MY NIGHT WITH SCARLETT
THE SAVANNAH ZOMBIE
They say that travel broadens the mind. It can have the same effect on the waistline as I discovered after my return from ten days in Georgia,USA. However, I did get ample compensation for this in an unexpected way which I will explain shortly, although I should give the warning that it should perhaps not be read by anyone of a nervous disposition.
Georgia was an unusual spot to choose for a transatlantic trip. What did I know about it? I had seen “Gone with the Wind” as a young man and that had offered some early education in American history and sexual politics. Other than that, I knew a few good songs. Of course there is “Georgia on my Mind” but that`s about a woman. There`s “He`s leaving on the Midnight Train to Georgia” and “A Rainy Night in Georgia” as well as the spooky “Devil went down to Georgia”, trading on Savannah`s reputation as the most haunted city in the US. I don`t know one that says “They Eat Muffins, Pancakes and Grits for Breakfast in Georgia so You`re going to get Fat, Baby,oh yeah.” Nor did I know one that told me you could drive 150 miles in the state and see nothing but trees and Baptist churches in approximately equal numbers. Of course, songs are not always a good guide, but it was fortunate that Gladys Knight decided to join her man on that midnight train since otherwise she might have waited a long time to see him. I discovered that the journey from Savannah to Atlanta which took four hours by car took twelve by train.
I was travelling alone after some fraught trips in female company. I suppose I wasn`t as alone as I might have wanted. As I drove past the 120th Baptist church in the last mile I was re-running times when there wasn`t an argument, just a sudden change of atmosphere that told me the happy day I had expected in Rome or Athens was not going to happen. Instead we would spend it in a surreal world where A on occasions was equal to Z except when apparently I should have known it was Y if not Q. Somewhere along the line I had said or done something to upset my companion but I didn`t know what and I wasn`t going to be told. Since the American state of Georgia is about twice as large as my home country,Scotland, I realised there was going to be a lot of time for reruns like this. I think that`s perhaps why I decided that if I was going to be haunted I`d go down to Savannah where they knew how to do it properly.
First of all, however, I was spending a few days in the little- known town of Americus. The reason I was there was to spend some time with my old friends Caroline and Junior. They live in one of the giant motor homes you couldn`t possibly have in Europe since each one is about the size of Belgium. There is a park for these monsters just outside Americus and they were spending a month there. Time spent with Caroline and Junior is always worthwhile. They are sane and in their conversations A generally equals A and if some days it doesn`t then “ who the hell cares?” I found this very healing. I suppose the first warning that something spooky was afoot was when we played golf. I didn`t lose a single ball and at most holes didn`t do worse than a double bogey. Only supernatural intervention could have made this possible.
While in Americus I lodged at a wonderful bed and breakfast in ReesPark. It is a beautiful old southern house with varnished wooden floors, spacious rooms and a grand piano in the lounge. Kim and Susan who run it have given a lot of thought to how you make guests feel welcome. You can help yourself to tea or coffee at any time and snacks are always available. Conversation at breakfast is lively and interesting and a social event in itself. The only slightly jarring note is not their fault. They have a life-size cardboard image of Scarlett O`Hara at the foot of the stairs. Vivien Leigh was a beautiful woman, but as the self-absorbed heroine of “Gone with the Wind” she perfected a look of disdain and displeasure that spoke volumes. I could almost hear her acid comments. I acknowledge that I was more sensitive than I should have been to her obvious mood but I was a little bruised at that time. One unusual feature of this B&B in my experience was that the owners didn`t stay overnight in the house. They had another cabin in the grounds and they retired to it, leaving the guests to quiet contemplation or piano practice. My fellow guests on the first night were Gary and Grace. They were in their late twenties and very shy. Somehow we Europeans don`t expect that of Americans but it`s not uncommon. We gathered that the following day was Gary`s birthday and this trip was a special treat organised by Grace.
