(before I go on I should add a few notes.)
1) I still have no control over fonts and their size, which is annoying. 2) I was in Slovenia in early July. 3) There are two kinds of refuge in Slovenia, called dom or koca. (rhymes with gotcha.) A dom is what to look for if like me you hate spending the night with people who snore or you just like some privacy, your own little space, because in a dom you can have your own very little room, whereas a koca just has dormitories. 4.) Late June and early July is the best time in the mountains because there are still flowers in the valleys and the alpines have begun to open up, there is still quite a lot of snow in gulleys and on the high peaks, and there are not many other people till later in July. 5.) Bohinj is easily reached from Ljubljana, and there are lots of places to stay in the villages around the lake, Stara Fuzina and Ribcev Laz. To the south is the line of mountains which ends at Crna Prst, to the north lots of mountains rising up to Triglav, the highest in Slovenia and a kind of national shrine. Vodnikov Dom is a place where people often stay on the way to Triglav. 6.) Tosc is unusual in an area of jagged limestone; it has a smooth and often grassy summit with amazing mounds of Silene acaulis and other flowers, and to my surprise, at 2400 metres, a flock of beautiful, sleek sheep with long floppy ears. 7.) And when I say, as I do below, ‘the other day’, that’s back in real time, as it were, although that is also quite out of date. It was a month ago.
Just a few days before he died Joey told me about a story he had begun to write, and he wanted me to help him with it because he had no experience and little skill in writing, and the last time I saw him he gave me the first two pages. The story is about a guy who sells expensive fake cures to the dying, preferably to people who will be dead before they realise they’ve been conned. We meet him in the Indian restaurant which he often goes to after closing time,(and this was the scene Joey described in those two pages). He shouts at the owner of the restaurant and always deliberately gets his name wrong, calling him Ali or Sinbad. He orders lots of food and always sends one dish back, it doesn’t matter which, just to express his authority. He sometimes smokes while eating, fork in one hand, cigarette in the other. There’s a lot of belching and violent laughter. Tonight this guy, I can’t remember his name, it might have been Vince, is telling a couple of his mates about his latest victims. He is glorying in gaining the trust of a vulnerable young woman who is dying of cancer and her mother, both made gullible by despair. He swindles them out of a large amount of money by selling them a miracle cure holiday in Bulgaria where they will wallow in healing mud. But the two women, who have not until then had an easy relationship, love being together in the mud so much (see appendix) – and all the rest of it too, the sun, the Black Sea, friendly Bulgars young and old, the wine, and I would have to find out what kind of cancer, when surgery and chemotherapy have come to an end, would leave the sufferer with a few weeks of not feeling so ill that they couldn’t enjoy all the rest of it – that even when they come home and discover that the illusory remission is over and that the young woman, who still has no name, will soon die, there is no bitterness in their hearts, they feel no anger towards Vince but on the contrary deep gratitude towards the man who made it possible for them to share those wonderful moments beyond hope and despair. And so mother and daughter set out to find Vince and tell him how happy and grateful they are. They’ve never even been to London before. They know he’s no saint but they don’t care, they want him to know that he has done good. At this point the story becomes picaresque, or like a road movie, – there will be cars in the story, Vince loves them of course – as the two women, they’ll be on the bus, search the city and Vince, who hears that they are looking for him, goes on the run. Is he ashamed? Embarrassed? Worried that they’ll set lawyers on him? I don’t know if Joey had got very far with these adventures, or knew what kind of effect the innocent women would have on the variously guilty people they meet, and I wish I could make up stories, but I think that the women become stronger and Vince weaker as he becomes in a sense their quarry, and that the last scene would be the most difficult, although of course it’s been done before: essentially Vince cannot resist goodness. Who can? As I write, it comes to seem possible, although I told Joey that his feel good ending, with Vince reformed and contrite and giving most of his money away to Macmillan cancer nurses – and weeping a lot no doubt – was ridiculous. But Joey was very firm about the ending. I thought he could do the evil scumbag stuff very well, and the fun in Bulgaria, but the fairy tale transformation, how would you do that? And to be thinking about fairy tales and then drive your car into a tree – that’s the ending I would have had for Vince, not Joey. I felt honoured that Joey had wanted me to read his first two pages, wanted me to be – what? We never talked about it in detail – his editor? Co-author? It might have worked along the same lines as our friendship. He was what he called scum, and I was boojwah, he spelt it like that to wind me up, though I don’t suppose he did know how to spell it correctly, you need to be bourgeois to spell it correctly. He said I should be proud to be bourgeois; he called me Jonny Bourgeois. He said that sometimes, when he was still doing a lot of