Categories
Contents

Borderless, June 2022

Art by Sohana Manzoor

Editorial

We are All Going on a Summer HolidayClick here to read.

Interviews

In Conversation with Rinki Roy (daughter of legendary director Bimal Roy) about The Oldest Love Story, an anthology on motherhood, edited and curated by journalist and authors, Rinki Roy and Maithili Rao. Click here to read.

Achingliu Kamei in conversation with Veio Pou, author of Waiting for the Dust to Settle, a novel based on the ongoing conflicts in North-east India. Click here to read.

Translations

The Funeral, a satirical skit by Tagore, translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

Three Shorter Poems of Jibananda Das have been translated from Bengali by Professor Fakrul Alam. Click here to read.

The Magic Staff , a poignant short story about a Rohingya child by Shaheen Akhtar, translated from Bengali by Arifa Ghani Rahman. Click here to read.

Fakir Khizmil & the Missing Princess, a Balochi Folktale has been translated by Fazal Baloch. Click here to read.

Pie in the Sky is a poem written and translated from Korean by Ihlwha Choi. Click here to read.

Taal Gaachh or The Palmyra Tree, a lilting light poem by Tagore, has been translated from Bengali by Mitali Chakravarty. Click here to read.

Pandies’ Corner

This narrative is written by a youngster from the Nithari village who transcended childhood trauma and deprivation. Dhaani has been written in Hindi and translated to English by Kiran Mishra. Click here to read.

Poetry

Click on the names to read

Jared Carter, Sutputra Radheye, Ryan Quinn Flanagan, Antara Mukherjee, David Francis, Alpana, George Freek, Prashanti Chunduri, John Grey, Ashok Suri, Heather Sager, G Venkatesh, Candice Louisa Daquin, Elizabeth Ip, Rhys Hughes, Michael R Burch

Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

In From a Kafkaesque Dream to the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, Rhys Hughes brings out a new strain of tunes that grew out of Jeff Simon’s unusual journey and it continues to persist beyond his life. Click here to read.

Stories

Oliver’s Soul

Paul Mirabile weaves a story of murder and madness in Madrid of 1970s. Click here to read.

The Wallet

Atreyo Chowdhury spins a tale set in Kolkata. Click here to read.

Flowers on the Doorstep

Shivani Shrivastav writes of an encounter with a mysterious child in Almora. Click here to read.

A Riverine Healing 

PG Thomas’s narrative set in Kerala, explores a leader’s old age. Click here to read.

Pagol Daries

Indrashish Banerjee creates a humanoid scenario where robots take on human roles. Click here to read.

Musings/ Slices from Life

In Memoriam: Star of the Stage Shines on Screen

Ratnottama Sengupta pays a tribute to famed actress, Swatilekha Sengupta (May 1950- June 2021). Click here to read.

Pizzas En Route to Paradise

Keith Lyons discovers the import and export of desires in Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in the world, beside one of the most revered rivers. Click here to read.

Notes from Japan

In Marathon Blues, Suzanne Kamata talks of pandemic outcomes in Japan in a lighter tone. Click here to read.

Musings of a Copywriter

In Journey of an Ant, Devraj Singh Kalsi explores life from an insect’s perspective. Click here to read.

Mission Earth

In Tuning in to Nature, Kenny Peavy tells us how to interact with nature. Click here to read.

Essays

Kabir & His Impact on Tagore

Mozid Mahmud explores Kabir and his impact on Tagore, which ultimately led to a translation of the great medieval poet. Click here to read.

A view of Mt Everest

Ravi Shankar travels in the freezing cold of Himalayan splendour and shares magnificent photographs of Mt Everest. Click here to read.

The Good, the Bad, and the Benign: Back across Bass Strait

Meredith Stephens shares a photographic and narrative treat from Tasmania. Click here to read.

The Observant Immigrant

In Season’s in the Sun, Candice Louisa Daquin explores what intense positivity can do to people. Click here to read.

