaking out from lungs soaked in the essences of Kathmandu, temple, dirt and poverty.
The view from Monkey temple on a clear day when the vultures circling or a monkey screaming in her face is nothing but beauty despite the thousands of steps to reach such sacred ground.
Salt lassi, buff momo, street dogs telegraphing neighbourhood gossip via howl.
One evening after a fight with Lover, House Dog begins to howl as Lover’s footsteps click away down their narrow street.
This howl is picked up by another, and then another and over a course of an hour the dogs of Kathmandu sang to her a lament.
A  lament of broken things and discordant love.
As the howls once again grow close she wraps a blanket around her waist, slips on jandals and pitter patters her way downstairs to the street.
Greeted by House Dog  -howls swim through her – a proximal hum.
House dog has let the canine world know they have fought again – this one is loud.
Gossip.
But House Dog loves her and she him.
They are howls of concern, love songs with deep sorrow as they all know the night isn’t over yet.
Walking back upstairs is an act of placing eggshells on the floor. Each step mimicking the  disruption that will be his return.
She smoked cigarettes in those days. Actual or black market Marlboro Gold – the secret to telling the difference was the blue or pink tinted “imported” sticker.
There was a comfort to this self destructive ritual.
Tap the soft pack, place the filter tip between softly pursed lips, to the left hand side of the bow, fumble between couch pillows for the lighter, flick the self contained flame into being, inhale deep smudging yourself with smoke.
The cleansing release and filth of it all.
Smoke one, smoke another, fall asleep.
Wake up with Lover standing over her.
Drunken wanting eyes looking her up an down.
Her as object.
Fuck.
“Hey baby, I’m sorry baby.”
As his hand reaches out towards her hip.
 There is a moment that many women know –  capitulating to sex is “easier” and/or safer than stating a boundary. 
“Are you mine, baby…are you?” tone of voice shifting ever so slightly.
Internally she is a very firm NO, actions and machinations are whirring a strategy out.
A clockwork of survival.
But a no means shouting, broken things, and the neighbours have a new baby.
If she says yes it will  hurt a little, he’ll be mean, but it is a pain she can live with.
As it happens House Dog begins lamenting.
It spreads across Kaldhara, Thamel, Lazimpat and she’s sure that howl crossed the sacred but violated Bhagmati River.
Once the life blood of the city it’s waters now sometimes turn black, it looks thick and uninviting, with the odd cow floating under bridges entangled in plastic bags. Children still swim here, wild pigs and landless families battle for space and a little breathing room.
A relentless subsistence existence.
Daughter’s disappear along the river banks – often.
Young pretty women working for trafficking cartels befriend the vulnerable. After a few days these new friends decide to have a “spontaneous” adventure to India.  And the next thing you know said daughter is in a warehouse in  some hidden nook in the arse end Kathmandu and about to be shipped out to the circuses or brothels of Calcutta.
It is a normality for the lower castes and landless either that or some nice “education agent” turns up at the village and offers to take the children to a very good school in the valley for a very good fee.
“Oh you have no money – no problem – why don’t you sign this piece of paper (holding your land against the cost of the education) Nothing can go wrong this is a very good deal for you. I promise.”
A few weeks later that child is in an orphanage and some white lady is paying the owners $200 per week volunteering to help the poor orphan.
Isn’t distraction a marvellous thing.
Lover is done, fallen deeply into a rough sex induced stupor.
She never calls it what it really is. That would be too bold of an unpacking.
She tip toes out out of the room, patters down the stairs, eggshells smashed underfoot, opening the door to be greeted by House Dog.
Together they sit.
Housedog and her as the sky cracks open to dawn’s cacophony of howls.
Sometimes the howl is all there is.
It swallows her whole.

Travelling with the dead: transit

davThe little grey box and I have made it to Hong Kong.

We’ve had no issues going through the layers of security. We are surviving the physical manifestations of bureaucracy that are integral to international travel.

I have four hours in this transitional space, a numb space, and that is how I feel, numb.

The magnitude of what I am undertaking has struck me, legs up the airport wall trying to drain fluid, it has struck me deep.

And then there I am again  beside my  Nan’s bed in the last hours of her life transitioning from this to whatever is next.

Her breathing is laboured. That deep rattling breathe that occurs before death. There is no sound on earth like it.

“Nan, I’m here…Tui is here too.”

(Tui is a family dog – a little terrier and the best of canine creatures.)

The tone of Nan’s breathing changes.

Deep breathe in and then a soft “I love you”, another deep breath and another soft “I love you.”

This continues for the last hour we spend together. This is how we say goodbye. Every god damn breathe she has with me is to to say she loves me.

Every damn breathe.

“I love you.”

I stroke her hand, so fragile, as the life leaves her body.

“I love you too Nan.”

I stand up, the dog licks Nan’s face.

I kiss my Nan on the lips lifting my hand from hers.

The dog jumps from the bed.

I look at my Nan, a tiny sparrow in a huge bed, wrapped in her favourite grey mohair blanket.

