Monday, September 26, 2005

If it's Sunday it must be Washington DC. Woah. Really? Yeah. Sorry, my brain hurts. Eight hours' sleep is such a rarity. But I wake up on this grey Sunday morning to the early light slanting through the oaks.

La Patronne cannot raise her head from the pillow. The house is empty. Barbara has left for church at seven-thirty. I scramble into shorts and shirt and trainers and hobble off down the road towards the nearest Starbucks, which is about four blocks away. Turn left at the traffic lights, Barbara has told me last night.

And there it is. I order a grande caramel machiatto. It slips down so creamy and smooth, and the caffeine kicks in to startle me out of my torpor. Yeah. Sunday morning. Get a grip, man. Only four more events.

I stumble back through the trees that overhang this shady street, past empty porches and shuttered windows, to meet Ms Busch as she takes her daily constitutional. Like ships that pass in the night.

Back at the house, I don the kilt and all the gear and pack the bags yet again. I scan the papers to see that Rita has failed to match the destructive power of Katrina, and think of my friends in Texas who have had such a narrow escape.

Barbara drives us to Bethesda where we meet up with La Patronne's brother, John, who has come to meet us and drive us north along the eastern seaboard. Provider of transport, security, logistics and video throughout this final east coast leg of our tour, he is indeed my beau frère.

In a restaurant called the Moon Gate, we meet up with a host of Barbara's friends and neighbours to share a Chinese meal before the event at the nearby Writer's Center. These are fine people who have turned out to support me, to share a meal and chat. Several are of Scots descent, and one of them, Mary Buchanan, grew up in Anniesland, Glasgow, barely a stone's throw away from where my mother was raised.

In the restaurant I meet a lady and her father who, on seeing my kilt, announce that they are of the MacNeils of Barra. A bizarre coincidence, since La Patronne and brother John are direct descendents of the MacNeils of Barra. I flew there once in an aeroplane which landed on a beach of compacted shell, the flight schedule determined by the tides. It is interesting that everywhere I go in this vast land, I meet people of Scots descent.

I remember a moment, when filling Susie's car at a gas station in the middle of the Californian hinterland, a truck driver called to me, "What's your clan?"

"Macdonald," I replied.

He jabbed a finger at his chest. "Campbell," he said.

Mortal enemies in Scottish history

He grinned, winked, and made a pistol with his finger and thumb, before jumping into his cab and heading off into the dust.

At the Writer's Center I am greeted by Sunil, the centre's deputy director, and am introduced to Vladimir Levchev, a Bulgarian poet with whom I am to share the stage. He is a gentle man, timid and intimidated by the thought of reading his poetry to an audience of Americans. We shake hands and I sense his warmth.

A friend and emissary of one of our former writing course students from France, Stephanie Siciarz, turns up to tell us that Stephanie is working, but still hopes to make it. Another former student, Sara Criscitelli, grins at us and gives us big warm hugs. Dick and Barbara Muller, the parents of a friend from California, appear with smiles and kisses and handshakes to welcome us to Washington. With so many friends around us it feels like coming home.

Vladimir reads from his latest book of poetry, "The Rainbow Mason", nervous and hesitant. As a mark of respect to me, he reads a poem written while visiting a fellow poet in Dundee, Scotland, seventeen years before. I feel for him, as he faces his own personal demons and gives defiant voice to his poetry.

It is easy for me. English is my native language. I am well practised in this. I talk for half-an-hour and read from "The Firemaker", and then we all partake of cheese and wine and biscuits, and I sign books and talk to those people who have come to hear me.

An attractive lady with dark hair approaches and introduces herself as Alba, a friend of my French-American friend, Gary Osius. She was an early girlfriend. He has asked her to come along and meet me. "Do you know what Alba means?' she asks.

"Sure," I say. "It's Gaelic for Scotland."

She is surprised. It was only during a visit to Scotland itself that she discovered the origin of her name. Echoing my speech, where I talk about the bizarre frequency with which things I have written about come to pass, she says she is going on a trip to China in just three weeks' time. Her name means "Scotland", and she is only here because Gary has written to her telling her about my visit. A conspiracy of fate. She buys two books, which I am delighted to sign.

And then Stephanie appears, sorry to have missed my talk, but delighted to have caught us before we go. She is coming to France next month, when I am mentoring the writing of her second novel, sponsored by Johns Hopkins University.

This has been a good event. Books sold, friends made, friends reunited. Validimir buys my book, and I buy his. And afterwards, La Patronne et moi pile our luggage in beau frère John's Mercedes, and we head north towards Hagerstown, Maryland, where we will spend the night, eating at a Bavarian restaurant, and drinking ginger brandy, before falling into final slumber and preparing ourselves for the last onslaught. Pittsburgh to come. Then New York and Boston.

The finish tape in sight and my legs are starting to buckle.

With Vladimir Levchev

With Sunil and co-worker Santa at the Writer's Center

1 comment:

ARGIL said...

On aurait bien voulu voir la copine de Gary! On veut plus de photos.