I didn`t see Gary and Grace that evening. They had gone out to celebrate in one of the town`s restaurants. I went to the monster motor home where I had an excellent meal with Junior and Caroline. When I did see the young couple again it was at breakfast where I was distracted from an interesting conversation with Kim by watching Garybegin to eat the first of four chocolate muffins Susan had planted in front of him.Gary apparently liked muffins made with the darkest and most bitter cocoa. I had been unable to get through one despite my taste for very dark chocolate. It seemed to me unkind to require such a feat from a man on his birthday. I don`t think Kim fully understood my conversational lapses as one muffin after another was dispatched with apparent delight. My disbelief could only be compared to the time I had watched a very small female flatmate of my daughter getting through ten pints of strong beer in an evening. I wondered if there was some trick to it like the people who make the Empire State Building disappear, although for that one I assume you need a TV camera pointing in the wrong direction for a time. Even then there are usually several shapely female assistants to distract the spectator. Grace was a perfectly nice lady but hardly distracting. When Gary then proceeded to scoff several pancakes with maple syrup I once more had the sense that my normal contact with reality was somehow impaired. I glanced at Scarlett and felt sure her head shook slightly with disbelief and I could understand the look of contempt she was casting on the proceedings.
I left the following day for Savannah, having arranged with Kim and Susan that I would return for a couple of nights, since Caroline and Junior wanted me to join them at a restaurant which they rated highly about ten miles out of the town . I set off, still a little disturbed, still lapsing into memories as bitter as the muffins, almost hoping that some of the darker stories I had read about Savannahwould be true. A thoroughly spooky experience would no doubt be an effective shock therapy. I could only remember vaguely the plot of the famous film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” set partly in the city`s graveyard. I realised that sleeping on tombstones would be melodramatic but at least I was looking forward to a change of scene.
Savannah deserves its other reputation as one of the most attractive cities in the US. It differs from others I know there in that a car is not needed to explore it. The beautiful historic centre is quite small and can easily be covered on foot. Again I had chosen a B&B that was quite outstanding although it still served muffins for breakfast. I had not experienced this American love of breakfast muffins before. It`s very popular evidently but not a great idea for a country with an obesity problem. Savannah also deserves to be known, as perhaps it is, as one of the friendliest places you could possibly visit with the most considerate car drivers I have ever come across. I soon became very comfortable in it. It had several excellent eating places, mostly down by the Savannah River, and I found a first-rate café, Gallery Espresso, near the old theatre, apparently the oldest in the United States still occupying its original site. I spent part of each morning there drinking the excellent coffee and getting on with writing which was flowing well.
My suspicions that some slippage had taken place in reality were reinforced on my second day. I was walking along Broughton Street near the river. That in itself struck me as odd since I am often in a street of that name in Edinburgh. I was ambling along enjoying the experience of simply watching Americans being American when I was brought to a complete and baffled halt. Across the road from me I saw the legend “Tea Room”. That too was something of a surprise in coffee-drinking America where “tea” often means a syrupy dark mixture into which they hurl ice. “Iced tea” is as similar to my favourite beverage as Bombay Duck is to poultry. What particularly struck me was the design of the letters. I crossed the road and went in. I looked at the furniture, the motifs on the crockery, the pictures on the wall, the glassware. They all bore the unmistakable genius of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. For those who do not know, Mackintosh was a brilliant Glasgow architect whose creations ushered in art nouveau in Scotland and beyond. One of the many manifestations of his art was the appearance in central Glasgow, my native city, of Miss Cranston`s tearooms with the furniture, the crockery, the glassware and the pictures I was seeing now.
A young dark-haired waitress smiled at me and with the faintest gesture of one hand showed me to the secluded room where tea was served. I went, as if under a spell, into the room and looked at the familiar scenes I had known from my earliest days. As I sat in my bemused state I recalled the unimportant fact that one of the Miss Cranston tearooms in Glasgow had been situated opposite the cinema where I had first seen “Gone with the Wind” along with Sarah, my young lady of the time. I ordered a pot of Darjeeling which was brought to me noiselessly. The tea was excellent, made with loose leaves not teabags. It`s the only way to serve tea but it`s rare in Britain now, let alone abroad. No one else came in and somehow the staff gave me the impression that no one else was expected. When I left they simply closed.
