GAME ON (12)

THE PERFECT GUEST




In case there is any confusion, today is January 6, 2023.

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I'm in a hurry because it will be dark by 4pm, so I want to get out of the house by 2pm. I don't need today's Date Painting to be perfect, but it has to look perfect in a photograph. I'm reckoning I need to go over the 2023 another twice, though I may only need to run over the JAN.6, part another once. What do you reckon?

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I have an airbnb guest from Pakistan staying with me. He is a 26-year-old from Islamabad and will be beginning a Masters course in Law at Dundee in a week's time. That is when he will be moving in to university accommodation, but he's come a week early in the hope of exploring Scotland a bit, and meeting the odd person. He has come to the right place.

Muhammad Abubakar had never cooked
a meal before making a curry for us both last night, served with flatbread. It was delicious. He must have watched his mother cooking sufficiently closely to learn a few things. His mother cooked for him until he was 14, when Muhammad left home to train to be an officer in the army, from which day the army cooked for him. From next week he will be one of five students sharing a kitchen so he wants to be able to cook for himself. He is off to a good start.

And so am I. We are out of the house by 2pm as planned, and I have driven Muhammad four miles from Blairgowrie, to what I think of as a mysterious spot. Our walk will be in the grounds of this fairly grand house which is surrounded by a perimeter wall. What is the property called? Bleak House or Wuthering Heights or Hetton Abbey, whatever.

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The house has its own private graveyard. I have been here a dozen times and never met another soul in my stroll around the grounds. Two elderly ladies died in 2013, that is the last time there was activity in this plot.

Let me say a little more about Muhammad, though all you really need to know is that he is a friendly and affectionate human being, open to new experiences and curious about a part of the world he has never visited. Everything seems strange to him. The Date Painting he is holding may seem the least strange thing.


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Twice the army rejected Muhammad. I ask why. He doesn't know for sure, but he thinks it is because there is something impulsive in his nature that he can't seem to control. I would have thought that was quite a good quality for an officer to have. But maybe that's me thinking of 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. Or some other such Roy of the Rovers nonsense.

We don't want to get too close to the house. I explain to Muhammad about the 'right to roam' in Scotland. If a house has enormous grounds it is fine to walk there, but one shouldn't get too close to the house itself, one doesn't want to intrude on anyone's privacy. In this case, the bridge would seem to be the obvious division between private and accessible.

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So we come back into the outer grounds which contain some odd features, such as this stone gazebo. What is it that Muhammad is holding? It's some kind of ceremonial staff, made of metal, perhaps zinc, coming off a rusty steel pole. Muhammad's hand is frozen by the time this next photo is taken:

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And then a funny thing happens. I'm put in mind of an exquisite Edward Gorey book called
The Unexpected Guest. No, it's the Doubtful Guest. I suspect that when I get home I'll be able to integrate Muhammad's story with Gorey's protagonist's fabulous adventure.

It's the white trainers that provide a portal to take me from one scenario to the other, of course.

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

Shall I start from the beginning of the Gorey tale, and then try and find a way back in to JAN.6, 2023? Yes, that's what I'll do. I can't possibly do any harm. The folk in the story lived and died in the nineteenth century, and they have stones memorialising their lives in the graveyard right here on my doorstep in Perthshire.

'When they answered the bell on the wild winter night,
There was no-one expected - and no-one in sight.'


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I had agreed to pick up Muhammad from Halbeath Park and Ride at 4 o'clock on January 1, 2023. He was flying to Edinburgh via Turkey from Islamabad. It would be a public holiday in Scotland, and he would have to get through customs and make his way from the airport to the Park and Ride by his own devices. What could possibly go wrong?

'Then they saw something standing on top of an urn,
Whose peculiar appearance gave them quite a turn.'

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The Park and Ride was empty because there were no buses running. I saw Muhammad standing beside two enormous suitcases. I realised I had parked the car too far away.


'All at once it leapt down and ran into the hall.
Where it chose to remain with its nose to the wall.'


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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

Right from the beginning, Muhammad was very relaxed about everything. He knew that he had already done all the hard work. He had flown from one side of the world to the other without incident, and he'd made contact with his host, who seemed friendly.

'It was seemingly deaf to whatever they said,
So at last they stopped screaming, and went off to bed.'


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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.


Muhammad was tired after his journey. So I showed him up to his room, which he though was perfect, with the Date Paintings on either side of his bed reading JULY 11, 2022 and NOV. 28, 2022. I left Mohammad to carry his enormous bags up the stairs himself. Honestly, what was in there? His whole family?

So where were we again? Here at the gazebo.


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We wandered back to the bridge. It was very tempting to walk over the bridge and take a closer look at the house. Was it as mysterious and Victorian as it looked from a distance? But Muhammad is every bit as respectful of the law as I am, so we went no further in that direction.

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Besides, on our side of the bridge there were plenty of things to keep us amused. A walled garden, the walls thirty feet high, which still seemed to be in use. Then this old gatehouse or ex-stables or whatever it once was. Muhammad disappeared inside for an explore while I took this photo.




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The combination of dereliction and nature was most intriguing. The British Empire crumbling to dust was evoked.

