Asp (Parts 1 & 2)
My daughter aged 20: a tall, handsome girl, blessed with the wholesome Scandinavian features of her mother…..A bohemian, in spirit, dress, and the way she knits her hair with a carved wooden needle, a Buddhist charm picked up in South East Asia. This girl is out on her own, possessing a wilfulness and stubborn determination untraceable on either side of her biological family. Nothing at all like her older brother – that quiet, well-mannered, English-born doctor, fluent in three languages, first in his class in every subject that matters. Worships him, yes, in her own mischievous way. But don’t ask her to take his advice – don’t ask her to take anybody’s advice…..
No doubt at all as to where she’s going: those long legs of hers stride purposefully and elegantly towards their destination, same now as when she was five years old, leading us – her parents - to school. First day: she walks past kids who are crying, kids who are standing paralysed as though the earth is about to swallow them whole. Can’t understand it. ’Why are they so scared ?’ she asks. ’Who can be scared of going to school ?’ Not her, that’s for sure. She leads us on…..shows us round. ’This is my coat hanger…..This is my locker…..This is the place where I’ll eat my lunch…..’ Five years old going on fifteen. Couldn’t wait to find her desk. Couldn’t wait to grab a front row seat and make the transition from toddler to child…..not that she sat in her damned seat for long. I’ve got the reports to prove it. Always getting up, always moving around, always restless. Getting her to sit through class was like trying to contain a gust of wind. Got so bad when she was eight that the school appointed a child psychologist to sit with her…..Woman named Gitte (took early retirement so I hear and I’m not surprised)…..Had instructions to keep her young ward chained to the desk. ’Why can’t I get up ?’ ’Because the teacher is speaking.’ ’I know she’s speaking.’ ’Then you also know you have to be quiet and still.’ ’But I don’t want to be quiet and still.’ ’You have to stay where you are’ ’This lesson is boring’ ’Stay where you are!’ ’This teacher can’t teach me anything…..’ ’Shhhh!’ ’This teacher can’t teach for sugar!’
And nine times out of ten she was right. If she was curious about a subject she devoured it: devoured films, literature, picture books until there wasn’t anything more to cram into her brain. Sat for hours pouring over the family atlas. I sat with her, too, pointing out India and the Americas and tiny little islands I never knew existed. We sat there with the whole world before us, her impatience to visit every major city - learn every major language, see every national treasure - turning her inside out with excitement. ’If I want to learn about something, I’ll learn about it. If I don’t, I won’t…..’ And that was the way it was, from the moment she sat in her front row seat aged five to the moment she dropped out of university to travel the world aged nineteen. Not travelling in just one country, you understand; not travelling through just one continent – ’The whole world, dad. I want to go round the whole world.’
’Two more years’ I told her. ’Two years and you’ll have your degree. Can’t you wait ? Can’t you take a short trip in the summer like everybody else ?’
’Round the world, dad…..that’s worth more than a degree – more than two degrees. That’s real life experience.’
’You’re getting good grades. You’ve got through your exams. It’s not as though you’re struggling, for christsakes…..If you were struggling then maybe I’d understand…..’
’I’m bored. I need to get away…..University won’t disappear…..Lots of people drop out for a year or two.’
’What about money ?’
’What about money ?’
’You need money to go round the world, sweetheart. And you’re not touching your savings so don’t even ask.’
’I can earn money, dad…..I can wash up, do odd jobs…..’
’Please, sweetheart. Stop pretending to be naive. Stop trying to wear me down…..’
But she did wear me down. Not just me, either: her mother, her brother: In two different languages we pleaded with her. Even my own mother, her grandmother in England, pleaded with her on the phone. ’Listen to what your father says’ she said but said it in a way that couldn’t conceal her admiration for this strong-willed young madam who was on the verge of doing anything and everything she wanted.
And so she went. We let her go. Gave her money, got her vaccinated…..then spent the next twelve months worried sick, waiting for postcards, letters and mails from every corner of the globe. In her absence she brought her parents back together again: after ten years apart I started having dinner with my ex-wife once a week. Sat there just like old times over a bottle of wine discussing our absent daughter. And when she returned in one piece and took those first steps down the plane, looking lean and tanned and wise beyond her years – a double first graduate in the science of Getting What You Want - I thought: at last I’ll be able to relax a little. Thought: her system might now be purged of this obsession to see and do. And I ask you: how wrong was that…..?