I went back to my spacious rooms, virtually a suite, in my B&B in West Gordon street. I sat in front of the television and distractedly watched a well-fed man confidently declare how “the Lard” would snatch the unbelievers from the earth, or perhaps it was the believers. I switched channels to see a well-dressed African American in floods of tears describe how “the Redeemer” had rescued him from the jaws of sin. No doubt these gentlemen were very sincere and just as much in touch with the intentions of the Creator as they claimed, but it was all so remarkably alien to me. We do have television preachers in the UK as well but their emotional voltage is rather lower. They normally take the form of a grim little man warning you about sin. Keep it up and you`ll go to hell which is pretty grim. Mend your ways and you can go to heaven which is evidently not much less grim but they don`t have flames and you can get the company of grim little preachers like him. It`s all very different from this technicolour, major- key, American salvation. After my strange immersion in my native environment and my early life at the tea room this was like the plunge pool after the sauna. I switched off the television and wondered what the hell I was doing in Savannah. I was more than three thousand miles from home in a city where I knew no one at all. Even Caroline and Junior were a couple of hundred miles away. I was unsettled. I had been alone before in many parts of the globe without concern. Was Savannah spooking me already? Why had I come here? Friends and family had asked me that before I travelled and even then I had fumbled for an explanation. I mentioned I had heard the song “Hard-hearted Hannah, the vamp ofSavannah” in my childhood and had wondered what a vamp was and where Savannah was. Nobody would believe that that was the reason why I, now past middle-age, decided to visit. No wonder. I didn`t. I went out and had a fine dinner in a nearby restaurant which was better than its name, “The Public Kitchen”, made it sound. My only problem there was linguistic. I speak several languages but fluent American is not one of them. The bright-eyed young waiter was at a loss when I asked for an explanation of “succotash”. His explanation that it was just an ordinary succotash did not take us very far. The normal recourse with linguistic difficulties of translating it into the speaker`s language was not much use here because we both felt we were speaking English. In fact this was not quite the case . The word is from the native American Narragansett language with which we have little contact in Scotland. The original “msickquatash”might be thought to convey a sense of nausea which was not appropriate. Apparently it was originally lima beans with corn but is now used to refer to all sorts of preparations of mixed vegetables. I decided to order it anyway and it was delicious.
The following day I took the recommendation of a fellow guest at breakfast. He told me the performance at the theatre of “The Great American Songbook” was well worth the money. I felt it might be wise to have distraction in the evening so I went and booked a ticket. The nice young lady at the box -office asked me if I was from England. I said: “More or less. I`m from Scotland.” I asked if she had been there and she enthusiastically confirmed she had. “Which part? ” I asked . “Naples,” she replied. I said nothing but reminded myself that few Europeans could put Savannah on a map.
The theatre that evening was full and enthusiastic. I like the music of Cole Porter, Gershwin, Irving Berlin etc so I thought I would enjoy the show. I felt a lot of the audience knew one another and it seemed that the performers mostly came from the local area as well. It was almost like a village festival being played out in a sophisticated US city. It began on time and soon we were being treated to standards like “ You`re the Tops” and “You say Tomato” and “ Love is a Many Splendoured Thing”. We had “ Love Walked Right In” and “ You`re Nobody till Somebody Loves You.” It was all loud and enthusiastic . We had “New York,New York” and “Chicago, That Toddling Town”. Everyone was cheerful and energetic and full of the joys. Families sat around me with children and grandparents and it seemed like most of them had a relative on stage. Gradually, I began to long for a song that wasn`t hearty and joyous. I wanted something a bit quieter and more reflective. I wanted something a little more in tune with my own wistful mood. I admired all this American heartiness but it was making me feel more alone than when I had sat in my room. I looked at my watch and realised I was longing for the interval. I also knew I was not going to stay for the second half.
When the break came I slipped out with those who wanted to smoke. I felt slightly guilty but reminded myself that no one was going to be very interested in whether or not I crept off into the night, for it was now very dark. When I left Chippewa square with its lights I appreciated the solitude as I walked up Bull Street towards the tangled branches that hung down from the many trees surrounding the statue in Madison Square. The streets that had been lively during my morning walk were deserted now and I was enjoying the silence. I felt a little guilty at having walked out as if I was saying there was something wrong with all of these people being hearty and upbeat. There was little traffic as I crossed Liberty Streetand as I looked at the trees ahead with the low-hanging foliage I could understand how someone might see strange things on a dark night.
I suppose it was just a few steps after crossing Liberty Street that I was suddenly aware of someone walking beside me. I turned and saw a tall, dark man moving easily along. I hadn`t noticed him coming out of Liberty Street but perhaps he had, or from the lane just after it. I was surprised but not particularly alarmed. He turned his head towards me and smiled. Then, in a soft baritone voice he said:
“ How you all doin`this evening, my friend?”
I was getting used to this way of referring to me as if I was a little army of people rather than just me. It made me smile.
“I`m just enjoying the peaceful evening in this beautiful city.”
He nodded again with a smile.
“ Yes, it`s a beautiful city but hey you ain`t goin` home this evening. You a long way from yo` home.”