I put Tui on her lead.

I look at Nan again. This is the last time I see you alive.

You take another deep breathe and I turn away tears pouring down my face.

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Walking down the corridor away from my Nan is one of the hardest things I have ever done. I could have stayed there fore ever and yet I left. Other people needed to say goodbye and we had said everything we needed too.

We knew we were loved. That we loved one another. Truly, madly, deeply.

We loved one another through trauma, through the mundane, through clearing up the poop of litters and litters of Labrador puppies, through ironing sheets perfectly flat, through the passing of family members, through marriage, through divorce, through failure, through success, through moving homes, through family fights, through riding horses, through mad adventures, through danger, through our despair at the lack of reasonable gluten free bread.

We were loved.

And so this trip is my act of love to a life sometimes fraught with drama but one filled with love. Even if somewhat damaged love at times.

Life will always impose it’s circumstances.

The  Cathay Pacific flight from Hong Kong to Paris has just been called.

I check Nan in her little grey box. I bought a bag especially to carry her and my camera gear. She’s tucked in next to my Canon and it’s lenses. She’s held softly in the world whatever turbulence we hit.

Poleaxed by the first flight , bent weirdly to fit the seat, the lights of seat screens visible behind my eyelids  I embrace morpheus deeply. The deep disrupted sleep of the traveller.

And before I know it we have arrived. I’m in the French immigration processing queue at Charles De Gaulle, passport in hand and a sheath of papers for the little grey box.

The seriously armed gentlemen don’t even ask, it is “Bonjour, Ça va?” stamp and go.

I whisper to Nan as I walk into the Arrivals hall.

“Nan, we’re here.”

Our driver is waiting. It takes us an hour to get into the city. But we are here. It has begun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travelling with the Dead: One final journey with my grandmother

This story first appeared in The Spinoff July 18, 2018

In my carry on luggage is a little grey plastic box. On that little grey plastic box is a name. That name is my grandmother’s.

The little grey box is filled with her ashes.

I am returning my Nan to where she was happiest in Bath, England via a trip to Paris.

Nan and I always talked about travelling Europe together. But life happened as it does and we never walked the streets we talked of.

My Nan was a rule breaker. She made unimaginably hard decisions to inhabit her own life on her terms…

Read the rest here

 

Guerrilla Aid

I’m super proud to announce the extended trailer release of the documentary I am producing Guerrilla Aid – Breaking the rules to rebuild Nepal.

At 11.56am April 25th 2015 a 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal.

From that moment we at Non Fiction Nepal have been filming aid missions – fly on the wall style – documenting what unfolded and is still unfolding three years after the initial quake andover 300 aftershocks.

We’re doing something that hasn’t been done before – going to the villages not reached by aid agencies or government support and documenting the long term aftermath (villages are still broken, some are still homeless…swathes of the country still needs support to rebuild) and recovery as delivered by an ad hoc Guerrilla Aid team.

Director Hamanita Paradigmus (Hamilton Pevec)
Producer by Neesha Bremner
Production Consultant Tobie Openshaw

We are actively looking for sponsors, backers and funds for post production.

Please contact me neesha@storytellerproductions.net if you’d like to get involved or wish to support us to get Guerrilla Aid completed.

 

A Eulogy for Joan

On May 30, 2017 my Grandmother Dorothy Joan Antrobus died. Later this month I will be travelling to Europe to do the trip my Nan and myself talked about but never managed. Below is the eulogy I gave at her funeral.

 

I love you

(deep breath)

I love you

(deep breath)

I love you

(deep breath)

I love you

(deep breath)

 

I love you are last words my grandmother  ever said said to me.

 

In a soft moan as she took each breath. I was holding her hand . Our family dog Tui was curled up beside her. Every few moments Tui would lick Nan’s hands trying to get her to engage as Nan finally let go of a life she held onto so furiously over the last six years. Even though she had retreated from interacting in the wider world.

Nan somehow knew a dog was with her as she let go of this life. Her small hand reached out to Tui and she stroked her slowly and rested her hand on her back. Nan, Dorothy Joan Antrobus became calmer. She seemed to settle knowing a dog was with her.  I am grateful I was there for that moment. I am grateful my Nan spent time with her truest deepest love – a dog –  in the last hours of her life on Tuesday May 30th 2017.

There was my beautiful, tenacious, charming, disarming and sometimes fierce Nan, surrounded by pictures of her beloved Labradors, with a picture of  her favourite Adam overlooking her, slowly leaving this world with a little dog by her side. A little dog giving her the companionship she needed.

It is exactly how it should have been.

It is strange how fate decides how the seams of our lives touch one another and are woven together…sometimes never to be unbundled… but filled with a complex deep love regardless.

A love the acknowledges the tangents of our lives, the ones we decide and the ones chosen for us

For Dorothy Joan Antrobus and I our lives where woven together as grandmother and granddaughter in late 1975.