burglary, he would ride on the top deck of the bus looking into brightly lit and uncurtained bourgeois flats and houses with their books and pictures and ornaments on display, thinking about robbing them, but also feeling envious, not of their money, but of what looked like a richer life style. If I used a word he didn’t understand he would ask me what it meant, and sometimes he would consider it and say, I like it, and sometimes he would say, why not use a word that everybody understands? I remember I told him about the sans culottes, the politically important scum of the French revolution, the scum de la scum. (How the term means without trousers. How we have young men today on their way to losing their trousers, they go lower and lower, eventually pretty much all the way to their knees. Soon it might not seem worth putting them on at all.) But I don’t know how we could have had a literary cooperation. He thought his protagonist was a cunt. That word gets to the heart of the dissonant cultural duet. I might say he was a bastard or a prick but in fact nothing succeeds like cunt. It’s not enough to say he was a conman and a racist or a selfish bastard. I remember at St Mungo’s when that guy, a new volunteer, sold Patrick a £50 bag of mint, we were shocked, I told Joey and he said, what a cunt. Whoever it was, and I’ve forgotten his name, knew it was an outrageous thing to do; we never saw him again. Not that I think X’s criminality was at all comparable with that of Vince, although both worked on the idea of parting a fool from their money. X was a needy, greedy opportunist who obviously didn’t care about Patrick, but maybe justified himself by reasoning that he wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last. Patrick lost or spent or was robbed of his benefits every fortnight in all sorts of foolish and farcical ways, and if he was skint he was sober, and if he was sober he would drink coffee, scrounge roll ups or pick up dog ends and do his patient brushing with us in the gardens where for quite a while he was one of our slowest and most willing volunteers. So if X was a cunt, what can we call Vince? I think I could have made a good case for getting Joey to change his mind about X.
Friendliness is always clear, but what seems like hostility may not be. If someone frowns or ignores you it could just be that they are lost in thought, preoccupied, or pissed off about something else. And of course if you don’t speak the language – the language – you can easily be lost, misunderstood, misunderstanding. I’m trying to excuse the man in Velo Polje. When I was coming back, was it the same one? I stopped for a minute near the farm buildings, just to look around me, and a guy appeared by the house and shouted at me, or to me, I’m not sure which. He appeared to be angry. He was gesticulating, pointing and waving towards the way I was going, as if urging me to be on my way. I shouted back ‘ne razumem!’, a useful thing to be able to say in any language, or maybe not because it’s only stating the obvious: I don’t understand. And he just went on shouting and waving. I’m aware though that even the use of the word shout could be misleading here because it suggests anger, but on the other hand he had to shout because he was about thirty or forty yards away from me. And the waving or gesticulating could have meant he was telling me to get lost or he could have been pointing out the way back towards the refuge because at that point the path wasn’t clear. And he was too far away for me to be able to see the expression on his face, too far away even for me to tell whether he was the man I’d seen earlier who had looked right through me. If only something had happened to resolve this. If I had asked Viktorija, the sympathetic woman who ran the refuge, with whom I could speak with a little English and a little German, she might have said, yes they’re not very friendly there! They think people are going to upset their cattle, or they’re just unhappy, suspicious people, or, most likely, I don’t understand, I know them quite well, sometimes they come up for a beer, they’re ok. If this were journalism, there would be a resolution. If this were a traditional story, I think there would also be a resolution. It must be just some annoyingly lifelike modernist rubbish. A man perversely reduced to noisy, incomprehensible gesticulations.
When I arrived back from climbing Tosc after sunset the day before she had been starting to worry about me and exclaimed ‘Gott sei dank!’, which I heard not as a mundane, ‘thank God!’ But more like, ‘The Lord be praised!’ and was delighted and grateful. And I was pleased with the idea of being included in a scene from the past, (a bit player in an old play, even one with a non-speaking role), from the time before my own language became cool and universal, as if we were once again in a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, recently fallen to the embrace of nostalgia, because to my ears Gott sei dank! belonged to an older German and could not be confused with its successor as the international language of central Europe, Nazi German. Most of all though, it was nice to hear that I had been missed, that she had been worried and was thinking of phoning up to report me missing. Although I assumed I was too late to eat – the notice on the kitchen door said that they served food till 8 and it was well after 9 – she said no, of course you’re not too late! And presently brought me a huge bowl of spaghetti bolognese.
The other day S and I just missed the bus, and the driver saw us limping along as best we could and he stopped between stops for us!