She decides against university. University sucks. It’s a waste of time. ’We made a deal’ I say.
’We didn’t make any deal, dad…..’ she says.
’Finishing up university is important’ I say but this is met by a loud Pah!
’It’s not important. It’s the least important thing in the world. On a scale of 1 to 10 me going to university is minus 7. Have you any idea of the poverty…..the suffering…..of the help that’s needed in the world ?’ she says, as though poverty and suffering are the most recent phenomena known to mankind. Then she lists all the places she’s been - all the squalor and hunger and injustice stretching back centuries she’s seen - and when I dare offer an opinion, an opinion that suggests she complete her education before she saves the human race, she says ’No – I want to save the human race now!’…..says it with such ferocity and determination that I throw up my hands and say: ’Ok. Ok. You win! Skip university! It’s your future - mess up all you want.’ ’I intend to’ she shouts as I slam the door in her face. And this is how our life goes on…..
Next thing I know she’s taken a job at a refugee camp – a ramshackle collection of porta cabins lying on the outskirts of the minor Scandinavian city where we live. Not difficult in itself to get a job at this place because no-one in their right mind wants to work there. And her job isn’t to play clap-clap pancake with the Bosnian, Iraqi and Afghani toddlers in the nursery, nor is it to sit in an office mediating between the teams of lawyers, translators and police officials who are constantly on a high state of alert, the crime rate in the surrounding area having soared 150% since the camp opened. No: that would be too damned easy. Her duties include driving the adult males in a mini-bus to indoor football – driving a bunch of toughened Bosnian war veterans to regional tournaments where they kick the hell out of local teams in the name of integration. She even takes on the role of team manager, jumping over the balustrade and intervening when the referee makes a questionable decision which goes against ’my players’. ’And this is what you want to do ?’ I ask her, trying hard to figure out where all this incurable altruism is coming from. ’You’re happy doing this kind of work?’
’Sure, dad. It’s fun. Why don’t you pay us a visit ? Expand your horizons…..’
So I knock off early and pay a visit to the refugee camp where she works and never before have I seen such a chaotic or squalid place of employment. Because I’ve missed the turn-off and I've unwisely parked on the opposite side of the dual carriageway I have to slide down a muddy incline, doing my best to negotiate the equally muddy path across the field to reach the main porta cabin. Still panting, my freshly ironed trousers spattered with mustard-yellow mud, I enter the camp office where I’m met by two policemen, both well-equipped with pistols and rubber truncheons, who are on the hunt for a failed asylum seeker who's gone AWOL and eye me with suspicion until, declaring my nationality, I manage to dampen their subtle movements toward the trigger.
My daughter laughs at this, of course. This story kills her. Wandering around the camp, taking me on a guided tour of this godforsaken place, she tells the young Iraqis dressed in training suits and holding mobile phones that her English father was nearly cuffed and sent back to his country of origin. Over on the far side of the camp, which looks like a bazaar in downtown Baghdad, she laughs again as I taste a sweetmeat – salted sheep stomach and yoghurt – and nearly throw up. Next to us women in robes are working at trestle tables, chopping up the spotted carp caught illegally by the men in a nearby lake. Arab music blares from inside the porta cabins. My daughter knows everyone, loves everyone, is loved by everyone. She’s even started learning Farsi.
’Know how you say horse in Farsi ?’
’No, but I have a feeling you’re going to tell me…..’
’Asp! An Asp is a horse. Isn’t that cute ?’
She introduces me to the former Afghani minister for Agriculture, a man wearing a Harris tweed suit who speaks such impeccably clipped English that I feel put to shame. And as her piece de resistance she introduces me to Khalid, a Srebrenica survivor, a powerful six footer, who roams the camp at night with a baseball bat in search of his tormentors. Shaking his hand I nearly have the life squeezed out of me. ’He’s undergoing counselling’ my daughter says as we carefully move away, ’but I’m the only one he can really confide in.’
Only her. He can only confide in her. Out of all the people on the planet, only her…..
Go to: Asp (Parts 3 & 4)