Book Excerpts

Excerpt from Tagore’s Gleanings of the Road, translated by Somdatta Mandal. Click here to read.

Excerpt from Waiting by Suzanne Kamata. Click here to read.

Book Reviews

Meenakshi Malhotra revisits Harsh Mander’s Locking down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre. Click here to read.

Indrashish Banerjee reviews Keki N Daruwalla’s Going:Stories of Kinship. Click here to read.

Gracy Samjetsabam reviews Pronoti Datta’s Half-Blood. Click here to read.

Bhaskar Parichha reviews Deepti Priya Mehrotra’s Her Stories –Indian Women Down the Ages — Thinkers, Workers, Rebels, Queens. Click here to read.

Categories
Stories

         Oliver’s Soul

Paul Mirabile weaves a yarn of murder and madness in Madrid of the 1970s         

                            

Madrid: Courtesy: Creative Commons

I am jotting this down while it is still fresh in my mind, hoping that the police will not jump to hasty conclusions and accuse me falsely of the killing. The murderess, after relating the incident to me, left that very evening ; that is to say, the evening I found her at home standing over the corpse of my dear friend Oliver. Since her departure, the entire affair has shaken me up, given the terrible fact that I am the only person available, and I shall add, sound of mind, to offer an explanation. Here let me give you an account of what actually took place before anything injudicious happens to me.

She was a religious fanatic, the murderess, that I am certain, and although I had these impressions of her, I could never pin-point the source of material she utilised in her indefatigable tirades apropos the necessity of man to humiliate himself before God, who, as she insisted, created man in order that he may serve Him, and suffer the cross as He did. Apparently she was well read in mediaeval Christian dogma, and especially in the works of Fray Luis de Granada, Saint Thomas of Aquinas and Abelard. She had been a student of theology and philosophy, albeit a poor one, but did have an entertaining command of the subtle teachings and techniques of Meister Eckhart and Jacob Boehme.

Our conversations were weighty, yet erratic. The evening of the murder, for example, she picked up a book and tossed it out of the window. We had been talking about the physical attributes of the soul, and it seemed I had upset her over something. I asked her why she loved Oliver instead of me, and without a word she promptly threw out three more, one of which one was the Bible ! I heard them sailing through the still, night air and land on the small plaza below with a soft thump. Her eyes wandered off to stare at the empty space just below the low-ceiling of her flat. A crooked smile stretched on her bloodless lips. A fly had sailed in on the waves of the interminable Madrilenian heat from the open window, buzzing annoyingly about the wrought iron chandelier. She seemed to enjoy that buzzing.

When she had snapped out of her mesmerised state, she placed her hands upon my head and drew me towards her. She kissed me full on the lips. It was the first time we had kissed in many months. In the same distracted vein, she whispered that a sickness had befriended her, and a revelation had swollen her eyes with vivid scenes of lurid pleasure. At first she laughed, or rather giggled. A short time later, she said Oliver was coming to kill her, and that we must protect ourselves from him. I sat up staring at her in disbelief. She remained calm, disclosing her love for him, but added, that alas pure love could not be a defence against external, mundane effects. Love, she felt, could be overcome and defeated when the hour arrived for his meditated act. She continued saying that his soul could not forfeit this unleashed wave of energy, for he lacked in guided spiritual strength. I listened to her, not believing that Oliver was what she said he was. She continued to whisper in fey tones, her cold, blanched lips sometimes touching mine, whilst the wretched heat and that irritating buzzing were driving me insane.

The evening passed without any other incident, although her tone and breathing touched strange chords in my heart. She was obviously ill, but I refrained from asking her if she needed anything, or if I could be of any help. No, I take that back, I am lying to you : the thought never occurred to ask her ! Instead, my thoughts reached out in search of Oliver’s face. She made some more tea, we chatted a while then I left without a kiss.

