Saturday, 4 October 2014

Five unexpected apples in my bag

You, who say you have never worked

But make a small living from song,

Release the bitter pulp of societal scorn

That hangs you low on the gnarled branch of disappointment.

Make a balm for the passion that burns in your soul.


Your head need not now dip and bow,

The weight of swollen water and gorged  promises

Need not keep limbs and will from grace

To stifle childhood song.

Feel now your spirit, grow your groove, be your song.


Grief claims you.

There is no more sun.

Tears linger, swell, pool, gush, invade, serenade

The others, who cannot see through this darkness instead

Pour wine into your glass, pray for your release.


You, flit from branch to branch taking berries,

Peg the washing out.  Chirruping you take

Thorny gossip, sunshine sheet whip it

Fold it, knead it, bake it.

Your song lights the hearth.



And now, bitter sweet you. So long you have been at the top of the tree

Giving shelter, throwing sprigs westward

Back home.  Never quite here, never quite there.

Your fusion fronds seek new silks and dawns.

Deepen your roots.  Stay still. It will come.

My Cath Kidson ruck sac was already heavy. I had bought it from the airport on a whim. It was in the sale and I knew I would need something that could hold not only my things, but things for others, English tea for a start, and tubes of bubble mixture for children, post cards of iconic UK places, chocolate bars.
That first afternoon in Zugdidi we went to hear a  choir of women sing.  The heat left ripples like snail trails on pavements. I was glad that the concert was being held in a local air-conditioned art gallery. I had no idea how important this performance was to them. We were late and they were waiting. Wearing  blue velvet dresses and open-toed  sandals   their nervous smiles flashed broken and missing teeth smattered with gold.
From Azerbaijan and classed as refugees, during Communist times, the women were seen as being the best choir in the region. Nino had set them a challenge, to perform, for me, an English visitor, songs that belonged to them, to their culture, their roots and to no longer perpetuate the propaganda machine of Stalin’s time when territorial and cultural integrity was ignored. Nino told me that these women had no confidence in this task and that it had been some months since her request. This performance  therefore was ground breaking for them. Recently denied their certificate of authentication by the Folk Lore Centre in Tbilisi, the women were down-hearted wore and air of disillusion.
The air bristled with expectation.  All the seats in the small gallery were taken. I sat in between Nino and Eliso, who was quietly whispering constant translation. Sitting next to her was a Georgian woman who was clearly suffering. Her pain was palpable. Dressed in immaculate style, her garish rings slipped from her bony fingers and she talked. She talked loudly, she tutted, she shuffled, she opinionated, she dominated and her pain sat around her, encircled her and repelled others.
As the choir sang there were increasingly hostile glances directed towards her, then the shushing started then irritable foot shuffling and then, finally Nino got up and spoke to her, asked her to be quiet.
As if there was not enough pain in the room.
I tried to focus on the women singing,  the sharp sounds of discordant harmonies both soothed and grated. Moving through each of the pieces the women grew in confidence and we travelled together through traditional  love songs, and then a joke songs which involved  a lot of gesticulation and word play. This was interspersed  with increasingly distressed  glances at the woman still chatting on the front row. There was a new song based on a poem by a local woman as well as a soul soaring song calling for Jesus and the Nightingale to join together and work  as one,  to save us all.  As I watched their eyes, their bodies, I  saw, set against the white backdrop of the gallery, the ghosts that haunted them.
The ghosts stayed with us as we walked to Mzisadari’s cafĂ©.  A poor place full of working men and cigarette smoke. Haunted memories clung on despite the huge over head fans that tried, but failed to keep the air from becoming putrid.  We sat at the back, at a long table piled  with misshapen apples, melon slices and Chvishtavi, baked cornbread with cheese.   With no performance to distract them the focus was to now on the ritual of the supra. One toast followed another, to God, to the land, to friendship, to the sons, now lost, to the daughters, the kargi gogo’s who watched us from the shadows, their dark eyes cast downwards when ever they thought I was looking. It was time to  drink,  to sing and to eat. The glares, previously reserved for the poor woman in the gallery soon turned my way  as I tried to disguise the fact that I was avoiding  food I knew would upset me. Rich with cheese the Khachapuri would have me doubled with stomach ache later, strong dark meat in walnut sauce would give me heart burn.  I tried to compensate by eating lots of salad and fruit and was truly relieved when the toasts slowed and the singing started. This was swiftly followed by dancing. As the women started to spin and twirl like swans in a forever state of emotional release  I too was able to escape from the confinement of the table, of my conscious self and release my own ghosts. Poverty, betrayal, grief, loss, widowhood, distrust, disappointment and pain were replaced by joy in companionship, connection through song, determination in friendship and freedom in dance. Just for one moment, one twirling, swirling, joyful moment I was part of that.
Later on, preparing to leave, I picked up my heavy, helpful and necessary Cath Kidson ruck sac and noticed some apples  that had been put inside. Apples, like guests, are gifts from God.
They had no idea that they had already given me so much.

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