Gertrude’s Diary #20 – The Moon Is Upside Down

Gertrude's Diary

He meets her from the train. She has just spent about 24 hours in various stages of travel and delay to get there. It is New Year”s Eve and there are lots of people about, a party atmosphere. He holds her hand because it is icy and the dark streets are steep, and she has travelled a long way to see him.

“The moon is upside down,” she observes, in tones of delight. “What are you talking about”, he asks in reply.

“A long way? Do you really think so” She feels so strange and out of place in this village of cobbles and stone and old, old wood: all beautifully cared for ” this is Switzerland, after all. Everyone she meets marvels that she”s travelled so far in one day. She recollects dark nights spent on trains through dry pasture and fleeting towns; a hard day”s drive over red plains; interminable bus rides in the tropics. In comparison this trip doesn”t really seem so far, but everyone looks at her as though she might be a little deranged.

He doesn”t know what to do with her. They had met a year before in Paris, when they both joined a group playing cards and talking in the common room of their hostel. Almost the first thing he says to her is, “I don”t like Australia very much.” She laughs and wonders if it”s because of her country”s disgraceful human rights record, senseless rape of natural resources, or militarist leanings. He”s an American and she”s pleased at the irony.

Writing a score sheet for a game of 500, she asks “How do you spell your name”

“With a “q”,”. He”s being sarcastic, but gullibly she writes it thus; Marq.

There starts a conversation that turns somewhat unexpectedly into the beginnings of a friendship. “Do you really spell your name with a q”, she asks, and he shrugs and grins. They exchange addresses and he returns to his life in Amsterdam and violin study, and she returns to Sydney for a showdown with a violent husband and a somewhat ticked off lover.

She writes to him, and in that long year of pointless temp jobs and makeshift accommodation, his letters became a point of light, an antidote to the weeks and months of strained negotiations with her ex. He writes to her about things he”s seen, or read, or wondered, and thus she is encouraged to do the same and so enjoy life”s simple pleasures, even in the midst of her ordeal.

Back in London twelve months later, she decides to visit him at the youth hostel he is working in. She makes a new friend at the train station, a straight forward, flame-haired, English girl called Abbey, who is travelling to meet her boyfriend in Montreux.

They keep each other company through delayed trains, bad weather and a long night”s wait culminating in a pre-dawn trek through frozen wasteland towards the train station in Calais. They could have waited in the comfortably heated ferry terminal for the early shuttle bus, but the croissants and coffee in a sepia-toned caf” were a fitting reward. And so she arrives in high spirits, already entranced by Europe and the deep winter.

He has spent a good part of the year walking from The Netherlands to Italy. He walks anywhere, and she goes with him, up sheer mountainsides that leave her feeling dizzy and anxious. He shows her how to slide down with one leg sticking out. They find a shallow overhang near a waterfall, and lie in the brief afternoon sun on a bed of fragrant grass, a ceiling of icicles above them. They watch each other. They do not touch.

She stays three days. She meets the other guests at the hostel and a few local people whom Marq has befriended. They explore the countryside and play in the snow ” a great novelty for her which he kindly indulges. They drink delicious coffee in smoky old cafes. She starts to remember her school-girl French, practices juggling with an itinerant clown over-wintering in the Alps, and meets English-speaking Swiss who say, “I love your accent but I can”t understand a word you”re saying”.

Almost everyone goes skiing whenever it is humanly possible, a sport in which she has no experience – nor any inclination to learn. With most conversations lost to her she starts to feel like someone”s very dull relative at a party. But she has her American friend, and with him she shares the gentlest of talk. On the evening of her last day they sit together on a divan in the common room, and he puts his arm around her. They lean together comfortably.

“Show me what your fingers do when you play the violin”, she asks.

He laughs. “It”s mostly in the bow”, he says, but shows her anyway, his strong fingers making chords along the bones of her spine. The next day she weeps a little as the train takes her away.

In his next letter he admits that he doesn”t really spell his name with a “q”. He writes, “when you asked me about it, and looked into my eyes and smiled, I didn”t know what to say.”

She still writes to him. Eleven years have passed, and their correspondence no longer has the same intensity it once held. He”s married with kids, she”s separated with a daughter. Their lives go on, still threaded together by a history of words, a few shared memories, and the small pleasure of an unlikely friendship.


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