The following morning, the air was less oppressive when I visited her; perhaps I had regrets about leaving so abruptly. She wasn’t in, but on the broken tiles, slipped halfway under the door was a note. It was Oliver’s handwriting, who apparently in great haste, had scrawled something about coming over that evening at around seven. Slipping the note back in its place, I elected that it would be better if I divulged to Oliver the scope of his lover’s uncanny behaviour and affected revelations. Rescinding the idea however, I walked the streets until nightfall.

The torrid dampness of late autumn in Madrid painted a dismal picture at that empty hour. The baroqueness of the city took on a ponderous, eerie, melancholic aura. I felt plunged in some Edgar Poe intrigue, sensed the triviality of my gestures and acts. My nerves were on edge: could hours be so onerous ? I continued my dreary pacing without pangs of hunger or weariness of stride. Suddenly, I found myself at the small plaza just below my sick friend’s flat, and where, from her window, she had a full view of the statue at the centre of the square, a commemorative homage to a fallen hero whose name I no longer recall. He held a huge white cross in his clenched fists, his eyes gaping feverishly ahead of him. Checking my watch, I read two. Looking up at her window, I saw the lights flash. Her head popped out, and I asked myself if she had, for some enigmatic reason, sensed my presence. What an absurd thought! I, nevertheless, slipped behind the statue, and kept perfectly still.

Thank heavens the hour was late and no one was in the street. Otherwise, some sober or insomniac portero[1] would have certainly run to the police. I must have cut a ridiculous figure, skulking behind that wild-eyed, cross-bearing zealot. I chanced another glance at her window. She had vanished. Recalling our conversation last evening, and Oliver’s note in the morning, I debated whether it were wise to go straight up or call the police. I decided to go up. In any case, the police would have thought me drunk, and perhaps would even have thrown me in jail.

I darted across the plaza into the shadows of the adjacent building. I can assure you that I felt like a thief sneaking through those bleak, heated hours of the night. A hussy with brazen bangles clinking in sad obscurity happened to discover me in the shadows of the doorway. Throwing up her arms, she let out a shriek and ran off across the plaza, her high-heels rapping, tapping and clacking a monotonous dirge upon the crooked stones. I speedily entered the building of Oliver’s lover. Happily the portero was either asleep or decidedly drunk. The stairway lay quiet.

My imagination was racing. Would she actually kill him ? How could she have ever conjured up such an extravagant idea ? Was she turning her destructive forces against Oliver because he had so oftentimes agreed to our platonic triad as the very proof of her incapacity to love just one man … or love any man ? Or was it her untamed inner drive set against society’s cruel hypocrisy of condemning a human being’s marginal existence as it played out in the complexity of an ever-shifting triangle ? It is true, however, that within the spheres of every man’s mind, dark moments instigate arrogance and envy to chase out reason and replace it with the urge to turn to crime and passion. I made haste, almost tripping on the last carpeted step.

I was startled to find her door ajar. I hesitated before I entered, apprehending what the consequences could be if my intrusion proved untimely … In one way or another. Oliver mustn’t know I suspected foul play. As for his lover, at this point I could not care a fig. It was merely a friendly visit. At two in the morning?

I strode boldly into the nondescript sitting room, stealing a glance at her. She stood there, gaping at me in bewilderment. Then a silly grin played across those thin, ghastly lips. She pointed to the mahogany table where the bloodstained corpse of Oliver lay, a kitchen knife thrust deep within his breast. I quickly shut the door then raced back to Oliver’s still warm body. She remained standing with that same plastic grin spread over a face of grotesque scorn.

Oliver was stone dead, his heavy body losing blood fast. A huge crimson pool formed under the mahogany table. Not a word passed between us. She scrutinised me, though, with a sort of curious air. Finally I stood, took hold of her shoulders, and signalled with a nod of my head to Oliver’s corpse. She pushed me away roughly, asked me to put aside my air of feigned mystery, then turned to make some coffee. I couldn’t believe the whole scene. Oliver lay murdered in the most despicable fashion and she sails off to the kitchen to make coffee! And that same damned fly kept buzzing about above me, flustering further my already knotted thoughts. I suddenly realised that I had walked into a terrible predicament. For all I knew she could have called the police, pinning the crime on me. Had I touched the knife ? No, thank God …

I glanced down at Oliver, my last thoughts finding their way into his, into our close, confidential past. We had so much in common, so much had been shared, and … and then she entered our manly nobleness, disrupting our toilsomely constructed dialectics. Had we not planned a long voyage to the East to spend a few years studying Eastern philosophy? The murderess returned with the utmost aplomb and placed the silver tray on the mahogany table round which the odour of thick, oozing blood wavered in wisps of despair.