I agreed with him that this was the case as I noticed how silently he moved his big frame along.
“Do you mind if I ask you a question?”
I said to him without really thinking much what I was saying. He glanced at me and replied.
“ You jis` ask anything you want to, man. Anythin` that`s on yo` mind. ”
I thought for a moment and then said:
“ Would you by any chance be a zombie?”
He glanced at me again and then laughed quietly.
“ Well, man that is a question all right.”
“I told you I was going to ask you a question and there it is. You see, I`ve never met a zombie, although I have dealt with a few accountants in my time. But I heard that Savannah was just the place if you wanted to meet one.”
He nodded as if this took a bit of thinking about.
“ So tell me, my friend, what do you think a zombie is?”
I thought for a bit.
“Well, I`m not very sure. Maybe it`s just someone who starts talking to you on a dark street in Savannah when you think you`re alone.”
He seemed to turn that over in his mind.
“Do you think they`d have done books and films about zombies if that was all they was?”
I felt he had a point and I had, after all, been evading the question a bit. I decided to have a serious try.
“Well, I think I`ve always supposed they were people who were dead but just kept on walking and occasionally getting involved in people`s lives, usually not in a helpful way.”
He nodded a little more decisively this time.
“ Maybe I like that definition. So, it`s my turn now. Can I ask you a question?”
I allowed that.
“So did you have to come all the way to Savannah,Georgia to find that? Have you lived all your life without meetin` folk who were basically dead but kept interferin` with folks` lives, apart from them accountants you spoke about.”
I had to grant he had a point. A few people came to mind like a man I used to work for whose life appeared to have stopped years before but he still made everyone else`s difficult. He had no interests, no real friends, no conversation of any worth, no hopes or ambitions other than little bits of petty revenge here and there, still fighting battles of the past with people who might not even have been alive. I had often thought he was dead from any useful point of view. I met his wife once and dying seemed to be the one thing they had done together.
“Well, we don`t really think of them as zombies.”
“Jis` the words you use now, ain`t it? Do you wonder if maybe there`s a little bit of lots of people that are zombies then, bits that are dead but still keep twitching about bein` a damn nuisance to themselves and maybe some others? Maybe not noticing` they supposed to be alive today not way back when they took a hit.”
I hadn`t expected the conversation to take this turn. I suppose when I asked him if he was a zombie I just expected a clear “yes” or “no”, but I hadn`t realised there were depths to the question. I turned back to explore it further when I realised he had turned off without a word. I saw his broad frame gliding along Jones Street away from me. He seemed to raise a hand as if to give a friendly farewell.
Well I continued across Monterey Square. The words of my unexpected companion were in my mind but I was too tired to give them much thought. The rain was beginning. Heavy drops were falling so “a rainy night in Georgia” it was. I had liked Savannah and had enjoyed my trip, but I was looking forward to hitting the road again the following morning.
Since I had been wise enough to hire a satnav along with the car I was able to drive out of Savannah soon after breakfast. I had thought to avoid muffins this morning by choosing eggs Benedict, but of course eggs Benedict are served on muffins even when you`re not in Georgia. Once I left the city boundary the road ahead was clear for 137 miles. I tuned the radio to Georgia Public Broadcasting which played some very good music and trusted in it to provide the variety that 137 miles of trees and Baptist churches could not be expected to offer. As I drove, my mind went back to the words of my companion of the previous evening. What he said about all of us carrying a zombie or two around with us all the time had struck me as very odd but worth thinking about. If that were true then addressing me as “you all” might not be so irrational. Did I have “bits that are dead but still keep twitching about bein` a damn nuisance to themselves and maybe some others ”. I thought it was a good observation and I certainly could say it applied to a lot of people I knew, but on the whole I didn`t really think it applied much to me. I liked to think that I deal with life, even the painful bits.
I was greeted again by Kim and Susan when I reached Americus in the mid afternoon. Susan smiled as she told me I was the only guest, so there would be just me and Scarlett in the house. She suggested southern hospitality couldn`t do much better than provide me with a nice Georgia belle to keep me company. I smiled, but deep down in me there was a little cry of alarm. I suppressed it. I was going out to dinner with Caroline and Junior, and although their evening always finished quite early by my standards I felt that would be just the distraction I needed after five days of my own company.
