Up on the roof

This is a piece I had written some time ago, as an assignment for a creative writing class, and I thought I’d post it here. I had used a small part of it once before, in an earlier post, but now here’s the full version:

***

The first thing I noticed as I opened the door to the outside was an overwhelming fragrance. Flower beds filled with honeysuckle, iris and aubrietia lined both sides of the path leading to the rooftop garden. Their heady perfume, floating on the warm summer air, mingled with the baser smell of damp soil to create a rich, luxuriant bouquet.

There was barely a breeze on the rooftop of our condo building—a huge, converted warehouse built in 1916, which once belonged to the Simpsons-Sears conglomerate.

The sound of laughter and splashing came from the pool house to my left as I thought to myself: It’d be so nice to go for a swim right now and wash off the day’s concerns.

But that wasn’t why I’d come upstairs to the roof, so the pool could wait. I’d had a hard day at work and needed to relax and spend time alone, as Franco prepared dinner in our apartment below. He’d told me it was okay to leave him to cook and so I went upstairs to soak up the last rays of the sun before dusk.

I walked to the south side of the building, where the view of Lake Ontario and the Toronto skyline was best. There were other residents on the roof, enjoying the summer weather. Some people had draped cloths over their tables as they ate dinner and drank wine.

A couple of musicians sat nearby, guitars resting on their knees as they sang together. Not in an intrusive way; just softly, quietly entertaining the crowd gathered on top of our little world. The sound of sirens from the streets below was faint from that height, and didn’t interrupt the flow of music. If anything, it added to the feeling that this was an oasis in the midst of the city, and it made the music and the song more special.

The sun was a huge blob of molten iron, resting its weight on top of the office blocks and condos in the distance. It would soon begin to pour down the back of the buildings, disappearing from sight until the following day. But for now its warmth was still tangible, as a cool breeze sprang up from the lake.

I stood at the wall overlooking the downtown core, the air shimmering with residual heat. The smell of cooking drifted my way as I turned and saw people gathered around barbecues, the aroma-laden smoke escaping from beneath black metal hoods before being whisked away on the breeze.

Funny how food brings people together, I thought, as I watched them interact. Spontaneous conversations broke out amongst individuals and couples, from different walks of life,  but for the time being they all shared a sense of community as they cooked and socialized in small groups.

As I witnessed these scenes, I remembered an earlier time when my family moved to Africa. My parents, three siblings and I lived there for five years, where my father worked in the Zambian copper mines. We lived in a small bungalow in a mining town, and some of my earliest memories were of ochre, dusty sunsets and the scent of geraniums on a warm evening breeze.

At night, we would spend time on the veranda with friends and neighbours. The adults would sit talking and laughing, and the seesaw sound of crickets was a constant backdrop to the conversation and jokes. The cooking smells of one dish or another would fill the house, welcoming all who entered.

These times were among the happiest in my life. They were the times I felt the most content, when I was enveloped in the warmth of the African climate. I didn’t have a care in the world back then and was part of a true community. My younger brother and I would play outside, in the pot-holed streets, along with all the other children from the ex-pat families. We never ventured too far from the house and were always within hearing distance when our mother would call for us to come back inside for dinner.

My reverie was broken as my cell phone rang, and I was back on the rooftop. I answered the call to hear Franco say, almost intuitively: “Gary, you can come back home now…”

Bushwhacked!

“Now you’ve created a blog,” a colleague of mine kindly reminded me today “you need to start adding to it.” Sounds like good advice, but I’ve discovered it’s harder than I thought. At times, an idea for a story will occur to me and I’ll make a mental note of it, so as to revisit the potential press-stopper later in the day. Well guess what? Those little notes in my mind seem to be losing their stickyness, because I can never seem to find them when the time comes to put fingers to keyboard.

So tonight at home while reluctantly wielding my paint brush and applying Festoon Aqua to the dining room wall, my long-term memories rose to the occasion and saved the day by inspiring me to write about a part of my childhood.

***

I once hid in a bush. Hiding in a bush can be an uncomfortable experience; they’re made of stiff twigs and all kinds of wooden bits and pieces; they’re full of insects that crawl down your neck and bite exposed skin with tiny, sharp mandibles. Bushes are packed with spiders’ webs; cluttered with the dried husks of flies and beetles which, belying their lifeless nature, do their very best to entangle themselves in hair and clothes.