I observed her carefully. She didn’t seem to be waiting for the police. Yet, she held her cup of coffee so delicately, as if that were the very cup with which she would scoop up Oliver’s blood and drink with it! I shuddered at this ridiculous image, again glancing at the Oliver’s frozen-white face. It was a mask of incomprehension … of unabashed innocence ! She asked me to sit, and soon began her morbid tale :

Oliver came as expected, carrying with him his usual pile of books. I interrupted to ask her which ones but she gritted her teeth and told me to keep my mouth shut. She didn’t like his books, they were foul, blasphemous and degrading to a pleading soul. But she loved him dearly, and that was enough for her to disregard these heinous felonies. This was the very reason for his death, she panted, her breath odious, nostrils wide. She loved him so much, but his books were soiling his pure, inborn thoughts. Those books were the external elements hacking away at his candid soul, squeezing him dry of his instinctive, natural energies derived from the inner depths, a gift from the Almighty. His poor, poor soul was incapable of overcoming these assailing evil elements from without. Oliver was a coward ! He dared not face extremities in fear of direct confrontation. She understood his dilemma, pitied him, sought to salvage him. He came to her explicitly for redemption. Oliver’s soul had to be soothed, then redeemed. She read it on his face, not in his vile books. His eyes had gone wild, the world blotting out his innate goodness. Weakening from these destructive powers, she tried to save him with her tenderness and love. This he took as mockery, throwing her savagely to the floor. She fully understood now that he had been ensnared by his own constructed cage of bookish death-traps.

She asked him if he wanted to die. The cage of death imprisoned him. He couldn’t break the iron bars, preferring to grapple with his gnomic books, boding his own plunge into the pits of slime and filth. He went berserk — tearing out her books from their shelves, stamping on them like some lunatic. And while he did so, she went ever so quietly into the kitchen to retrieve the salutary knife. He stopped, and eyed her funnily; what was the need of a knife? In that instant she went up to him, holding the life-saving helve firmly in hand. Oliver put out both hands but the blade was already deep inside his chest. She sighed as his big body slumped peacefully at her feet. He had been finally liberated from ignominy. Nothing again would ever harm him …

I listened in awe, and during those minutes (hours?) of madness a cold sensation slithered up my spine: she could kill me, too! The deadly killer was not strong, but her terrible tale left me hollow, defenceless. Her eyes searched mine, studying me, reading me. Are not the eyes the windows of the soul ? She walked towards the corpse, then burst into peels of harrowing laughter. I jumped up. She wrenched the knife out of Oliver’s chest and brandished it high overhead.

Dashing to the door, I heard footsteps and great gasps of breath right behind me. They resounded eerily as they followed mine down the stairway, my gait diminishing at each footfall downward. Into the street I charged, and hied to the statue. Only once had I gained the statue, I chanced a glance behind me. There was no one …

At home I resolved to run to the police, though, I couldn’t summon the nerve to make the move, much less the strength to descend back into the streets. I was frightened of the ill-lit, lonely lanes of cobblestone. And that insufferable heat and mugginess … Perhaps she was looking for me. She did have my address, I was sure of that. Unable to sleep, I sat at the window, scanning the narrow lanes below. The night was calm, not a soul passed, not a sound to disturb the hollow darkness. A light drizzle began to fall, the tiny drops flickering like silvery tinsel under the sallow, mournful street lamps.