For some reason, it was about now I asked Muhammad about the recent floods in his country. Something like 40 million people out of a total population of 140 million had been displaced by the water. And it had cost his country a fortune. In fact, such was the loss in value of the Pakistan currency, that the fees due to Dundee became
a lot more than he'd bargained for. However, Muhammad was given some kind of grant to make up for the foreign currency movement. A sum of money that he had given to friends of his who had been badly affected by the flood.

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This place has been flood-afflicted as well. Though here it's time not water that has done the damage.

I wondered if Muhammad was enjoying his walk in a typical Scottish setting. I think he was. I asked him if he could get 2023 to meet 1840. He said he couldn't quite. Not a bad effort though.


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Let's see if I can do it.

'It joined them at breakfast and presently ate
All the syrup and toast, and a part of a plate.'


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Muhammad hasn't had breakfast yet, though he's been here four days now. He has noodles in his room when he gets up. He has been in the kitchen to prepare last night's meal. Oh, and to give me a packet of Pakistani sweets. These sweets are made from organic butter and coated with sesame seeds. They are delicious, reminding me a little of toffee, though more seductively packaged.

'It wrenched off the horn from the new gramophone,
And could not be persuaded to leave it alone.'

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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

Muhammad has been super respectful of my things. But also respectful of my time and my space. He will offer himself for conversation from time to time, but if I am working he will glide off with a smile.

'It betrayed great liking for peering up flues.
And for peeling the soles of its white canvas shoes.'



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The above is the best verse and photo combo in the book, I reckon. And I can't think of its equivalent. Unless that last photo of Muhammad, standing in the doorway. Though the last thing he is thinking about is peeling the soles from his white 'canvas' shoes. These days, trainers aren't made with rubber that can be peeled off.

'At times it would tear out whole chapters from books,
Or put roomfuls of pictures askew on their hooks.'


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Muhammad told me that he had never met a writer before. In fact, he told me that he had never read a book before. I suppose that makes sense if he had left home to go and train to be an officer at the age of 14. But he's read law books, surely? Oh yes, he has read them, but they don't count, do they? No, I don't suppose they do.

As for putting 'roomfuls of pictures askew on their hooks', if that's what he wants to do with the Date Paintings hanging in his room, then that is up to him. I won't be checking up until he leaves. I won't be checking up, ever.

'Every Sunday it brooded and lay on the floor,
Inconveniently close to the drawing-room door.'


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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

I've explained to Muhammad about the bathroom door. It won't shut. That's because of all the showers that have been taken by airbnb guests over the last year. The water has somehow got into the door and it has swollen. But all Muhammad need do is close the curtain across the inner door and I will know that there is someone in there having a shower and won't intrude. I wonder if I made myself understood.

'It was subject to fits of bewildering wrath,
During which it would hide all the towels from the bath.'

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I left on Muhammad's bed, two white towels, one large and one small. But he has told me he won't be using them. He has brought his own towels all the way from Pakistan. Do Pakistani towels have some magical quality? I don't like to ask.

'In the night through the house it would aimlessly creep,
In spite of the fact of its being asleep.'


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Actually, it's me that creeps about the house in the middle of the night. Last night, for instance, I had laid down a first coat of raw sienna on today's Date just after midnight. I then set my alarm clock for 4am and got up and applied a second coat of raw sienna then. Thus taking us back 30,000 years to when Stone-Age people made Cave Paintings. I'm pretty sure I didn't disturb Muhammad, as most of the activity was downstairs.

'It would carry off objects of which it grew fond,
And protect them by dropping them into the pond.'


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Reproduced with the forbearance, I hope, of the copyright holder.

I am fond of a photo of the artist, Joseph Beuys, who is smoking a cigarette that he is holding in his right hand. There is a big watch visible on his right wrist. And I have been told that On Kawara wore a large watch whose timing he could absolutely rely on, on his left wrist. Because when playing mah-jongg while Date Painting, On could get distracted. And sometimes it became a race against time to finish a Date Painting before midnight. I would like to preserve for posterity both these watches.

'It came seventeen years ago - and to this day
It has shown no intention of going away.'



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Seventeen years! It's been six days, that's all.

Muhammad finally got his breakfast on the Saturday morning of his leaving day, January 7, 2023. I made him a bowl of porridge but may have got carried away. He ate about a quarter of it, explaining that he was not a big eater in the morning. He didn't want toast either.


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I talked to Muhammad about the Van Gogh that you can see over his right shoulder, and about my energetic and wise airbnb guest from Holland that was in residence towards the end of May last year. And I hung JAN.6, 2023 so I could glance at it as we chatted. All in all, I suppose I wanted to make sure my latest guest had his share of culture before I drove him to Dundee and his new lodgings.

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His new lodgings are fine, though nothing special.

I left him chatting to fellow students who were also moving into adjoining rooms that day. Everyone seemed very friendly.

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When I drove away, I realised that I hadn't given Muhammad Abubakar his Date Painting. I'm sure I'll see him later in the academic year, and I can put right that omission. Though his room might be hung with Date Paintings of his own by then.