The evening was a great success. Caroline had asked her friend, Marie, to join us. Marie was an attractive and cheerful companion. We drove out to Daphne Lodge in the little town of Cordele. The owners had managed to make it look like a welcoming family home, despite enough tables for fifty or more guests in the main room and more elsewhere. The waitresses were friendly and chatty. They found my Scottish accent entertaining and assured me seriously they didn`t know how they`d fill the gap in their lives when I went home. The food was excellent and I was in good humour when I collected my car again from the motor home park and returned to the B&B.
When I let myself into the lovely old house I felt I would probably read for a while and then sleep quite early. I put on the lights in the spacious hallway and was immediately taken aback to see that Scarlett was no longer standing at the foot of the stairs. She was now waiting beside the door of my room. Ridiculously, it took me a few minutes to realise this was obviously a joke played by Susan and Kim. That was obvious. Why had it taken me any time to grasp that? Why also did I see that as faintly menacing? Well, I was perhaps a little tired. I decided to move her back, but as I approached I saw the look in her eye. I saw a definite “don`t you dare” along with an expression that was clearly reproachful. Was she upset that I had returned late, I wondered. Immediately I asked myself what kind of stupidity this was. Here was I feeling guilty about an unspoken reproach from a woman who had no reason to think I would come back early or late and anyway I was not married to her. Just a moment, I thought. What are you doing? That is not a woman. That is a piece of cardboard. While thinking this I avoided looking at her. I knew what she would say: “ So, now I`m nothing more than a piece of cardboard to you .”
I went to the lounge where in the far corner a table was heavy with cups, different types of tea and coffee and hot water. There were also biscuits and a bowl of fruit. I had never seen such a considerate layout in any guest house. I made myself a mug of English breakfast tea and wandered back to the lounge. Its folding doors had been moved back to remove any partition between the lounge and hallway so I could sit in it and look directly across at my room door, and of course at Scarlett. She was quite beautiful in a way, although, honestly, no one looks very beautiful when permanently displeased. I realised the house was very silent. No doubt that was why the conversations going on in my head were almost audible. The solution was sitting there. Of course, the piano. Music had not lifted my mood at the theatre in Savannah, but now I could choose the pieces and dictate the tone.
I looked at the books on the piano. They had a good range at just about the elementary level at which I play. Ideal. Maybe I would bring a smile to Scarlett`s lips, I casually thought. I began with “ What are you doing the rest of Your Life?” and then “Skylark – have you seen a meadow in the mist where somebody`s waiting to be kissed.” Then I found “ Embraceable You” and “All the Things You Are”. I was enjoying myself . Since I have the capacity not to listen to myself very closely at the difficult bits I can persuade myself I`m making a really good job of these. I played a few more and had restored my faith in the infinite power of music, even when badly played. I felt stronger now. I should spend more time playing the piano, however badly.
I made myself another mug of tea before bed. I strolled back and Scarlett caught my eye. At the same time I thought of the words of my evening companion in Savannah, the words I had thought did not apply to me : “ bits that are dead but still keep twitching about bein` a damn nuisance to themselves and maybe some others”. Where had all my torment been coming from? It had all been coming from my past, from the times when relationships had not worked out, when a woman had realised my need to be appreciated and the power it would give her to withhold that appreciation. Where were these relationships now? They were gone. They were dead and the part of me that had been involved in them was “dead but it was still twitchin` about, bein` a damn nuisance ”. I looked at Scarlett. My music had not brought a smile to her lips. Of course it didn`t. It never would. As I walked up to her and saw her eyes widen a little with concern I saw no smile, no change of mood. She was a piece of cardboard, but if I went on like this I would soon be a zombie, dead to every new thing, every new experience, every chance to give some nice affectionate woman a chance. I thought of “Gone with the Wind” and Clark Gable. I put down my mug of tea, reached out and turned Scarlett to the wall. I almost heard her yell. “No, you don`t like it, Scarlett, do you? Your power is gone and you don`t like it. Well, frankly my dear, I don`t give a damn.” I suppressed a notion that she was now thinking “God, not again,” or even “Men are so predictable”. Well, if she did, I now didn`t give a damn. I was done with handing over power over me to people who didn`t deserve it. I was done with the zombie. It was going to die and stay dead.
A strange peace settled over me. Voices in me stopped. I had “laid down ma heavy load, down by the riverside.” And I felt good. I slept well . The next day I drove back to take my flight from Atlanta and decided , strange as it was,Georgia had been a good place to come to.Georgia had taken a lot off my mind.