The next morning, after a sleepless night, mooning confusedly in my flat, and before going to the police, I resolved to make a bee-line to her place to see if anything might have happened to her after my flight. With the new day, albeit a sunless one, all my feelings of insecurity had left me, and I felt strong enough to climb those wooden stairs and knock at her door. She didn’t answered … I turned the knob. Her door had been left unlocked.

Stealthily I inched my way into the sitting room, she apparently had gone out. But that infernal fly still hovered round the chandelier as if it had been sent by some Higher Spirit to hound me, to testify and vouch to the gruesome events of the evening before. And the loathing stench of blood ? And Oliver’s corpse ? Then I espied a note on the mahogany table, set beside the silver tray and empty coffee cups. In her customary scribble, the murderess had written that she would take the night train to an unspecified destination.

I looked around in a panic. Where had she hidden the body? I shuddered at the idea that my fingerprints were smudged on almost every item of that flat. She had completely gone mad, and I … yes I … what could I do ? Her friends (for I’m sure she must have had some lady friends) would definitely visit her, and when they found her gone, would believe something was amiss and go to the police station. Mine and Oliver’s names would be noted in all her address and notebooks, and there is no doubt that she had often spoken of us to those lady friends of hers. I could very well be suspected, even accused. Oliver and I were so close, so intimate. One need not be a Sherlock Holmes to put two and two together. And what did I care if she loved Oliver more than me ? Could the police possibly think that I would have murdered him for such a silly motive ? If so, then why hadn’t I murdered her ?

I dragged my feet out of the building and back to my dismal dwellings, where I am presently finishing this deposition for the police. I expect them very shortly now, I think it has been three days since the murder. At the same time, I feel as if I’m writing out a confession, or a death warrant for her, who, perhaps with very good reason, has put much distance between the scene of the crime and myself. As to Oliver, well, his soul now must lie somewhere far beyond the uncertainty of love, hatred and zealous misfortune … Did it not comprehend that our earthly existence was but a fleeting souvenir of timeless Eternity ?


[1] porter

Paul Mirabile is a retired professor of philology now living in France. He has published mostly academic works centred on philology, history, pedagogy and religion. He has also published stories of his travels throughout Asia, where he spent thirty years.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Editorial

Catch a Falling Star…

Art by Sohana Manzoor
For when your troubles starting multiplying
And they just might
It's easy to forget them without trying
With just a pocketful of starlight

Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Never let it fade away (never let it fade away)
Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket
Save it for a rainy day

'Catch a Falling Star' by Paul Vance and Lee Pockriss

Perhaps, it is time to find that fallen star popularised by pop singer Perry Como is 1957. Optimism glimmers faintly, sometimes even conceals itself, in a world passing through a dark phase in history. For instance, few of us would know that we might find more answers to tackle  climate change as dinosaur fossils (from the time an asteroid hit the planet) have been unearthed recently. That sounds like solutions can be had to what was perceived as inevitable doom.

Another bit of news that perhaps will cheer some is the first anthology of Borderless Journal will soon be available in market. It has been accepted by a publisher, an old, trusted and reputed name from India, Om Books International. They have bookshops splattered all over — should make it easy for buyers to access the book. Hopefully, you can target the anthology for your Diwali or Christmas gift hampers. Om Books has one of the most iconic editors-in chief, Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri. A multiple award-winning editor, he has worked in Penguin and Harper Collins and is currently churning out wonderful books from Om with a fabulous production team, working with whom has been a pleasure. Ray Chaudhuri is an outstanding film writer and poet. He is part of a group that is creating a film archive online. To know more about him or his views on publishing, you can read our online conversation with him.

The energy one gets from optimism like starlight from a fallen star, lightens the darker shadows that create gloom with the war leading to rise in prices and threats of recession in a post pandemic scenario. Lesya Bakun, the refugee from Ukraine whose story we carried last month, finds her starlight by sharing updates of her story.  She added to her narrative with the news that her cousin has been taken as a prisoner of war by Russia from the besieged factory in Ukraine. Though sharing does not alleviate suffering, Bakun’s ability to cling to hope and imagine a future where she gets her dream highlights the strength of her convictions. The other thing that is revealed by her narrative and media coverage is exclusivity and boxes of ideology split humankind, erase families, cities, countries, lives and sanity. The war can appease only the lust of warlords. Against this desolation caused by the devastation, what could be the starlight that would lead to a happier future?

