The world is a narrow bridge
(From March 2016) – some names have been changed.
There was a physical education teacher who taught at my school, a certain Tony Phillips. He had a pal, John Norton. They got their thrills by picking on twelve-year-old boys who weren’t especially sporty, or like me, were gangly and looked out of place. I thought about them today on my hike up this Chilean mountain. Or is it a hill?
Phillips and Norton damaged my confidence at a young age. They made me feel I couldn’t do much, at least nothing sensible. Granted, I received praise in other subjects. I was strong at history. But feeling rubbish at sport affected my self-image. For years. I wouldn’t try things out. I dismissed myself as clumsy and impractical, and certainly not physical. Norton told me I would pass away from a heart attack by the age of thirty-five. That leaves me with just under a year to go.
I climbed 1,200 metres along a route of 6.7 kilometres. At every break in the path, I felt an ache that stretched from my lungs to my throat. I wanted to throw my arms up in protest, ‘I can’t do this. Who am I kidding? I am the big-nosed gay kid who flounced when everyone else was doing a Fosbury Flop for the high jump!’ When I erred, my ascent incomplete, Tony Phillips’s smirking face revealed itself.
Phillips sported a sandy moustache. I mistook it for being a sign of his authority. Now I prefer to think of it as compensation for multiple inadequacies or a perversion peculiar to PE teachers who teach boys at single-sex grammar schools. He was fond of wearing a lime green sweatshirt: from memory, every single day. PE teachers at my school in Barnet were peripatetic, so every now-and-again, they were drafted in to teach Geography or pretend they knew something about Supply-side economics.
One morning, Phillips substituted for our form teacher and took the register. Dressed in his usual outfit, when he reached my name, he briefly scanned the class and trained his eyes on me with the deliberate stare of an orchestra conductor.
‘Kaye?’ he shrieked with an unreal screech to his voice. My classmates were surprised. I wasn’t in the slightest effeminate. Rob, a friend, asked, ‘Why does he take the piss out of you like this?’
John Norton meanwhile was a water-hog of a man, formed to play rugby or to chop down trees. He had a snout for a nose and furious, darting eyes. I often felt his gaze in the refectory. I would pretend to be occupied by a trivial conversation with a classmate, about our trigonometry homework or the previous night’s episode of Grange Hill. I would race through lunch or else wait for the inevitable moment when Norton would pass me and imitate me as a hunchback. I didn’t think I resembled a peasant Italian woman climbing a hill with a week’s worth of spices but that was his apparent impression of me, the way he stooped and craned his neck.
I was tall, unreasonably so for a young boy. He and Phillips viewed my lack of sporting prowess as tantamount to disrespect for them and the school. What’s more, I was lazy. When I should have been a strapping prop or a skilled flanker, I was instead excelling at looking at rugby players’ underwear in the gym changing rooms. Dad meanwhile offered his own brand of esteem-raising advice, daily telling me my face would soon ‘grow to fit my nose’. ‘Hunched’, that was what I was. Or so Dad would tell me, half affectionately, when we went for weekend walks with Ben the dog.
‘Stand up straight. It is good to be the tallest in your class.’
Mum probably saw something of her awkward teenage self in my lanky build so she didn’t draw attention to how I walked, or indeed anything negative. It was the build-up to my Barmitzvah, so she offered fulsome praise on my Hebrew, even though I desperately needed the Tuesday evening classes she took me to Mrs Ingram’s for.
The teasing at school had got even worse since an incident on the athletics field an unseasonably hot April day in Year 8. It was April 27th1995. These are the sorts of dates you remember, or at least I do. It was the day that together with a few other misfortunates, Norton told us we were destined to have a cardiac arrest. I was dressed in the signature Queen Elizabeth’s Boys School sports kit, a tiny pair of navy polyester shorts that felt silky to touch. To complement, we wore the skinniest imaginable sleeveless vests.