Where our lives entwined there was love, there was pain, there was joy, there were dogs, puppies, dogs , more dogs, more puppies and horses and in moments there was a shared sadness. But where our threads combined there was us- drinking gin and tonics at five thirty on the dot, cleaning up puppy pens, walking happy labradors, hacking ponies and most infuriating for me as a teenager ironing sheets to a flat perfection. “Stupid girl, there’s a wrinkle!”

Joan’s home was a safe place in the world for me as I grew up. BBQ’d chicken cooked by “Froggy” otherwise known as Commander Michael Antrobus, Nan’s beloved second husband, by the rose garden at Redoubt road. Adam Nan’s adored favourite Labrador lying resplendent in the late evening sun. Busy days walking the fields across the road or hacking a pony to Flatbush pony club or an exciting trip to the Manukau mall. Joan fussing, toast in my special toast rack, teaching me to set the full dining table with the correct silverware and layout. Falling asleep in a room especially made up for me. These are the memories I will cherish. I have dined with lords and ladies and the odd Nepali general and passed with flying colours due to those skills embedded by my grandmother.

Joan was a private woman. So the deep details of her life have left with her.

But some things we know. We know her essential character and what she loved.

We know Joan was born January 21st 1928 to Eileen and Frank Hannaford. My understanding is she was born in Vancouver as the family  made their way to New Zealand via the colonies. Frank was a merchant trader, Eileen a home maker. There was a store here in Auckland that sold clocks and other such items. The family home was in Parakai Drive in Orakei and it is here in Auckland Joan’s life long friendship with Pam began as their mothers were firm friends.

Pam and Joan attended St Cuthbert’s and Solway together.

Pam was the constant in my grandmother’s life. With her at the beginning and here today as we feel her passing. Thank you Pam for all you were to Joan. Thank you for all your love and care when Joan chose to retreat from the world.

I’d like to acknowledge my father, Joan’s only child, Andrew Bremner. Andrew was born from her first marriage to Doug Bremner in 1950. Their’s was a short marriage in a time when it wasn’t conventional to part. But Andrew was the gift of that union for all its flaws and complications. And my Nan for all her sophistication and Britishness was not a conventional woman even if it sometimes made her life and relationships unduly tricky. Joan was beautifully flawed like all of us.

After the dissolution of her first marriage Joan left New Zealand for the United Kingdom and from what I can garner from sifting through boxes of photographs spent time in Singapore and Hong Kong having adventures before settling in Bath where she eventually married Commander Antrobus.

In ole blighty the Franco’s were amongst Joan’s nearest and dearest. Joan maintained a close friendship with the Franco’s over the years  despite returning to New Zealand through letters, long phone calls and trips to the UK.

Back in New Zealand with Michael Redoubt road became the centre of Joan’s world with her beloved labradors, her white and yellow rose beds ( I had the dubious pleasure of dead heading on numerous occasions). Joan adored and cherished that home and with it’s selling a little part of her died and she began to retreat from the world. That green house and acreage had been the centre of things, her life with Michael here in NZ until his passing. Her world with dogs and her many operes – Andrea and Annabel most particularly. Joan adored those girls even though she must have been a challenge at times to live and work with.

When Michael passed, dogs, Southerly Kennels and everything Labrador became my Nan’s world. Thank you to the Kennel Club and Nan’s Southerly Kennel partners and others for being here. Thank you for the joy you added to her life. And a special thank you must be given to just labradors in general for existing. You where her north , her east and west – her beloved Southerly. Her joy and meaning came from your demeanour, your strong gate, your wagging tails and fine companionship. Good dogs!

A special mention must be given here to Barbie Gianotti who passed on Nan’s birthday this year. Barbie cared for my Nan. Barbie called me shortly before her death to ensure I understood Nan’s wishes and kept me in line over the years when she felt I wasn’t meeting my obligations as Joan’s granddaughter. I will be for ever grateful to Barbie and her husband Bill. They ensured my Nan was cared for in the ways she wished, even when she changed her mind a thousand times. I imagine Joan and Barbie are watching us now, surrounded by happy dogs and gorgeous horses, drinking a cheeky gin.  And Bill thank you for all your care and love and all the organising over the last week. I am so grateful my little sparrow, my Nan had such fine friends looking after her well being.

I have missed a million details of Joan’s life, her stint as a consultant for Elizabeth Arden, her love of Rudolph Steiner and anthroposophical philosophy, her love of fashion, her adventures abroad, an exploration of why she could be so jolly posh, of why she made the decisions she made which some of us, to this day live with. But never-the -less today Nan we acknowledge you, we all loved you, each in the best ways we could, and we are glad to have had you and your stories woven into the fabric of whom we are, the good, the sad and everything in between.

 

 

Dorothy Joan Antrobus.

You were dearly loved.

Nan.

I love you too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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American Immigrant

For your listening pleasure check out the podcast I co-produce American Immigrant.

American Immigrant follows the life of American film maker Hamilton Pevec as he negioates life, love, family and natural disasters in Nepal.