Laughter. Unleashing the ability to laugh at oneself is as potent as laughter that generates relief and lightens our mood, so that we can view differences as whimsical, treat them with tolerance and compassion and not destroy the diversities that add colours to the world. Perhaps, that is why Tagore took to humour too. Somdatta Mandal has translated a series of humorous skits by Tagore. We are featuring one of these called the ‘Ordeal of Fame’. Yet another translation or transcreation of a poem called ‘Lukochuri’ or ‘Hide and Seek’ reflects the playful in Tagore’s oeuvre. These, along with Rhys Hughes humour on the pandemic in poetry and prose, bring good cheer into our journal. Hughes has also used his column to tell us why he curated a new humorous anthology of verses by seventeen poets called Wuxing Lyrical. I wonder if he is serious or joking!

We were fortunate to have a tongue-in-cheek online discussion with an academic with a witty sense of humour who started a book based on his PhD research with a limerick, Amit Ranjan, author of John Lang the Wanderer of Hindoostan, Slanderer in Hindoostan, Lawyer for the Ranee. While Ranjan brought to us a narrative of an Australian who challenged the colonial mindset, went to court representing the Rani of Jhansi, wrote for Charles Dickens in Household Words and moved around the world just like one of us, hopping jobs and looking for a life, we have diverse cultural streams woven into the journal with translations of a Balochi folktale from Fazal Baloch, a Korean poem by Ihlwha Choi and Professor Fakrul Alam’s translation of Jibananda’s poetry, an ongoing project in Borderless.

The Nithari column has yielded us a story that was written in a mix of Hindi and English by Yogesh Uniyal and translated fully to English by Nirbhay Bhogal. We have strange stories this time. Nileena Sunil’s short narrative and Paul Mirabile’s longer one set in Madrid explore the unusual. More stories delve into the intricacies of the human mind.

As we trot around the globe, Suzanne Kamata tells us about a Monet museum in Japan where she ate madeleines made with the artist’s recipe! Meredith Stephens sails to Tasmania with her camera and gives us a glimpse of nature’s plenty. Ravi Shankar relates his trekking adventures among the Himalayas in Nepal, with awesome photographs of these mountains, while Kenny Peavy who lives in Indonesia dwells on the value of falling down and getting up in a light humorous vein against the backdrop of nature – though metaphorically perhaps the world needs to do that. We have G Venkatesh’s story about his stay in Johannesburg where he discovers that skin tones do not matter.

Ratnottama Sengupta makes the whole world look like a home with the story of a legendary screenwriter, Jean Claude Carriere, who wrote the script of Mahabharata for Peter Brook’s play (1985) of the same name and the subsequent film (1989) — with characters drawn from all over the world. Candice gives us an overview of the pandemic, with more focus on US where she lives.

Mike Smith travels back to another time when an ailment called World War II raged and has revived a writer from the past, HE Bates (1905-1974). We have another essay by Dan Meloche on a legendary book which turned 100 this year — Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. Rakhi Dalal revisits more than a century old translation by Devabrata Mukherjee of Tagore’s The Post Office which bears relevance to the present day as it shows how the human spirit endures over even the darkness of death.