John Norton barked at us to run 100 metres. There was a Mediterranean stillness to the mid-afternoon air. A sweet smell of freshly mown grass hinted at the possibilities of a long summer stretching before us. I wasn’t fast back then but I did enjoy sprint racing. Not quite Linford Christie, I limbered up. The finishing line was parallel to the rugby posts. I acted on Linford Christie’s advice: get low, pop out your eyes. Bow-legged, I crossed past the rugby posts and looked around me to see whether I had beaten any of the others; at least the heavier boys, or those with dyspraxia. I managed to come a respectable third.
After letting his favourites head home, Norton assembled a small group of us at the end of the class to advise we weren’t trying hard enough and that we needed to run the race again, but under fifteen seconds. I dutifully walked back to the starting line. On his third time of asking, it was clear his goal was to humiliate us. He instructed us to complete the distance but this time we were only permitted to walk. Again, under fifteen seconds. A few of us looked at one another while others looked painfully at their watches. The school day was long over. Mum was waiting for me in the car outside.
‘He is doing his best for you boys’, Phillips growled. ‘Mr Norton and I are doing this for your benefit. But none of you are nearly in fit enough condition to represent this school over the coming term.’
Norton took up the gambit.
‘Running like girls. What are you all? Twelve, thirteen years old? I give you all twenty years at best. Heart attacks, that is what you will have. You haven’t got long in life if you run as slowly as that.’ We were being held behind in a Darwinian detention.
Around the same time, at Sunday school, I was learning about the eugenicist theories of human survival, some of which had anti-semitic overtones. I was also reading Anne Frank’s diary and falling in love with her boyfriend, Peter. I don’t want to credit my Year 8 PE teachers with an intellect I don’t imagine they possessed, but their dogma that I was headed for an early death was even to me, shy and shoulders sloping, an impossible affront.
‘What is wrong with you? Some of you simply aren’t trying!’ I raised my middle finger at Norton.
He spotted me. He wasn’t meant to, of course so I tried to recover the situation by pretending I was scratching my forehead. He summoned me with his own wagging finger.
As I mooched away from the sports field and back to civilian life, a portent of a summer term’s worth of pain rang with that one word; ‘consequences’.
April 27th1995 sticks in my memory for one other reason, but it was a sadder incident. It felt less predictable too. Mum and Dad had – what for my sisters and I at least, seemed – to be their worst ever argument. They weren’t parents who argued, not openly. Doors slammed. I reasoned that it was the close atmosphere that messed their minds, like it had that same spring day for Mr Phillips and Mr Norton. A troubled thought has played with my psyche ever since. Act out, do anything out of the ordinary; swear at one of your PE teachers, and your whole world might cave in.
Twenty years later, Norton’s utterance ‘consequences’ echoed for me on this mountain – okay – hill. It had a sudden resonance as my lungs demanded more air, as they did after three attempts running the 100 metres. I’m not conventionally fit, nor am I by any standard sporty. However, after weeks of jogging along the Pacific shoreline, my sky-blue jersey clings a lot more comfortably than the one I was obliged to wear in 1995.
Last night, I was introduced by my Chilean host Daniela to her friends, Silvana, and Roma, who suggested a ‘walk’. They were good company as we climbed towards the clouds. Neither of them are experienced hikers and like me, they seemed apprehensive. Roma is the quieter of the two. Dressed in black, she has highlights of mint-blue in her raven-coloured hair. Despite my pidgin Spanish, we formed a camaraderie as we bounded ever higher, one dusty bend after the other. I kept on wrestling with whatever reserves of energy I had left to keep close behind her, the red rucksack dancing up and down her back a useful guide.
Silvana made it three-quarters of the way. I knew something of her from before today because she was my ex, Eddie’s, close friend at school. Insipid clouds scarcely inspired us to climb out of bed this morning, let alone climb one thousand metres. For ten minutes at the beginning of the hike, we only had a view of chalk. There were small boulders. Later, rocks presented minor obstacles. Forty minutes higher, we reached a new plateau and breathed in the expanse of three modest peaks and a motionless sky.