Given the unpleasant nature of bushes, why would I choose to hide in one in the first place? Did it suddenly pop into my head that it would be fascinating to experience what a bush looked like from the inside out, as viewed through the multi-faceted eyes of its creepy inhabitants? Could it be that I was, in fact, a biologist with an interest in witnessing first hand the small dramas played out by the myriad insects therein?

Or was it more likely that as 8-year-old kids, my friends and I had decided it would be fun to go raid the apple orchard belonging to Mr. Fijakowski, a grumpy old stern Polish immigrant who lived with his wife and children in my home town in the North West of England?

The latter, of course, was true, and after scaling the short fence that separated Mr. Fijakowski’s garden from the large field in which we often played, my friends and I found ourselves surrounded by an embarrassment of apples; none of which were yet ripe, but to our young eyes—and stomachs—they were a feast well worth the risk involved in trespassing on private property.

That risk took the form of a dark and stormy countenance with big, bushy eyebrows and a thick accent, forever ready to reprimand wayward children. And let me tell you, it wasn’t unusual for this tongue-lashing to sometimes be backed by a swift whack on the head should an unfortunately slow-moving brat get within swiping distance of the ‘Old Polack’. Needless to say, Mr. Fijakowski was seen as a kind of ogre to the band of local kids in our neighbourhood—but this didn’t stop us from testing the limits of his generosity when it came to his apples!

It was during one of these raids that, while intent upon picking the ripest of the fruit, I was slow to see my fellows-in-crime quickly scatter in all directions. After immediately realising what would make them disperse like that, I had all of five seconds to find a decent hiding place before the dreaded Iron Curtain descended on me!

Cue the bush…

On the face of it, it was a fairly good hiding place. It was leafy and thick and it was there when I needed it; although it also had many above average-sized thorns that did quite an excellent job of piercing tender, 8-year-old skin. As hiding places go there were, however, a couple of disadvantages to this bush; a.) its proximity to the fence dividing the orchard from the field and b.) the fact that it was on the wrong side of the fence, i.e., in Mr. Fijakowski’s garden, as opposed to the desired freedom of the field. Technically, I was a trespasser-in-hiding whose only hope of avoiding capture was to worm my way deeper into the recesses of the bush in order to become one with nature. It was at this point that—having barely made it in time to this dubious sanctuary—Mr. Fijakowski came charging down the garden path to the edge of his fence, not five feet from where I was intent upon imitating one of the dead insects caught in a web.

Now Polish oaths and swearwords can go a long way towards instilling fear in a young mind, especially when uttered within striking distance of the intended target—although my dead fly impersonation was working wonders for me at that point.

Or at least I thought it was, until I caught sight of Conrad.

Conrad was Mr. Fijakowski’s youngest child who was, at that moment, staring right at me through the leaves! He was two years my junior and hadn’t yet reached that age where he could rightfully be a part of the local gang and, as such, had no ties of loyalty to any of the fruit-stealing, orchard-raiding good-for-nothings trying to steal apples from his father’s trees. I can still see, in my mind’s eye, Conrad’s pyjama-sleeved arm rising slowly to grip his father’s elbow, as he stared right at me and as I sank deeper and deeper into the confines of the bush, which was by then quickly losing its status as the safest place in the world for me.

“Dad…” he said, “I think one of them is hiding over there.”

“Quiet, Conrad—I am trying to see where the little zle dzieci are!” said Mr. Fijakowski. “You should not be out in pyjamas, anyway. Go back inside now!”

“But, dad, I think I can see one of them in that bush!”

“Conrad, I not tell you again—go back inside this minute!” he said, at which point Mrs. Fijakowski, whose English wasn’t the best and who couldn’t quite grasp what her darling little boy was saying, but whose maternal instincts were more than equal to the task of preventing him from being smacked on the head by his father, swept Conrad into her arms and ran back inside as he peered over her shoulder, still pointing at me.

This whole incident of my almost having been discovered passed completely over Mr. Fijakowski’s bald pate, and he was back to scanning the horizon for signs of my troublesome companions. Thank heavens for Eastern European obstinacy, which prevented me from being caught red-handed, scratched, bitten, pricked, dishevelled and scared witless.

After what seemed like an eternity of holding my breath, I finally watched Mr. Fijakowski walk slowly back into his house, all the while muttering and cursing in his native Polish tongue.

After he had gone, I sat in my bush (by then, I considered it worthy of the possessive pronoun) for a long time—thankful for its thick leaves, its thorns, its host of living and dead organisms and, most of all, its sanctuary in times of need—before finding the courage to climb the fence and slink quietly away, never to return to that part of the field again except in memory.