Diary Entry: 14th March, 2012. Ten years ago today.
Heavens above, the first night of Fiddler is less than a day away! This year has flown by… Today went by in a similar blur: four frees (essentially), Spanish and English raced past with a quick thrashing of Peter at chess over lunch and a Yearbook planning session. The dress rehearsal was superb – a lot to be ameliorated for the night itself (apparently) but otherwise very good. I must say, personally, I’m impressed with everyone. Our Tevye in particular: he’s come a long way since only just deciding to put his oar in… One of the big five is almost out of the way! The only question is… what next?
When I was seventeen, lists to me were everything. I think it was a long hangover from the teenage bird-watching days: garden lists, patch lists, year lists and lifers. That kind of thing. I wasn’t really the kind of kid who had it all figured out from the beginning, but I did appreciate a tick list to motivate me. I must have the original “bucket list” of fifty miscellaneous tasks I wanted to achieve before the age of fifty stored away on a memory stick, buried deep beneath a hundred other forgotten half-finished jobs, books and games. The irony isn’t lost on me.
I still remember the big five, though. They were the “ultimate goals”, the quests that I had to complete, come Hell or high water. It went something like this:
Play the part of Motel in Fiddler on the Roof Get a place at Durham University
- Travel from Cairo to Cape Town
- Get married
- Publish the book
You’ll notice that two of them are struck through. Completed. Dicho y hecho. You might well think it more than a little foolish that I managed to get two of my five “great quests” completed within six months of each other, and by the age of eighteen, to boot. You might also question the logic of making the First Quest so very specific, which relied upon a great many external factors, but as the descendant of a lost Jewish family driven into hiding, Fiddler on the Roof holds a very special place in my heart. I was also uncommonly blessed with a musical director for a mother, so I did, I admit, have a significant advantage in achieving one of them early on.
Durham? Durham wasn’t even up for debate. I simply had to get there. And though I do my very best to advise my own students against such stubborn folly, I was more than prepared to take a gap year and have a second shot when I didn’t get a place at the university of my dreams the first time around. Call it madness, but I wasn’t prepared to accept anywhere else. It was a gamble I ended up making good on, shored up by a much more favourable set of A Level grades. A combination of luck, hard work and stubborn pride secured me the Second Quest.
Of the remaining three, one was swapped out a few years back for a new quest:
Find the family
As I got older and my desire for reckless travel steadily fell away – the pressures of holding down a job and being in a relationship will do that to you, I guess – the idea of making the great overland trek from Cairo to Cape Town by any means at hand drifted further and further into the nether realms of lost dreams. Living in Uganda very much whetted my appetite for all things African, but in the years since I’ve been made to question that interest so often, through the lens of anti-colonialism, BLM and the downfall of my Gospel Choir. Eventually, the risks outweighed the allure. I buried that dream a long time ago, and replaced it with a much more personal Third Quest: finding the lost family I had never met.
I found them. That was five years ago – you can read the story here, if you missed it. Of all my quests, the search for my family has been the most precious, and I live in its afterglow twice a week every week as I guide my youngest cousin towards his English B1 exam.
That leaves only two of the original five: arguably, the two chambers of my heart. The book, and the one. I’m not afraid to admit that my single greatest ambition since childhood has been one and the same, and combines those two into one; and that is to read my own stories to my own children one day. It’s an image I’ve had in my head for almost twenty years: sitting on the edge of the bed, my life’s work in my hands, putting on all these silly voices and painting the world I’ve spent decades creating for my children. Leading them there, chapter by chapter. Watching them grow up with my heroes, until they find stories of their own and take up the mantle my great-grandparents passed on to me.
Of course, there’s a small but fundamental stepping stone that must be crossed first: the Fourth Quest.
Getting married and publishing the book. The two quests go hand in hand. That, perhaps, is why coming out of a long-term relationship has been a bit more jarring than I thought it would be. The derailing of two quests at once. A future rerouted, rewritten, a page of thoughts and ideas and names scrubbed blank. It’s not disheartening – nothing can be when the birds are singing and the year is on the turn – but it does leave you knocked out of orbit.
Ten years ago tonight, I was psyching myself up for the first night of Fiddler on the Roof. Tonight, Russian forces continue to cut a burning path through Ukraine. Kiev shelled. Mariupol in flames. Hospitals in ruins. As Motel, I took my young family and fled west into Europe. The radio today was talking about how the British government is offering a tax-free allowance of £350 per month to those willing to put up Ukraine’s refugees. According to the Beeb, some 43,000 have already signed up to help, only five hours in.
The events described in Fiddler took place in 1905. More than a hundred years later, the parallels seem alarming. They put one’s troubles in context. Personal quests and family pride must be denied and set aside and mortified and all that. Perhaps it’s high time I set myself a new quest. In the meantime, there is work, and work is good for the soul, even if marking GCSE translations is a far cry from any soul food I’ve ever eaten. BB x
Tevye: Work hard, Motel. Come to us soon.
Motel: I will, Reb Tevye. I’ll work hard.Fiddler on the Roof, Act II, Scene 8