A third friend accompanied me, my double-branched staff. I named it Rodrigo for no other reason than I typically find men with the name fanciable. I met one in Valparaiso the other week. Wearing my LA Kings baseball cap and denim shorts, I was even feeling in the mood to show off in a few selfies to potentially pique his – or other Chilean men’s – interest. I am still using the gay hook-up app, Grindr, as a self-serving bazaar to practice the Spanish verb, hater, and to validate my new, svelte waist.
The ascent on Cerro La Campana wouldn’t necessarily be a major feat for others, but for this awkward so-and-so, it was everything and more. I was hunching, but with trusty Rodrigo in hand, I was Moses-like in my determination to reach the mount. One of my goals on these travels is to escape my comfort zone. And for too many years, my comfort zone has been disappointingly narrow and small. No more, John Norton. No more, Tony Phillips. ‘The whole world is a very narrow bridge’, goes the old Hebrew song we used to sing at Sunday school; ‘the most important thing is not to be afraid’. More and more, I don’t feel afraid.
With encouragement from Daniela, a few days ago we paid a visit to my ex’s family in El Melón, a village snuggled in against the Andean foothills. Eddie and I are still in touch and are on good terms. I talked speculatively to Daniela about the possibility of visiting Eddie’s parents, who for years I got to wave at on Skype. I wasn’t convinced it would be the best idea, primarily because they always understood me to be a British gent who became friends with their son and gave him a place to live, or at least that is how the story went.
Meeting your parents-in-law, at least by UK-legal standards, a full five years after they formally assumed that status, is bizarre. Especially when they don’t know they’re your parents-in-law. Eddie’s family, including his sister, niece – and now his little nephew – are characters etched into my consciousness through pantomime-style sequences of me waving at them via a video-link and them smiling back, with me not being able to speak a word of Spanish, them not speaking English, and all of us with furrowed brows as we tried to understand what was going on. And here they were, in their own front room, offering me every conceivable afternoon snack, grinning at me once more. I was hoping we would be able to converse in Spanish, but I found their accents impossible to understand, Daniela coming to the rescue as translator.
First, I met Adriana, Eddie’s mother. She cuddled me like a son.
Daniela and I ran through an approximate script of what I would say to Eddie’s family. I was certain they knew we didn’t live together anymore. I didn’t want to say anything too specific, neither to suggest anything about Eddie’s life now, which is not for me to comment on; nor to imply anything about his life when he lived with me in London.
Back in Kentish Town, Daniela stayed with Eddie and me only a few months before our relationship ended. She had to tolerate the worst possible moment to be our guest. Together with Marco, her partner, she has made up a room for me in their bungalow here in Quillota. It offers peacefulness, except that is, for the chorus of woofing outside my bedroom window. I am relieved to be in this sleepy town. Surfer-styled seaside resorts, vineyards, poet Pablo Neruda’s seaside haunts; all seem tantalisingly within reach.
I have learnt a lot these past weeks as all three of us, Daniela, Marco and I have tucked into coverage of the Presidential primaries and hallullas, starchy toasted rolls with generous fillings of scrambled egg. Earthquake-based wisecracks fill rare silences. There is an obvious Anglophilia here if I can call it that, with people knowledgably playing their David Bowie backlog and donning their Arsenal football shirts. Before I met Eddie, in 2010, I am not sure I knew anything about Chileans at all. They had a decent football team, but that wasn’t on my radar. There’s a sardonic sense of humour at times, a proud sense of exceptionalism in a country that defies easy categorisation.
After returning from La Campana, I saw five plump women on a basketball court. Wiggling their bellies and their bottoms, ‘El Perdon’ by Nicky Jam and Enrique Iglesias was playing. Reggaeton and bachata tracks followed. In perhaps some of the most ill-fitting crop-tops this side of the Tropic of Capricorn, they were refreshingly unironic.
Above all, I like how self-contained Quillota is. A man in a small van comes by every-day to offer households a supply of gas to the strains of ‘She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain (When She Comes)’. Physically and emotionally, Daniela and Marco seem no less connected to the world for the hush they have found here. And they are happy; genuinely contented, I can sense it. It is a love that feels attainable. It’s nurturing and constant. I want it. With their generous teatime snacks, or Onces, I am well fed. Besides cheesy eggs and hallullas, there’s plentiful golden honey. It was after tasting hallullas with honey, I first saw Luis.