Bhaskar Parichha has reviewed Radhika Gupta’s Limitless: The Power of Unlocking Your True Potential, by his assessment a book that inspires youngsters to take charge of their future. On the other hand, there are books that explore the darkest in humans. Basudhara Roy has reviewed a collection short stories by Sunil Sharma called Burn the Library & Other Fiction. Indrashish Banerjee reviews Upamanyu Chatterjee’s latest novel based on modern day crimes, Villainy, from which we are carrying a book excerpt too. The other excerpt is from a narrative written from a refugee’s perspective, Ramy Al-Asheq’s Ever Since I Did Not Die, translated by Isis Nusair from Arabic. Born in a refugee camp in Damascus, this Syrian-Palestinian poet defies all genres to touch hearts with brutal honesty. No less sincere is Michael Burch’s poetry on summer that ushers in the season as much as Sohana’s beautiful painting that we are using as our cover photo. We have poetry from not just Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri but also by George Freek, S. Srinivas, Tohm Bakelas, Abin Chakraborty, Marianne Tefft and many more. As usual, I have not mentioned all the treats in store for you. Delve into our contents page and browse to find out more.

Before winding up, I would want to extend my thanks not only to our team and contributors, but also to our publisher who is willing to republish our content with some tweaking. Thanks to our readers who, I hope, will be excited to have selected content between their palms as a hardcopy anthology with 49 of our most iconic pieces. We have more than a thousand published works. This anthology will be an iconic sample that you can carry anywhere with you even if there is no internet – that would include Mars and Moon!

I wish you happy reading, happy dreaming and hope… plenty of it.

Best wishes,

Mitali Chakravarty

borderlessjournal.com

Categories
Poets, Poetry & Rhys Hughes

Dinosaurs in France

Eiffel Tower Paris. Courtesy: Creative Commons

I am still confused as to how many continents there are. Is Oceania the same as Australasia? Do North and South America count as two or just one? Is Antarctica a proper continent and not just a frozen phoney? What about the subcontinent of India? Does that count as half, quarter, or some other fraction? What continent does Greenland belong to? And the islands of the mid Atlantic, what about them?

When I was younger the issue was simpler. There were six continents, Africa, America, Asia, Australasia, Europe and Great Britain. There was absolutely no doubt that Britain was separate from Europe geographically and spiritually. In fact, the mainland of Europe was the continent and things that came from it were ‘continental’ and mostly malodorous, quilts and kisses on the hand being exceptions.

In Europe people did peculiar things; they spread chocolate on bread for breakfast and melted cheese in communal pots in the evenings. Or so it was said. Europe was a place of mystery, a patchwork of suspense, and crossing its multifarious internal borders wasn’t likely to be easy. If you had to travel there, a large vulcanite suitcase that could be plastered with triangular destination labels was the minimum requirement. Better not to go at all! The greasy food, cooked in nasty olive oil, was certain to upset your stomach. And there were yodellers.

My great childish dream back then was to build a raft and paddle it to France. There were enough fallen trees in the forest near my home to provide wood for the construction. France seemed an incredibly exotic destination and my enthusiasm was increased rather than diminished when I was told that dinosaurs existed there. They had become extinct everywhere else but still flourished in France. Thus, I couldn’t wait to drag my raft ashore and encounter my first stegosaurus. Other lies that adults told me about France included the assertion that the Eiffel Tower was something that horses jumped over in the Grand National. Having no idea what a ‘Grand National’ was I felt only a vague sense of awe. It was many years before I learned that it is a horse race famous for being dangerous to horses and for the ludicrous hats worn by upper class drunken women who watch it and chortle.

Adults in those days told outrageous untruths as a matter of course. It was an accepted part of life. I grew up in an environment where no one said anything sensible but instead would make the most absurd statements with a straight face. It was an uncle who claimed that France was jammed with dinosaurs. He also informed me that we were living in Australia, not Britain, but that everyone else would try to trick me into thinking it was Britain and that they were all in the joke together and I shouldn’t believe them. The truth of the matter, he added, was that Britain was a fiction, it didn’t exist, or it had sunk beneath the sea, it was a joke or a memory and nothing more. This was Australia and when he was my age, he had made a raft, from twigs, and sailed it around the world and started a successful property business with a gorilla in a jungle.

And he told me that he once pulled the plug out of the bath while he was still in it and got sucked down the hole and ended up at the bottom of the sea where he lived in a gigantic air bubble with a dolphin who taught him dolphin language and how to make crêpes. None of this was said in a joking manner but in a tone of utter seriousness. Everyone was like this. The postman once told me that he lived in a marshmallow house and was terrified of lightning strikes because the heat would alter the flavour of his roof and that people were taxed on the flavours of their roofs, so for him it was a major concern that his tiles weren’t toasted.