Eddie’s Mum and sister were bringing in an endless selection of cold meats and cheese cuts from the kitchen when I noticed him pass the front room window. The dinner table had been set. The best china and crockery were all laid out with napkins neatly folded. From the small approach in front of the Cabrera household, a shadow.
I recognized Eddie’s Dad, his weather-worn features hanging from his face. He swiftly put on a makeshift barbecue and baked empanadas in a large aluminium rubbish can in the back garden. Adriana, Eddie’s Mum, kept on going on missions into the kitchen, merging as one with the fridge.
The empanadas were the right texture: pastry generously glazed cushioning a sac filled deep with spiced beef mince. There were other varieties including a local favourite with corn, spinach and cheese, Humita, but I devoured every meat one served up to me. They were a gift in artisanship, smooth enough to stroke but as substantial as paperweights.
Eddie’s niece, Popo, the affectionate name I knew her by, was full of nervous energy. I decided to join her on the trampoline. Up-and-down, up-and-down, both of us giggling away. I wasn’t sure what to make of it all. Eddie wasn’t here – there was never any question of us travelling here together when we were a couple. Sally, Eddie’s sister, finally made the crucial intervention, reaching out when she saw mine and Daniela’s photos on Facebook.
‘Hey Gringro! Wow, you are in Chile! You have to come and visit me and the family, Quillota is only kilometres away from El Melón!’
I enjoyed their instant embrace, but things got more serious when Eddie’s mum asked Daniela difficult questions. Soon Adriana started crying. It was a complete mystery to me what was going on, but the textured conversations, not quite revealing what we all knew of one another and how we were connected, meant there was an undertow of slight regret.
Daniela went into a bedroom to discuss things more intimately with Adriana. Eddie’s sister was summoned from the garden to keep me company in the living room. Popo, never lacking in energy, bounced in and wanted us to dress up dolls together. She started to show me her Mum’s make-up. Luis meanwhile was outside with the embers dying in the aluminium can.
The sun lowered on the horizon. Drained by her conversations with Adriana and a sense of duty to her school friend to keep old facts secret, Daniela diplomatically remembered the timetable for the last bus to Quillota. When we said goodbye, it wasn’t a moment any of us was forcing. Sally and Luis gathered the coats, while Adriana fetched us a sizable pile of empanadas to take home. Accompanying us to the local bus-stop, I was overcome by how important this family were. To me, at least.
I looked beyond the village to the carrot-coloured Andean mountain tops. There was an intimacy on the walk, a distinct sense today was going to be our one-and-only meeting in life. The bitter-sweetness of the late Sunday afternoon left me reflecting how far in life I had come, but without even being able to put a name on that progress.
My own Mum has been gone for sixteen years. I can’t recall whether I told her I was being teased by the PE teachers at school. Probably not, I was private. So was she. She was faultlessly protective, so she would have been spurred into action had I shared the details. Mr Phillips and Mr Norton might have been called to a meeting with the headmaster to account for their actions. I am not sure it would have made me feel any better, to know Mum was looking to rescue me, only to later be served up with more taunts.
In the weeks before she passed, she asked some of her closest relatives and friends to watch out for me. They always say a mother knows. What their child is thinking. Their innermost thoughts. Their sexual orientation. I was her youngest and I was only eighteen. We had a dial tone modem at home and I was finding what time I could to look at photos of Slovakian gay porn. But I wasn’t ready to say anything then, to act on anything. I wasn’t ready to come out. Even to hint at my confusion and ask for a consoling hug. I was her son, she was my Mum and we didn’t have a relationship of equals.
She passed away less than five years after that hot April day on the sports field. This trip, if nothing else, has to help me remember her again.
Before we could even say thought-through goodbyes, the bus from El Melón to Quillota pulled up on a grassy verge. I burst into tears. Daniela and I quickly clambered on board, punched the holes in our tickets and waved goodbye, the salmon-pink sunset enveloping Eddie’s – my family – as they faded into the distance.