One of my favourite absurdities concerned the International Date Line. Because Australia was so many hours in the future, people who lived there (like ourselves) could phone relatives in Europe with the results of football matches, horse races and boxing competitions that hadn’t yet happened, enabling those relatives to make a big profit at the betting shop. These European relatives could then phone America to pass on the same information, enabling friends over there to also make money through betting. However, because of the Date Line it wasn’t possible for America to do any such favours for any countries west of them. In other words, America took but didn’t give, and as a consequence, was building up a large debt to the rest of the world.

One day all the other nations of the world, all those living in a future time relative to America, would form an alliance and invade America and loot all its treasures in retaliation. I am fairly sure it was one of my schoolteachers who told me all this. Even supposedly ‘responsible’ adults liked to be ridiculous in a blasé manner and play jokes on children. I remember one outing to a pond in a park as part of a nature class. We were required to sketch any animals that we might encounter, and, in my mind, I can still see the teacher crouching over a child’s sketch pad and pointing to a duck that was paddling slowly on the water.

“What it that, boy?”

“A duck, sir.”

“No, boy, it’s a fish.”

“But it has a beak and wings, sir!”

“Yes, but it has a tail too. Can’t you see the tail? Fish have tails, don’t they? That means it’s a fish. Draw it exactly as you see it and write the word ‘fish’ under the drawing and tomorrow I will hand your work to the headmaster so he can form a judgment of your educational progress and I am sure the result will interest him.”

That’s how life was in Britain when I was younger. Practical jokes and getting other people into trouble for the purposes of comedy was standard behaviour. If you didn’t tell amusing fabrications then you were regarded as rather odd, dubious even, a spoilsport and also, perhaps, a saboteur or foreigner. I would look at adults in the street and wonder if any of them were French and on familiar terms with dinosaurs.

Then everything changed and the countries and cultures of Europe became much more accessible. Going to Paris, Madrid or Lisbon for a weekend took no more effort than visiting Weymouth, Blackpool or Margate. In fact, it usually took less effort. I began to genuinely feel like a European citizen, something generally considered not feasible for a British fellow, but I am Welsh, not English, and the Welsh, who are the original Britons, are hardly British. To feel European required only my desire and acquiescence, and I had that desire and yes, I was willing to acquiesce. Feeling European wasn’t an option denied to me at that time and I never thought it would be, at least not until plate tectonics reformed the continents and Europe ceased to physically exist.

It sounds ludicrously obvious, but it still apparently needs to be said. Britain isn’t a continent by itself. That was just a childhood myth, similar to the story that if you swallow an apple pip a tree will grow inside you, and in fact I once deliberately swallowed many pips in order to have an orchard in my stomach and never grow hungry. I would only have to jump up and down at mealtimes for the fruit to fall from the branches. Because the fruit was already in my stomach, actually eating it would be unnecessary. It seemed such a wonderful solution that I couldn’t work out why everyone didn’t do it. I supposed that maybe adults didn’t really like convenience. But no, we can’t have trees growing inside us. And sadly, dolphins don’t know how to make crêpes.

Politely we call such things myths. They are deceits, of course. But the world seems to have gone back in time. Travelling abroad is truly difficult again, impossible in many instances. I spend my days bewailing the reversal. I have started wondering if my old plan of building a raft might be my best option of leaving these shores and visiting other lands. There might be dangerous dinosaurs off the coast of France, those long-necked plesiosaurs, but I will take a big detour around them. I will steer by the light of the stars and satisfy my hunger by eating the walls of my marshmallow cabin. Everything will work out fine.

Rhys Hughes has lived in many countries. He graduated as an engineer but currently works as a tutor of mathematics. Since his first book was published in 1995 he has had fifty other books published and his work has been translated into ten languages.

.

PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL