Category Archives: Dispatches From Martinique

Transit

Dispatch from Martinique Paris

Transit

 

The buildings are impossibly tall and narrow, diagonal boulevards, circles and lines. A twenty-degree drop in temperature has me don fleece and Mac for the first time in seven months, and I breathe in air, fresh, fresh air. The spring is back in my lungs.

I imagine what it was like for my Martinican friends when they first made the journey, as so many of them do and must, to Paris. Paris, their capital, and not their capital. Paris, the city of light and simmering prejudice. I think back to all the stories I have heard while in Martinique, all the stories of The First Time In Paris: a math teacher mistaken for the cleaning lady by her students; a teacher forcing his student to go on the school skiing trip because ‘I’d give anything to see a black on skis’; a geography teacher who didn’t know Martinique was a part of France and therefore used French currency; an oblivious student at university asking a peer, ‘So, what are you, mixed race? Because your lips aren’t all that full.’ The list is full to bursting, margin after margin etched with anecdotes of ignorance.

I have so many conversations to write about, I can’t begin to do them justice now. In time, perhaps, I will; for now I have to hastily wrap up my mental goodbyes while the yellow-and-rose-hued sunsets glimmer in the front of my brain.

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I paraglided over Anse Michel.

When I wake up and my feet touch a cold floor, I remember gazing out over my balcony at the silhouette of Trois Îlets against the blue sky and sea, little lights glimmering over its green. When I take the metro I remember holding on tight as my bus sped down a narrow hill road; amidst the silence of city transport I remember shouts of ‘À l’arrêt!’ to stop the chauffeur. A tiny little boy once got on, swamped by a red hooded coat, and asked his mum if he could do it. She nodded. Face alight like a candle, he threw back his head and sang, ‘À l’arrêêêêêêt s’il vous plaîîîîîît!’ Next stop, please!

The wonderful, warm, irrepressible people of Martinique. People greeting people they know or barely know or haven’t seen in a while or just saw the other day. People beeping their car horns as they speed down the highway because they’ve seen someone and want to say hi.

People not taking any shit. I saw a French tourist in a ridiculous sailor hat getting angry at a woman serving him in a shop. She raised her voice only a fraction and said, ‘Monsieur. You’re here on holiday, to relax and have a good time, am I right? So why are you behaving this way?’

Another time I went to the cinema to see an English film in ‘version originale’, that is, without French dub, a very popular event. The film started playing, but – ‘Hey, V.O.!’ people started yelling, as the actors’ mouths opened and French came out. Eventually a staff member stepped out and informed us, sheepishly, that they didn’t have the reels for the V.O. version, and we could either watch the film or collect a refund ticket for another show. A woman two rows behind me, right at the back of the cinema, yelled out at him, ‘Vous n’avez pas d’éxcuse! Vous n’avez vraiment pas d’éxcuse!You have no excuse! You have absolutely no excuse! Outrage! Defiance! Voices that must, shall be heard!

It’s not only the loud sounds I’ll miss. I’ll miss the sounds of the lychée woman on Rue de la République

Sucrées les lychées, sucrées les lychées

the lychees are sweet, the lychees are sweet

The man selling coconut water out of the back of his van by the supermarket, singing an endless triplet tongue-twister

Dlo coco dlo coco dlo coco! Dlo coco dlo coco dlo coco!

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Rue de la République, Fort-de-France

I’ll miss the generosity of strangers; the basic acceptance of a logic that does right by people simply because one should. People would go out of their way, far out of their way, to help me, and when I thanked them, they would say, ‘I know you would do the same for me,’ or, ‘If I do something for you today, you’ll do something for someone else tomorrow, and that’s the way the world keeps working.’

I’ll miss the camaraderie of the friends I made there, and the simple joy and bright complexity of the students I taught. They would wriggle and sing as they drew answers on the whiteboard. They would blow up lab gloves like balloons and bounce them like volleyballs. They would ask questions and work hard and not listen at all and laugh and moan. They were wonderful.

I think the world is a more dangerous place than when I was their age. I was in Martinique when the first round of the presidential election took place. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen was running for president. He tried to visit Martinique, and couldn’t. Why? Because Martinicans flooded the runway, forcing his plane to take off again before it could land. Fifteen years later, a northern province in Martinique, Le Prêcheur, voted for Marine Le Pen. Why? Because of fears of immigration from the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Nevermind that Marine Le Pen hasn’t even visited Martinique, and will never in a thousand years care about inter-Caribbean immigration concerns, amongst a people she would never call her own, whom she – like many French politicians of less controversial parties – would not consider truly French. Across the island, she received only 11% of votes, but in the métropole she is more popular and powerful than ever before, and went head-to-head with newcomer Emmanuel Macron in the final voting round.

I was in Paris when the final round of votes was counted. Although we can breathe a sigh of relief that Emmanuel Macron is today president of France, not Le Pen, what danger to forget how powerful the Front Nationale are today. 10.6 million people voted for Marine Le Pen. My friend Maiva, the Math teacher, a Mélenchon supporter, shook her head and said to me, ‘I thought I’d never again have to vote against a Le Pen. And here we are. People don’t learn anything.’ 10.6 million, and millions more who didn’t vote at all.

I left a Brexit. I taught a class through a Trump inauguration. I woke up surprised – surprised! – to hear that a fascist has not yet come to power in France. Yes, the world is more dangerous. And yet, if it ends tomorrow, although I haven’t come near to living all the life I have to live, it is probable that I could end contented. I struggled at times, while I was in Martinique, with my own ghosts more than anything, and I managed to pull out of myself a core of resistance, a sliver of solid gold.

Of all the wonderful things I saw and did, none compare with the daily challenges and triumphs of teaching those teenagers, the fifteen-year-olds fresh out of collège, the eighteen-year-olds making plans to study or work or change the world, everyone in between, every quirk and question and silent, watchful, youthful eye. From the gay girls and boys who were not afraid to show their love in public and were accepted by their friends without even a shrug; to the girl who pointed at her friend and told me, ‘Remember her name, she’s going to be president one day’; to the young man who had no family, absolutely no one, but smiled warmly and was determined to study and become a politician; so many of them, all of them, the difficult ones and the brilliant ones, all – they really made me very happy, and very proud. It was bittersweet and quietly magical to say goodbye to them, good luck, take care. So if I must go, I can go contented, because I’ve given something small but precious to them: my time, my effort, my talent and my compassion. And I have much more, far more left to give.

I feel a bit like I’ve been in a strange sort of transit, that my time spent on that island was a meaningful transition from one part of my life ending to another part beginning. And I am less afraid than when I was eighteen, because I have been through more, and so I know better what I am capable of, and how much myself I am and will remain, even in the face of things that shake me.

I’ll remember the textures of the sea, the water, and the clouds against the sunsets.

Now for the next thing.

 

All names, other than those of public figures, have been changed. Keep an eye out for dispatches on future adventures by following this blog or via the Twitter handle @mariella_hudson. Thanks for reading.

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Bus Queen

Dispatch From Martinique

Bus Queen

  

I saw the queen of England on the bus the other day. I was heading to work and everyone was quiet, tired. She got on and carried the whole universe in her stride – she straddled across, heaving tree trunk legs under a squat, ample body, bright orange shirt against her rich brown skin, wiry glasses, wiry hair pulled haphazardly into two little-girl bunches bouncing off the top of her head in bright pink scrunchies. A young woman moved her legs to make room for her as she made her way down the aisle.

‘Don’t move for me, chérie,’ the queen-crone said, in a shrill voice that rung out through the whole bus like the cry of a bird, ‘I’m not fat yet! I’m still young and beautiful, I’m the queen of England!’

She sat beside a young man in hoodie and headphones and continued talking in her raspy, loud, old-crone voice, to all of us. She may have been from Guadeloupe because she kept saying, ‘The Martinican people are beautiful, beautiful people!’, perhaps in recognition of the young woman’s gesture. She chatted and joked in Creole and cracked herself up – and threw back her head and laughed, but a laugh that erupted out of her like water shooting out of an underground volcano, pierced the air and shot through the whole bus. The young man fell back into his seat melodramatically in a gesture of distaste, his music competing with the old queen’s bird cries. The middle-aged women and me smiled to hear her. No shits she gave. She carried right on her own wave.

EEEEEEEeeeeeehhheeeeeheeeheeeeeeeheeeeeeeeeeeeee

 

When she left, the magic she pushed into all of us lifted up and stayed in the air for a stop, another stop, a few more. I have a feeling the earth is turning thanks to her.

Carnaval

I haven’t been able to write since Carnival. I’ve written, but I haven’t been able to write about my time here. I keep trying to write it, or think about writing it, and there are so many other strands, other parts, other stories I need to write that keep twisting their way in, and I realise that there’s much more to this telling than the events that happened at the end of February. I’m trying to go back and prise them all out, carefully, hold them up to my ears and listen to what they’re trying to tell me, because I can feel that they want to be told, and that I need to tell them.

So I’ll try again.

 

Dispatch From Martinique

Carnaval

 

I’m really excited for Carnival. Really excited. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I felt so excited. I tell everyone so. ‘I haven’t been this excited in such a long time!’ When was the last time? My 22nd birthday, perhaps? I sat at a table full of loved ones, ate cheap Sardinian pizza and got drunk on good red wine; then I went to a murky London pub and laughed and laughed, then a taxi home with my boyfriend and his roommate and we chatted about what socialism really means, apologised to the taxi driver for our ramblings who said, ‘No no, I enjoyed that.’ Yes – I was happy – happier than I’d been in a long time – excited happy – jubilant happy – a higher sort of high than what my body could remember. It had been a while. And right after that, something happened that plunged me into misery, and the fall from being so high was what made the misery so great.

And before that? I suppose before that was before I had depression. When I was twenty I had these higher highs all the time – walking home in the pummelling rain and turning my face upwards to feel every beat of it – strolling through a green park with my friend after swimming through clear lighted water – lying on the summer grass beside a boy I loved – allowing myself to be swallowed whole by love and crazy longing. Feeling everything, seeing everything. Depression was like being plunged beneath a sea, where every sense, before so sharp and vibrant, was now muffled and clouded by thick, muting water. Sometimes, even walking down the street, I felt like my whole body was being pushed down upon by this sea, and I had to push my limbs through it, push my way through an ocean just to move, or speak, or breathe.

Once, when it was getting really bad, I was in my flat, sat at the kitchen table, opposite my flatmate Lydia. I couldn’t look her in the eyes. That happens when I’ve gone that far away. My head was pulled down by a weight and my eyes could see only my hands wrapped round a cup, the hardness of the table. She was looking at me, quietly, trying to figure out what to do. We had a vase of yellow-orange roses on the table. They were beginning to fade. I turned to them and slowly reached my hand out. My fingers felt the dried-up petals, the grooves and veins running through them, the softness that, at this point of vulnerability, right on the edge of death, felt suddenly so much softer. In its own way, richer. Urgently beautiful, and listlessly dying.

‘Right now,’ I said, ‘These flowers are the only thing I can really feel.’

Why am I telling you this? I’m telling you this because of Carnival.

 

Dimanche Gras

I go out to see Carnival on its first day, Dimanche Gras, Fat Sunday. Sunday is the quieter, family day, the highlight of which is the revelation of the Vaval, the giant, papier-mâché king who leads the parade, pushing slow rings around Fort-de-France. I am out with Jane and Tom and we run into others we know, students we teach. There are people in wild, outlandish dress that today is standard and expected. Tacky wigs in neon purple, orange, green. Platform heels and netted stockings running up the hairy calves of sauntering men, many proving their allegiance to the Club of Male by assuming hypersexualised female dress on the sanctioned Day of Transgression – although some are more relaxed, less saunteringly macho, fun. It’s a celebration of fun, first and foremost. Mischievous, rule-bending fun.

The atmosphere is relatively calm, an easy-going vibrancy. Some of the people on floats even looked bored. We look out for the figures we’ve been hearing about: the banana women, dresses and headdresses made of broad green banana leaves; the red devils; bare-chested men with molasses poured over them, women too, the black sticky syrup darkening their skin in homage to the Africans brought over as slaves. When a band of drummers approaches, I run back and forth to make the most of their rhythms – those rhythms! That drumming! It electrifies the feet and hips. Hypnotic, it refuses to let you go. I love it.

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IMG_4896That’s at three in the afternoon. By six, the crowd is blazing trails through the Fort-de-France circuit, rushing blood of the city pumping round and round its system. Various lewd chants are jubilantly flung into the air by hundreds and hundreds in unison: Je vais tout péter! Je vais tout péter! (I’m going to smash everything up!)[1] Other popular ones include variations on the theme of ‘Fuck your mother’, and there’s one triumphant-sounding song that, weirdly, takes the tune of The Police’s ‘Every Step You Take’.

By six, we’ve headed back to Jane and Tom’s flat, right in the centre of town, overlooking the parade. The people flow beneath us like a swirling, unstoppable river – and the noise! The atmosphere is no longer quiet but mad, crazy loud. Never-ending rhythms, beats, pounding, banging, calling out – and then there are the bwajak cars. These ancient vehicles are refitted purely for the purpose of Carnival, and their shitty engines – which probably aren’t legally fit for the road[2] – make an incredibly loud BRAP-BRAP-BRAP-BRAP-BRAP-BRAP-BRAP banging sound as they heave through the streets. They’re abusive to the ears, so much so that after several hours, we’re drained by them. But people are happy. Their energy wafts up towards us as we peer out over the balcony. Above us all, the sun sets.

IMG_4968By eight o’clock, the sun and drums and beer have knackered me, and I go home early. In fact, my body is probably much weaker than I could feel in my earlier exhilaration, since I’ve just come out of one bedridden week of flu. Once recovery prodded impatiently, I felt a surge of crazy-high energy, to write, to do, to get out, out, out of the house and see what I could see. I was excited.

I get home and decide I better not push it. The next day, Monday – transvestite wedding day – I’ll rest and save my energy. I’ll need energy for Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the big one.

 

Mardi Gras 

We all get together for pre-drinks and costuming. The theme to Mardi Gras is, apparently, ‘red’. My friends have brought face paint, glitter, stick-on jewels that I stick on my skin, shoulders, under-eyes, the peak of my chest. We play silly games and take pictures and chat, and then finally we make our way out and hit the street, where barricades have been set up so security guards can confiscate alcohol smuggled in plastic bottles. They watch people chug back the contents they were intending to savour over hours, and then let them through. I see no police about, at that time or any time after.

It’s overcast, but here, even overcast is filled with light. It starts to rain, and locals complain, but I love it. We start dancing, waiting for the right drumming band to come along, running into the parade to follow a big float with a popular DJ drawing a crowd of followers, then slipping back out to the sidelines, waiting for the drums, the right drums… There they are!

I dance-glide-walk beside this band that drum and sing and drum and sing and change rhythm and pace but never, ever stop. All my muscles sing together. At one point, mid pulsing movement, I see some of my female students watching on the sidelines. They grin and wave at me. I grin back, throw them a kiss, and dance on.

It’s magic. The rain, the drums, my friends nearby, the city that I’ve come to know so much better than in those first, tense weeks when I saw a gunman flash through the street. It’s a good moment.

We head to Jane and Tom’s flat, where we end up watching the parade from up high again, dancing from the balcony and catching our breath. The six o’clock peak hits, and there it is once more – the river of people, the songs, the chanting, the drums, the jubilance. Eventually there are about twenty of us packed into this tiny place, and before we know it night has fallen again. We decide to head back out.

A week afterwards, back at school, I’m talking to my colleagues about Carnival, and how the atmosphere sharply changes once the sun goes down. A number of them tell me, ‘Oh, but I never go out after dark! No no! Once it’s seven o’clock, I go home. It’s dangerous.’

Yes, like troubled Fort-de-France itself, Carnival changes after dark. The spirit and energy of the event shifts and mutates into something darker, seared through with drunkenness, harder drugs, and danger. Crack cocaine is the drug of choice in the city; I’ve seen many wanderers move through the streets in slow-motion, eyes glazed, faraway.

But it’s not just that. Tonight, when the sun is down – that’s when all the rules are really torn to bits. The bwajak cars zoom through the streets with handfuls of women sat astride them, nonchalant. The crowd seeps through the lesser arteries of the city, beyond the confines of the parade circuit. We see a fight break out. There’s celebration still, of course, people are still following floats and dancing to music; but you can feel it in the air, something’s shifted. Things aren’t stable.

We’ve decided to leave the flat and get back into the parade, but moving twenty-plus people is no quick task. I’m already out the door with a couple of others, and the door is lingering open for more to follow. We are mostly women. Two unknown men come up the stairs, talking loudly, and when they see us they ask us something I can’t immediately make out. Can’t help you, we tell them.

‘Was it you?’ they ask.

‘What?’

They’ve stopped, and keep asking us if it was us that did it. What? They’re angry, very angry, and talking very loudly, with increasing aggression. A girl follows them; she seems calmer. She explains: they think someone inside this flat was pouring beer or water on them from their balcony.

‘No, no,’ we tell them. We don’t know what they’re talking about. They start to continue up the stairs; we turn back to our friends who are still inside the flat, unaware; and then the two men suddenly change their minds, come back down the stairs, and barge their way into the flat.

Jane is there. ‘No – ’ she starts to say, and they push her aside, make their way to her balcony.

It all happens very quickly. We yell at them – what are you doing, get the fuck out! They aren’t listening. Their female friend waits at the door and does nothing. Eventually they make their way back to the threshold of the door, where I’m still standing. We’re still yelling at them, they’re still yelling at us – ‘Was it you? Was it you?’

‘No, it wasn’t us!’

‘You’re not laughing at us?’

‘No!’

Siobhan points to the door. ‘The door is there, so get out.’

One of them grabs the door and slams it against the wall. ‘What fucking door!’ he yells. They’re off their faces.

After a few more moments of this agitated back-and-forth, they eventually calm down enough to reluctantly concede that they may be wrong. ‘It definitely wasn’t you?’

‘No.’

Finally they leave. They continue to climb the stairs of the apartment complex, banging on random doors to try and find out Who It Was.

‘Let’s just get the fuck out, now,’ I say. I’m shaken. They were right next to me. They just barged their way in.

 

*

 

We’re walking and dancing down the street, and everyone’s much drunker. Not me – I’ve decided I better keep my senses sharp and alert. I try to dance and get back into the fun, but it’s different now. The river of people disperses and the cars and motorcycles thread paths through us, their drivers certainly drunk by now. The pulse of the night is less energetic, duller, but it’s seeped through the city like a deep red wine stain soaking into cloth. A smell – a strong smell – incense?

‘What’s that smell?’

A hooded figure in a nun’s habit streams by us, a huge globe of frankincense swinging from its hand – another cross-dressing man, out to outdo everyone? Then the figure glances back and I see – no, a woman! Her eyes wide and mouth drawn tight. She’s angry. She’s a little afraid, perhaps; but she’s determined, too. The smoke wafts up from her swinging globe. She hurries to a bwajak car that’s slowed down, sticks her head in the window and starts yelling at the driver.

‘I think that’s a real nun.’ It’s only a moment that I see her, but the look on her face – she wasn’t out for fun. She was on a mission. To cleanse the streets of sin.

On Rue de la Liberté, the river coalesces again into a throng of people dancing, following DJ- and dancer-topped floats. We take a detour into a smaller street where people have set up their own drums, their own sound systems. We have to push our way through a thick crowd, single file.

Suddenly I feel a hand grab me between the legs. I don’t see who it is, the people push by too fast. In that moment, that second, I feel the imprint of fingers on my genitals, and the imprint lingers, I can still feel it well after the hand has gone. It’s exactly like the first time I was groped, aged thirteen, also pushing through a crowd, the perfect opportunity for a coward. The ghost of that sensation of a stranger’s fingers there, even after a split second’s impact, lingering on. The touch that says, ‘You’re not a person, you’re a piece of trash on the street that I can kick about if I want, and I want to.’ I didn’t tell my parents at the time. Tonight, the incident slips seamlessly into the violence hanging everywhere upon the night, squeezed and wrung out of the very air.

After a few minutes of dancing and trying to get into the rhythm again, we decide to slip back out of this tiny, crowded street. I turn around and see my friend Esmé yelling at a man who looks furious, and another friend, Álvar, is trying to calm him down. I’m not sure what’s happened, has he made a pass at Esmé? We’re pushing our way back out to the main street, we push back through that thick knotted rope of people crushed between cars and sound systems.

Finally, we’re back – and then I turn and see that that furious man has pushed his way through the crowd to catch up with us. Beside me is my friend Tess. He heads straight for her. Later I find out what had happened: he had gone up behind her to dance pressed against her body, she had turned around and slapped him, we tried to make our way out as Esmé yelled and Álvar tried to calm him. Now he’s here, anger etched into his every movement. And every movement, every gesture that he makes is slow, purposeful, filled to the brim with that fury. Tessa is a tall girl, but this guy is huge, fat, broad, at least a head taller. He stands right in front of her and glares. I’m beside her.

He booms, ‘You don’t hit people!’

I don’t catch what Tess says. All I see is that she stands her ground, looks him straight in the eye, not egging on, not challenging, but standing her ground, and she answers. Then he swings his arm back and slaps her in the face with full force. She almost falls over, one of my hands shoots out to grab her, the other shoots out in front of him, I step forward and start yelling as loud as I can, drowned as we are beneath the muffled blanket of dance music and shouts and cries and laughter.

‘FUCK THE FUCK OFF MOTHERFUCKER,’ I yell, and keep yelling. It all happens so fast; there isn’t enough time to start to wonder what I’ll do if he tries something more.

In fact, he leaves. He seeps away into the crowd. I don’t know if it’s because me and my friends are yelling at him, or if it’s because he’s done what he came to do.

We’re shaken. Tess is shaken. I am shaken. It seems like no one else has noticed. One young man in bright pink shorts and Kanye West glasses makes a gesture at me as if to say, ‘Is she okay?’ I shake my head.

Esmé later tells us that a couple of women who have witnessed what happened ask her, ‘What did she do? What did she do?’

 

*

 

We go home, back to Jane and Tom’s flat. In the sink I wash my shirt, now soiled with the grease and dirt of the night. I make Tess and I cups of tea. We sit on the sofa and watch a funny movie with Jane and a couple other friends who are also staying the night here. It’s only nine o’clock, and it feels like we’ve been awake for a century.

 

We sleep sardines on an air mattress. I try to sleep. I can’t.

 

I start thinking about danger. I start thinking how unsafe I have felt, tonight, other nights, other days, months ago, years ago. I start thinking, and can’t stop thinking, and then I feel my chest soaking up this feeling of grief that I want to scream out, and I stifle it, and think, I’ve got to get out.

I get up and go to the toilet, and try heave out some sobs as quietly as I can. I get up and go to the kitchen, get water, sit on the floor, and try to breathe. I think I’m having a panic attack.

Eventually, Jane wakes up and hears me. She sits down beside me on the floor. I explain what I think is happening. She’s calm. ‘I’ve had this before,’ she says. ‘It’ll pass.’

So we sit and whisper low together, for ages, until eventually, it passes. She hugs me. ‘You’re not alone,’ she says.

 

*

 

The last time I had a panic attack was just over a year ago. I had spent all day applying for a job, this job that I now have, in fact. I had left it too late, I had to finish it that day, it was taking much longer than I’d expected. I was over at my boyfriend’s place; later we were going to Lydia’s birthday dinner. I knew she was looking forward to it, being with all her loved ones, eating good food and getting drunk on good wine. I’d spent all day writing this bloody application instead of hanging out with my boyfriend. I finished the application and went for a walk, there was still some time to go before we had to get ready, and then we were back, and then… Then the quiet, pervasive malaise, left over from the stress of the application – it wouldn’t go away. It grew in the background while I walked, while I came back home, it was there in the dark, murky greyness of that London winter. All of a sudden I was in the kitchen, stopped halfway through doing the things I needed to do to get ready and go, get ready and go, paralysed, I could barely speak. He was trying to talk to me calmly, ask me what was wrong.

‘I don’t think I can go to the party,’ I said eventually. We went to the living room and I lay on the sofa. He brought down a duvet and covered me with it. We called my dad, and Dad drove me home. Both of us missed the party.

 

Ash Wednesday

The next morning I woke up before anyone else, made a cup of tea, got dressed and decide to go for a walk. I took my phone and turned on my 3G. In the bright daylight of seven thirty a.m., the streets were almost deserted. I was going to buy groceries. I was going to be alone for a moment. I made my way to the canal, plugged my headphones in, and called my friend Elias.

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I’ve known Elias a long time. Since I was twelve. When I was thirteen, I screwed up my courage and asked him out. I still had puppy-fat, I had a terrible haircut, terrible fashion sense, braces, glasses, awkwardness and brashness in equal confusing turn, and I decided to ask out the kindest, most beautiful boy in school. We were also good friends. He was shocked, then pain-stricken. It was a no, I knew immediately. I almost sprinted away. And yet we grew into better friends in the years after that, and ten years later, here were are, on opposite sides of the world, trying to communicate over a crappy Skype line.

He could hear me, but I couldn’t hear or see him, so he wrote his answers to my spoken words. When I looked at that conversation afterwards, I saw an odd little poem, a string of one-sided lines, unpunctuated and filled with as much emotion as he could get across in little typed letters, typing as fast as he could as I cried my heart out and told him what had happened.

how

shit

insane

fucking insane

how does she feel?

it’s not fucking fair

no, you couldn’t have

what? I didn’t hear

shit

I know

I’m fucking proud of you

 

and I had a panic attack last night and I haven’t had one in a year, and I just started thinking about all of the times I’ve felt unsafe, like when I was at school and then university and then

It seemed like there were always people in positions of power over me who tried to make me feel small, powerless, ashamed, not because they thought about me or that I was a person but because they wanted to gratify their own selfishness and insecurity, because in the Carnival of their own little pocket of power that they built up around their world like a fortress they felt they could break apart the rules of basic civility or humanity or fairness or goodness and do what they wanted to me and get away with it because they were the ones making the rules and I wouldn’t know what to do because I would be left helpless, that’s why I try so hard at school to treat my students like human beings, that’s why I try so hard to do the right thing by people and do what’s fair

that someone can just do that to you because we’re women and we don’t want them to touch our bodies

 

and I felt all those times I’ve stopped feeling safe with people and it makes me feel so

 

alone?

 

fuck everyone who doesn’t make you feel safe

fuck them

fuck their idiot ways

you are so fucking strong

but that’s why its good to be a bit sad as well

feel it, and absorb it

but don’t get stuck in it

cus they don’t have the right to make you get stuck in that

they don’t have the right to make you feel anything

don’t get stuck

the motherfuckers are not worth it

 

and then he surprises me, because I’ve never heard him use these words or express this much anger,

 

I hate them

I hate them all

 

and I realise that it’s probably the first time, in our ten-year friendship, that he’s ever heard me cry.

Don’t waste your energy hating them, they’re not worth it. Spend your energy loving instead.

 

that’s true

you deserve all the wonderful things the world has to offer

because it has a lot of wonderful things to offer

we just have to sift through all the shit first

you’re growing up

what?

exactly

I love you too

 

*

 

March

I’ve been talking to a therapist since the end of January. I tell her about what happened. I tell her that I’ve never witnessed violence like that before, not physical violence like that. I tell her how I feel a bit self-conscious talking about how witnessing that violence has affected me, because it wasn’t me who got smacked in the face.

She tells me, ‘Don’t underestimate how traumatizing it can be to witness violence, and feel helpless.’

I realise that almost every time I see that sort of personal, intimate violence, or hear about it happening to people I know, it hurts me. I feel it. I can’t stand it. I can’t bear the violation. It makes me shake with rage. It makes me shake.

The panic attack that keeps me awake after Mardi Gras is not the last; in fact, the after-effects of Carnival shake up the first few weeks of March. I’ve been triggered into high anxiety, my therapist, Shoshana, assesses. I keep having these attacks.

I see something online that reminds me of one of those times of helplessness – and I stop looking at social media for a few days, because twenty-four hours later that little trigger has me moaning on the sofa and calling my parents and trying to calm down by listening to them be there.

I go for a run with friends, and the exercise feels good; but the next day I go alone, and with no one to distract me, my body pumped up, heart racing, mimicking all the physical symptoms of anxiety, my mind begins to race through more of those past hurts that I can’t do anything about – and then that night my senses play tricks on me and I swear I can feel someone standing right behind me, looking at me, and when I turn around no one is there, and my dinner goes cold as I sit and breathe at the table for minutes, minutes, minutes, minutes. I call Elias again. I’m scared. Your body can play tricks on you when it’s confused, when it’s trying to protect you.

Shoshana explains what’s happening to me. She teaches me about ‘dual awareness’, ways of trying to focus on the exterior world to distract my body from what’s happening inside. Instead of focussing on breathing and what’s happening inside of you, focus on what you can see, hear, touch, taste, feel, smell. The heat, the colours, the textures, the sounds of people’s voices, the way they’re walking down the street.

I used to be very good at focussing on the exterior. I meditated, I did yoga and mindfulness. I just walked and looked and listened, turned my face up when it rained. Even in the midst of depression, when I could feel it slipping away from me, it was something I clung to: the focus. The faded, yellow-orange roses. I’ve lost practice and it’s harder now. It takes days, weeks before a morning comes when I realise – I can see those leaves on that tree shifting through the wind, I can really see them, feel them there, feel myself seeing them. It’s hard to explain; but when I find it, I feel lucid.

After a few weeks, I have on-days and off-days. I’m fine and going along and then I’m not, I’ll be shopping and my heart will start pounding, or I’ll be at work and I have to leave and walk around for ten minutes because my heart just won’t stop beating hard, hard, hard. My body’s tricked itself: when my heart rate goes up, for whatever small reason, it thinks I’m in fight-or-flight, and it gets stuck. Sometimes the panic comes back too. I might be feeling fine and then – there – there – it’s there again – go to my room, close the door, cry, cry, call someone, is someone online, no it’s too late in London, it’s too late, wait, is someone there – yes, someone’s there! Oh, thank God.

I’m still doing things, everyday things, but things are slowing down. I need to slow down. All my most painful thoughts sit waiting for me in bed at night, first thing in the morning. One day, all of a sudden, I find myself praying to God, I feel the urge out of nowhere in the murky river of my thoughts and then I’m sat on the side of my bed, feeling every word pressing against me, Give me strength, I need help, I need it.

Fuck. Praying to God? That’s a new one. I don’t believe in God. I’ve never felt the need.

When I was really, really depressed, I understood for the first time why people believe in heaven. How wonderful to finally find a place where all the things that needed saying no longer needed saying, and all the hurts between souls were, just like that, gone. And in times of real, dark, paranoid panic, I began to believe that there really was no one there, no true friend to help me, besides my parents and those others who had loved me since I was a baby, and beyond that, I was alone. But now I know there are people there, even if they are on the other side of the world, and there are people right beside me too, sitting up at night on a cold kitchen floor, whispering low until I feel okay. And I know I’m much stronger now than I was then.

A couple weekends after Carnival, I go visit Tess up north in Sainte-Marie. We go grocery shopping, make a good dinner, watch a Marvel movie, and make crêpes for breakfast the next morning. The sun comes out after endless rain, and we walk out over the tombolo, Sainte-Marie’s most famous attraction. There’s a little double rock of an island just off the shore of the town, and at this time of year, the tide is low enough that you can walk out over the water to climb up on it. We lift our skirts up and carry our shoes in one hand, and I feel the strange rushing currents of the sea from two fronts at the same time, coming from either side of us. The sand is perfect beneath our feet, no rocks, no pebbles, no shells, no seaweed, and all we have to contend with is this doubled-up sea, one sea pushing us this way, another sea pushing us that way, us striding carefully through the waves to our destination, strength pushing through our feet and legs. They say Manman Dlo, Mother Water, lives on the island, a siren-like goddess with powerful abilities to manipulate the elements for her protection and strength. We look back and see a curving line of people following us through the waves: friends, children, parents, laughing as their clothes get soaked by a sudden wave that shoots up against limbs into the sky. The sight is incredible.

I have good chats with Tess. We talk about what happened. She’s been processing it as well. It was only a few moments, and yet for her as well as for me, it roughed up so many other stories and tangled up knots of things out of the sea.

‘Trauma’ is a strong word that is scary to use, although it would probably do us all good to recognise how common it is in plenty of people’s lives. Many of us have witnessed things that stick with us and throw back the past up out of the sea, into the present, at heart-stopping moments. I like how Clarissa Estés calls them ‘battle scars’, because it reminds me of courage. Or, there’s a poem by César Vallejo where he goes

Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes… ¡Yo no sé!

There come blows in life that are so hard… I don’t know!

I don’t know either. And at the same time, I do know. There are many things I know, now, at the age of only twenty-two, twenty-three this spring.

 

*

That’s my Carnival story, the best that I could manage. It took me about a month of thinking and feeling and letting myself be before I felt I could pull out the words. That’s a little song of the story, which pulls at so many other stories – and in all this time, so much more has been sifting through my daily experience of living here in Martinique, so many more thoughts have started crystallising and prodding my brain, saying Tell me! Write me! Figure me out!

Now I’ve got to get on to the rest of them.

 

Post-script 

I wrote this little song to cheer myself up one day

 

‘Brave’

Sometimes things feel really fucked up

Really really really fucked up

and I always feel I should do something

but in fact most times I cannot.

But I do love a lot, relentlessly,

and I cherish any little love that falls my way.

I pick it up off the pavement

blow off the dust

and kiss it awake.

I’m always brave.

Notes

[1] There’s a story behind this, as behind all Carnival tropes, which are essentially a collection of memes from that year in the island’s social life. It’s a small island, one must remember, and in the 21st century that means that an overheard argument with a girlfriend filmed on someone’s phone (for this example), or a Whatsapp conversation sent to the wrong group, or a mistaken bit of grammar in an official’s syntax can all make their way into the shared jokes and communal ‘laughter-at’ of Carnival.

[2] In fact, they are. Nicole tells me later that recent regulations have come in that have forced all bwajak cars to get insurance in an effort to reduce the number of abandoned scrap-heaps left all around the city afterwards. How strenuously regulated the threshold for ‘insurable’ is, who knows.

The César Vallejo poem quoted above is ‘Los Heraldos Negros’.

 

All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in 2 weeks.

Matado

Dispatches From Martinique

7. Matado

 

My favourite word in Creole so far is matado, which comes from the Spanish matador (bullfighter), meaning ‘a strong woman, a woman who won’t take any shit, a woman whom no one fucks with’. I tried out my rudimentary Creole scratchings on a twinkly old mustachioed man who drove me home from my adopted St. Lucian grandmother’s 79th birthday lunch. He is her neighbour and ‘can’t refuse her anything’, he says. He was impressed I spoke French and Spanish as well as English, and so I tried the little Creole I’ve managed to glean up: ‘Yo ka kriyé mwen Mariella. Man ni venndé an. Man se moun Londres.’ My name is Mariella (literally, ‘they call me Mariella’), I am twenty-two years old, I come from London (I am a person from London’ – no Creole word for London that I know of, so using the French there). And then: ‘Man matado!’ I am a matado!

His twinkly eyes looked up at me in surprise. ‘Oh mon Dieu!’ he laughed. ‘Matado!

It is true that living here has allowed me to get in touch with my inner matado, who was somewhat muffled for the past few years by anxiety-ridden surroundings and the bloom of self-doubt. I wish I could say it has ‘allowed me’ this only because of the sassy bravado of the women and men I pass everyday that is often positive, often translated into overt displays of warm friendship and camaraderie, helping strangers, calling people out for bad behaviour, even in public, which would not be dreamed of in London except by those considered unhinged.

No, it is not that. It is because every time I walk down the street, I am harassed and disrespected by men that I do not know.

Every day I walk out in public and hear

hey sexy

hey sweetheart

damn look at that fine thing there

give me a smile beautiful

come over here

one question

one coffee

hey whitey

you are beautiful

What a compliment.

I was told, when I came, by two women, that it was better to just smile and walk on rather than ignore this completely, because the men might ‘insist’ or get aggressive. It’s normal for people to say bonjour when they pass by in a smaller community, a town or a workplace, so when I walk through my local bourg and a young guy says bonjour, that could be totally fine – it depends how he says it. I will say it back, and if he’s saying it in that tone of voice and that eyeing eye, I will say it without smiling, and that’s that. But that is not what most of it is. Most of it is about power. Ugly power. The power to snatch power away from me as I walk by, existing.

Guys passing by, guys driving by, guys leaning out of their car windows as I walk by, guys slowing their cars down beside me as I walk, guys stopping their cars in front of me as I wait for the bus, guys in groups, guys alone, guys hissing, guys making kissing noises, guys telling you with their eyes and sleazy tone of voice what they’d like to do to you. This is always in broad daylight, because I don’t go out at night unless in a group. They never do it when I am in a group or with another man. They only do it when I am walking alone. What ‘manliness’. What a compliment.

Despite what I had been advised, I decided to start assertively ignoring them. I mastered the mask of derision, my eyes covered by sunglasses, a crinkle in my forehead from a finely sculpted frown. When a car called out to me, I’d glance, keep my face blank, and glance back. There was nothing for him to do but feel embarrassed and pissed off, there on the street in front of all the town’s inhabitants, and drive on. When a guy called me sweetheart as I was walking by, I looked at him briefly, contempt vaguely simmering in my features. ‘Manawa,’ he called me. Manawa means whore. I swore at him matter-of-factly in Spanish, ‘Véte a la puta mierda, cabrón.’ Go to fucking hell, asshole.

Another time I was called manawa was when I was walking through my neighbourhood. A car was coming, so I walked closer to the sidewalk, and a man sitting on the curb reached out and grabbed my hand as he said bonsoir. I pulled it away like he was covered in slime. ‘Manawa,’ he called me as I walked away.

The only other time I’ve been called something similar was when I was walking through my home town in London, when a scowly old man who was possibly losing his mind passed me and almost spat out the word, ‘Tart!’ Someone asked me afterwards what I was wearing, out of interest. But what I was wearing is of no interest or importance, nor was it to that old man.

Cat-calling has always enraged me. It happens to me a lot at home, too, though it happens less than here in the dragueur culture of the Caribbean, where I am obviously a foreigner. Béatrice, my host when I first arrived, told me that being white would attract more attention, but ‘Even if you were black,’ Nicole says, ‘If they can tell that you’re a foreigner, they try to see what they can get away with.’ Same all over – they’re not our women. But, then again, my colleagues tell me that they are also treated this way, regularly, in their own country. Same all over.[1]

I remember the first time I was openly disrespected in this way by unknown men. I was fifteen and jogging to my local park, and a car full of teenage boys drove by, yelling, ‘HEY SEXY!!!’ I raised my middle finger and they cackled. Then I heard the sound of the car coming back and thought, shit, shit, shit. They didn’t. But I remember that fear, that red burning fear that stuck into all of my nerves and wouldn’t let my heaving lungs and beating heart go for a long time.

Anger and fear, anger and fear. That’s what it means. Because we live in a world where one in five women in the USA are sexually assaulted or raped in their lifetime,[2] and two-thirds of women in the UK have been sexually harassed in public, including the vast majority of under-25s.[3] There are so many statistics that I can’t begin to fit in here,[4] but what really hits home, when you’re growing up, are the stories you hear from your friends.

All girls grow up to learn the fear. I remember it started to creep into my life as I heard of friends of friends who had been raped. I remember it seeping in when I was fourteen, as I lay in my friend’s bed while her older sister was having a massive drunken party, and I heard a girl and two guys outside. She was crying and kept saying, ‘Please don’t touch me, please don’t touch me, please don’t touch me,’ and the two boys were laughing, until one said, ‘Shut up,’ and when she wouldn’t, yelled, still half-laughing, ‘SHUT. UP.’ And she did. And I don’t think I ever told anybody, until now.

The fear already had me gripped by the throat by the time I heard that my friends had been assaulted and raped. And then, one day, there I was, the same person, but one corner of my mind had me cornered with fear. If I wanted to travel the world, it wouldn’t be the same as it had been for my brother – it was different for me, I had to be more careful, I couldn’t go places alone, I couldn’t camp alone, I was a girl. When I walked home from university at night, I had to be more careful. Once I walked home and, turning on to a residential street, walked past a group of men. They parted so that I had to walk between them. As I passed, one made a sound like ‘mmmmm’. Either it didn’t occur to him that I would be thinking of the possibility of gang-rape, or he was, or he wasn’t thinking of anything at all but himself and his image in front of all his friends.

So yes, the fear, and the anger. The anger, always, but always unexpressed. We don’t talk about it often. When I’ve told male friends, they’ve been shocked. How could they know what it’s like, being male? How could they know if we don’t talk about it, if they don’t ask? Why don’t we talk about it? Well, often we are listened to without really being listened to. I said once that having a guy grab your ass at a club could ruin your night, and a well-meaning male listener said, ‘Does it have to ruin your night?’ He was thinking of my well-being, but this kind of invalidating talk is the kind I can’t stand.You don’t know. I do. Maybe it doesn’t have to ruin my night, but why not ask, ‘Does he have to do that?’

We have to put up with it or be gripped by anger, and anger is not something we’re supposed to do. Anger is aggressive, destructive, unpleasant for all around. So better to just keep silent and let it go. What good does it do to get upset? When we get angry, people get uncomfortable, especially the country where I grew up, and no one wants that. So, instead, ‘Why are you letting it get to you? Why are you getting so upset?’ or, even more insidious, ‘I’m sorry you feel that way,’ never, ‘I’m sorry you’re being made to feel that way,’ or, ‘I’m sorry I made you feel that way.’ The responsibility has to be ours. And from here, how far is it to, ‘But what were you wearing? What had you been drinking? What did you do to make him act that way?’

I wake up at six, make tea, get the bus, do my work, buy groceries, walk down the street.

hey beautiful

hey there pretty thing

don’t worry sweetie you can trust me

come over here, just one question

Just one question: what the fuck are you thinking? Answer: very little. The instinct is taught by generations of people, male and female, who said, To be a man is to desire a woman and to act upon that desire. If I assert my desire, I am a real man. It’s not about the woman or the woman’s desire in the slightest. Gloria Steinem describes it as letting women know that this is not their world. When I read that, I felt it pierce. Yes. That’s exactly what it feels like.

But it’s meant as a compliment, some people say. It’s a compliment only to the man, his virility, his manliness. He says, look at that, but he means, look at me, I could tap that if I wanted to.

But they don’t mean it like that, some people say. Not all the time, no. These values have been spelled out in millions of tiny and big actions and words surrounding them all of their lives. They were drenched in it before they had any choice. But today they are men, not children, and they have the choice.

But that’s just men for you, some people say. No, I don’t think so. My standards are far higher. I expect far more of humans, and in every corner of society it is the perpetuation of abysmal expectations that have repeatedly allowed abysmal standards to persist, which is why young people who grew up in social care keep getting into trouble, which is why marginalised communities keep keeping to themselves, which is why children who think they are worthless will never have the confidence to fulfil their potential.

The teenagers in my classes give me great hope. The girls and boys there are so intelligent, so creative, and many of them have kindness shining through them. They have the internet, which means that they have trolling and YouTube comments, but it also means their culture is a global culture, and their generation has different expectations. At school, girls and boys have friendships with each other, they laugh and talk together, and so they learn through each other. I’ve seen a couple of boys who are openly, flamboyantly gay, which would have taken serious guts at my high school, even though it was sheltered, middle-class and international. From what I can see, they are accepted and loved for it by their friends. ‘Manliness’ is a dream dreamed up by people that these kids don’t have much relation to, or at least less, perhaps. Hopefully. But they are still being failed by the silence, shame or misinformation that persists where genuine education – about sex, about their bodies, about gender identity and the differences between genders – should be.

In one class, we’re talking about the differences between men and women, and the conversation turns to cat-calling. ‘Ah, ouaaaai!’ some boys call out and laugh, gesturing to each other like, you know what I’m talking about! They demonstrate the hiss.

‘Yep,’ I say, ‘That’s the one. So, who thinks that cat-calling is a bad thing?’

Several girls and one boy raise their hands.

‘And who thinks that cat-calling is a good thing?’

I wait for the laughing boys to raise their hands – but they don’t. They look a little sheepish.

I know these boys are not bad. They are good kids; they respect me in my class, and appreciate what I do. They don’t think that they have power over me. Maybe one day they will hiss at girls in the street, maybe they already do. They don’t realise what they’re doing, because no one tells them. Or they tell them, directly or indirectly, ‘If a girl says no, she’s just playing the game. You need to convince her. If you don’t, you’re not a man. If she doesn’t want you, you’re not a man.’

Now it’s time to tell you about Marvin. When I first got here, I was waiting for the bus at seven in the morning, bleary-headed, and a guy my age began talking to me, clearly interested. He didn’t seem macho, but shy, maybe nice. A bit daft, definitely – when he found out my age, he said, with genuine shock, ‘No! So am I! Wow! Imagine that! And I just met you at the bus stop! If I’d come out of my house a little later, I never would have met you!’ Right, that’s correct, well done. When he asked for my number, I thought, ah, why not. I guess I should be open to that kind of thing? [Note to self: ‘Should’? No! No no no!] I lied and said I didn’t have a mobile yet, got his email instead, just in case. And thank God.

After a tiny amount of online talking, I decided very firmly that I was not interested, and said so. Unfortunately, I said so in the way I would at home, with an attempt not to hurt feelings, sorry, I’ve just come out of a relationship, etc. etc., it’s me, not you. ‘Don’t worry, we can just be friends,’ he said. ‘You’ll still have your chance with me later.’ Winky face. ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’

After a few more attempts to not completely ignore and block him, I completely ignored and blocked him. A month later I saw him on the bus. ‘Why did you block me?’

Not wanting to embarrass him on a bus full of people, and not ever having had such a conversation in my own language, let alone a foreign one, I mumbled something and moved on to the obligatory, ‘Ça va?’ When I got off the bus, he got off at my stop, apparently living nearby. I was carrying nine litres of water, and just wanted to get home and away from this person. We passed my house and I stopped. He stopped also, still talking to me. ‘My house is just over there, come over and I’ll show you,’ he said.

‘No, I just want to go home, cook and sleep,’ I said.

‘Here, let me take that for you,’ he said, reaching for the bottles.

‘No, I’m fine.’

‘Do you want to go out tomorrow?’

‘No. I don’t want anything like that, I told you.’

‘Just as friends!’

‘No, I don’t think it’s a good idea.’

‘Why?’

‘Because you want more, right?’

‘We can just take it slow.’

The weight of the water was digging into my arms and middle and I kept adjusting them to keep them from falling on my feet. He reached for them again.

‘No, I’m fine,’ I said. He went on. And on. On the spur of the moment, I thought I’d better lie to cut it short: ‘I met someone else.’

His face changed. ‘Then, why did you say all that stuff about not wanting to be in a relationship?’

‘Well, I met someone else and it was different with him.’

‘But why?’

‘It just was!’

‘Just tell me why.’

‘There is no why, that’s just the way it is!’

He was always with this soft, mumbly voice, like a little child. He gave me a little smile. ‘I’m going to fight hard for you,’ he said. Oh, Jesus.

‘No!’ I said. He went on.

Eventually I turned and went. ‘Until next time?’ he called at my back. When I said nothing, he said it again, louder. ‘Until next time?’ I didn’t answer.

The next time was at another bus stop, at Gare Pointe Simon, or the Seventh Circle of Hell, as Florence calls it. I had just come out of Creole class, Monday evening, hungry, tired, time to go home.

Then he’s there. ‘Are you still angry at me?’ he asked.

This time I didn’t let myself get flustered. An old lady was a few metres to my right. ‘Listen,’ I said, calmly, slowly, anger simmering. ‘I already told you – ’

‘Yes, yes.’

‘I was very clear.’

‘Yes, yes, I know.’

‘So what do you want?’

‘Will you teach me English?’

I stared at him. ‘No,’ I said, and turned away. He didn’t sit next to me on the bus that time, but the next time he did, and I had to move place. But then I didn’t see him for a while, and I was able to forget about it.

The months went by, and I had other problems of invasion to deal with. For example, my naked neighbour, who had taken to staring at me whilst naked, looking straight into my room. It was incredibly frustrating having to close my curtain or monitor my behaviour inside my own room – don’t let him see you even slightly unclothed or he’ll think you’re encouraging him, don’t look at him or he’ll think you like looking at him, just don’t look out the window when you see he’s there, just go somewhere else, just leave your room. Then one day, I saw him on his balcony (when he took a few steps forwards onto the balcony, he might put on shorts, as he did this time, as if crossing the open threshold of his door made all the difference). I said bonjour gruffly, looked back down, and heard him say something, I couldn’t catch what, but it was in that all-too-familiar tone of voice. I looked up and he was grinning at me, and he blew me a kiss, and went on grinning. I closed the window.

Surely, he’ll get the idea, I thought. Later that day I saw him, fully naked, and he did it again.

‘Hm, he’s started blowing kisses at me,’ I said to Florence. She stared.

‘That’s fucked up,’ she said. Suddenly, I thought, fuck, you know what, it really is.

‘Maybe,’ I ruminated, ‘He just likes to be naked in his room and he’s gotten the wrong idea.’

‘Mariella, you are being way too nice about this,’ Florence said. ‘That is fucked up.’

Tom and Jane thought so too. ‘How old is this guy?’ Tom asked.

‘Forty or fifty-something. And he’s white French, so he doesn’t even have the excuse of the dragueur culture, whatever kind of excuse that is.’

‘It’s disgusting, isn’t it?’ Tom said. ‘You just wonder, what is he thinking?’

I thought I might have to say something to him, assertively reject him rather than passively, as that clearly wasn’t going to work. In the end I talked to my landlady, Madame Robert. She was enraged. ‘I’ve had enough of that man,’ she said, ‘There are children in the neighbourhood, even with the children!’ They were about to go out to a party when I spoke to them, and Monsieur Robert said, ‘Give her some eggs,’ and she went back in and brought me a Tupperware full of fresh eggs from the neighbourhood chickens. She spoke to both the naked neighbour and his landlord, and so far there has been no more kiss-blowing or naked staring. Actually, once I caught him staring again, ‘But he was wearing shorts,’ I told Florence.

‘It’s the little things,’ she said dryly. I burst out laughing.

Then one day, after months of silence, Marvin sent me a Facebook message. Coucou, he said. Hiya. What the fuck? How can he still message me? Okay, block that shit.

Then it was Saturday, and I was waiting in the midday sun for my bus to go to bèlè class. A bus came – oh, no, not mine – and then Marvin got off of it and came straight to me. ‘Are you still mad at me?’ he said.

Oh, for fuck’s, fucking, SAKE. ‘Look,’ I started saying, ‘I’ve already told you, I’m not interested – ’

‘It’s okay, I’ve forgotten about all that,’ he interrupted, smiling. ‘How are you?’

I didn’t look at him. ‘Fine,’ I said sharply.

‘What are you doing tomorrow?’

My whole face crinkled up in incredulity. ‘Why?’ I said.

He shrugged, still smiling. ‘Just to know,’ he said.

I moved away to another point of the little rectangle that was the bus stop. ‘Please stop talking to me,’ I said. A while passed, and I pulled out my phone to text Florence and Jane, Just to let you know the psycho I met at the bus is here again and it should be okay but im just letting you know because he is persistent to a scary degree

‘I am sorry,’ he said in English. I ignored him and continued texting. He said it again, a little louder, ‘I am sorry – ’

‘MAIS ARRÊTE!’

I yelled, looking him straight in the face, my face drawn into a mask of white fury, eyes sharp as needles, words shooting into him like arrows.

‘ARRÊTE!’

JUST STOP! STOP!

A woman walked by and looked at us. I moved to another corner.

And he stopped.

At that moment, I used my anger. I used it as my weapon. I used it with control, with reason, with command. It was both an energy, as Johnny Rotten says, and a power.

For years, I had been afraid of being overrun with anger. I remembered feeling angry, so angry, as a young, troubled child that felt a little unwelcome in her own world. I remembered anger as something destructive, something like poison that could work slow, slow, and not leave your system for years. Something that could hurt other people who didn’t deserve to be hurt. Something irresponsible.

But being angry doesn’t have to mean being needlessly aggressive. It doesn’t have to mean being irresponsible with your emotions. It is a human emotion that happens for a reason, and those reasons need to be looked full in the face and seen for what they are, as with all other human emotions.

And I am angry, I am really angry, about lots of things, but especially about the fact that I have to live in fear of being made powerless because I was born female. Don’t walk alone at night, don’t go to isolated places, especially the girls, they told us assistants, a room full of women in their twenties, as if we hadn’t had to learn and relearn and repeat this lesson since we were little girls. We were silent; only afterwards we went to see a movie and talked. ‘I am so sick,’ my friend Beth said, ‘Of being told what I can and can’t do with my life. Why don’t you tell guys not to attack us?’ But we are already powerless, so we’re more likely to listen. The fact that we will be attacked is a given – it’s we that are responsible for taking risks and baiting that possibility. No one means this when they say that kind of thing, but it’s the message they perpetuate.

But when I shouted at that boy, I realised that that power that was snatched away from me in the street, every day, all the time, I could snatch back. Because I could be a matado, I could tell someone to stop, I could call someone out. I could shout. If I didn’t, they wouldn’t. They wouldn’t even think.

But it’s dangerous, some people say, with reason. What if you say something to the wrong guy, and he gets violent? It’s not worth it.

I won’t pretend it’s an easy choice, or that I am less afraid. But for me, it’s a choice between being afraid and remaining silent, colluding with that fear, or being afraid and taking back a little bit of dignity, a little bit of power, the lack of which peels away at the soul like paint being torn from the walls.

Not long after, I was walking to school and, as I approached the gates, a bunch of guys made comments that I didn’t understand, I ignored them, and right before I passed through the gate, one of them made smacking kissing noises, and I called back, in English, ‘Fuck you!’ They didn’t say anything, or come after me. And I continued on my way to work.

And yes, for a second, I felt that same old adrenaline fear. And I was still angry. But I also felt better.

I won’t swear and use aggression as a first resort, only a last; it would be an utter waste of energy and put me in harm’s way more often than I already am. Instead, to repel these aggressions of men that pretend to not be aggressions even in the minds of the aggressors, I wear my armour suit of confidence. I walk a little straighter these days. There is more swagger in my hips. I plant my hands on my waist when I wait at the bus stop, and still every man who passes in a car will take his eyes off the road to stare at me, but so far, they fuck with me less. The armour says, I am not one to be fucked with.

Perhaps my armour suit will look like a challenge to some men. It certainly won’t stop them completely. But I am ready. It will be a relief to live in a world, one day, where I can put the armour suit away, not just for a few weeks or a few months, but for good. For now, at least I can craft one with my own self, and I don’t need anyone’s permission to do so, nor anyone’s permission to be angry. Because fuck that, no more. My life is precious to me, and I treasure it. My freedom is precious to me, and I treasure it. For that reason I say, no, no, no more. To quote a hero of mine, the indomitable Nina Simone: ‘I’ll tell you what freedom is to me: no fear.’ No more stupid fear. Lay the paint back on the walls.

Man matado. This is my world too.

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Notes

[1] Of extreme importance are the ways in which racial and gender-based harassment intersect, as well as class prejudice. As a white foreigner in the Caribbean, I am a notable target, but where I come from in the UK, it is probable (though hard to pinpoint in numbers because we still don’t have enough research looking into this) that if I were a woman of colour, the sexual harassment I experienced would also be racial, and so I would experience that hatred, doubled. See link at [3], and also Moya Bailey’s term ‘Misogynoir’, discussed in this article: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2015/oct/05/what-is-misogynoir.

[2]http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/15/health/nearly-1-in-5-women-in-us-survey-report-sexual-assault.html

[3] 2016 YouGov report, discussed here: http://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/news/234/85-of-younger-women-in-uk-have-been-sexually-harassed-in-public

[4] A good primer and excellent collection of essays for more information: Solnit, Rebecca, Man Explain Things To Me, Chicago: Haymarket Books (2014).

Cat in Heat and Sister Sea

Dispatches From Martinique

6. Cat in Heat and Sister Sea

 

The cat in heat outside my window begins wailing at night, crying out for a mate, any mate, someone. Her moans hurt. I want to scoop her up and set her down beside the endless sea waves. They call out too, relentlessly, too, moved by something they didn’t choose. She whines like someone is hurting, hurting, hurting her, and they won’t stop, and she can’t understand why.

The thing I feel when she cries is not directly translated into words. But perhaps later I can think that I feel like sometimes she’s crying out to me, though neither of us knows it, and I’d like to scoop her up and hold her and say that eventually it will be better and it will hurt less, though neither of us can understand why.

A part of me is in bed trying to sleep after a long, long day, and then when she begins to wail her song, a part of me flies down to be with her and sing some sadness out as well.

 

One Saturday I get some news that hurts me. I spend some time closed up in my room, and when I emerge I am in a daze for some time, some days.

Florence’s sister comes to visit and stays with us that night. Generally, people provide me with a distraction through the habit of talking, entertaining, listening. But it’s true that tonight I am in a daze.

A little before she arrives, I walk down to town to do something, one of the various smaller things that constitute daily living and seem to take up lots of time. On my way back, I pass three young guys lounging on the railings of the bus stop. One of them says to me, ‘Why don’t you smile, beautiful? A beautiful girl should smile.’ I keep walking, he says something else. Then, as soon as I’m just far away enough but still close enough to hear, another languidly calls after me, in English, ‘Suck my dick!’

I thrust my middle finger up into the air without turning around, and keep walking. Anger pulsates through the daze, throbbing through the deep fracture that seems to be pulling itself apart in minuscule movements.

 

The next day, Jane and Tom take me on a hike. We drive to the Presqu’île de Caravelle, a peninsula on the wild Atlantic coast. It’s the most adventurous trip I’ve been on so far, being dependent on city buses and the charity of friends with drivers’ licenses.

In the car I’m quiet. The daze is like a thin film covering things; I have to look hard to really see.

It’s the first time I’ve been to this side of the island. Things are quieter; the towns are shabbier, more relaxed. Our side of the island is full of reds, yellows, browns, pinks, brightness and sand; here, I notice more the blue of the sea and the green of the foliage, deeper blues, deeper greens.

We hike under the shade of trees for a while, seeing nothing beyond them as we climb. This sound begins to grow around us, a far-away rumble like thunder. It’s the sea, coming closer. As it gets louder and louder, I have the sensation that we’re walking into the jaws of a gigantic, breathing animal. Then the trees clear and I see:

We’re on a cliff. The bright blue sea lifts up into the sky, stretching away and up at the same time, far, far beyond us and far, far above us. At the foot of the cliffs, the waves: immense crashes of immeasurable force, white froth seeping over the jagged, black rocks. They crash, crash, they slink back into stretches of thick foam that could wrap around my body and squeeze it into air. They crash, crash, crash, loud, loud.

I’ve never seen anything so wild.

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Today I’m happy not to have to push my feelings out into the open with words. The open, the exterior, the whole wide world – it comes to me, here, instead. We’re standing on this cliff, me, Jane and Tom, and the wind is not a wind, it’s the entire force of the world being born, blowing, pushing past us, pushing through us like we’re made of water. We stand there and we’re barely anything and it’s everything, all of a sudden, there is nothing beyond it, nothing greater. The brightest of blues. The expanse, tussling and tumbling all the way back to Africa and Europe, Iceland and the Arctic. The thick crust of sea foam dissipating and forming again like a primordial cauldron making up the world as it goes along, all up over the shore.

The colonizing Christians called this place ‘The Devil’s Table’. The reason, a handy plaque tells me, was that the so-called sorcerers amongst the African slaves they’d brought over would come here to do their magic, since this curve out of the land points its jagged finger towards Africa. Towards home.

I spread my arms out and the wind is so strong, so all-encompassing, if I just let my feet float it would lift me miles and miles into the atmosphere.

‘I bet they can hear us back in Europe,’ I say to Jane. I yell until my breath is torn, ‘HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEY EUROPE!!!!!!!!!!!!!’

‘Well,’ says Jane, ‘I think they can hear us now.’

 

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*

The next day, I write and talk to old friends to try sort my thoughts out. Flo drives to the local shopping centre and I take the chance to get out of the house. I buy paper to write with. Otherwise, I let myself be alone.

The next day I don’t eat. It’s never really happened to me before; everything I put into my mouth makes me want to retch. I eat some dry bread and drink coffee, and that’s all. I read in bed.

It’s the start of the Christmas holidays. How glad I am not to live through them in London.

 

*

 

My parents are coming over for Christmas, and my colleague and guardian angel Nicole drives me to the airport to pick them up. As we wait, we get into a conversation about the béké, the white descendents of the colonizers who still own most of the land and industry of Martinique. The island was changed from a colony to a ‘department’ of France in 1946 and has remained so ever since; in theory, then, Martinique is just as much a part of France as Avignon or Paris. To my eyes, though, it is still in many ways a colony, a strange kind of modern-day colony. There is no overt racism written into the laws, yes, but in terms of development, Martinique is definitely not on par with France. The standard of living in Martinique is higher than in most other Caribbean countries, but their agricultural output is low,[1] youth unemployment is high, and the cost of living is very high, too high in comparison with average salaries. And, as Nicole tells me, the white béké are still largely in control of the economy.

‘The béké make up one per cent of the population, and they own all the big businesses, practically all of the land,’ she tells me. ‘They don’t integrate: they stay in their villas and private beaches, and they are racist towards black people. They even go off to Sweden to marry blondes with blue eyes, so that when they have children, they can keep the breed pure.’

How much of this is true of all béké, I cannot know; but it is a story I have heard a few times. Nicole went to a private school, and she tells me a story. ‘When I was a kid, there was a béké girl who called a girl a nigger. The girl was in tears, and er white friend, who wasn’t béké, defended her. But the béké girl said to the white girl, “You think because you’re white, you’re like one of us? To us, you’re a nigger too. You can work hard in school and try to get a job, but we don’t have to work at all and we’ll still get the best jobs.”’

I’m gobsmacked. ‘This still exists?’

‘Yes. In Guadeloupe, when slavery ended, they had a big uprising and cut all the béké’s heads off, but not here. That’s why Guadeloupians have a reputation for being a bit tougher than us.’ But Guadeloupe, also, is still a department of France.

I’ve had a lot of conversation about racism here, in all its varieties and gradations. Frequently, I hear slavery invoked; the lingering impact of slavery that is still palpably alive in Martinique, especially for the generation who grew up in the sixties, seventies, even the eighties. The sweet-tempered middle-aged Physics teacher that I work with, Loic, plays me biguin and zouk in his car when he gives me lifts to class, and talks to me a lot about what it means to be black here. He valiantly starts off in English in order to practice, and we’ll swap to French if and when the concepts become particularly nuanced and complex. One such conversation begins with the Kalinago, the descendents of the Amerindians from these islands who now live in a reservation in Dominica.

‘I met a village leader, she was a woman, and I told her, you have really a wonderful culture,’ he says. ‘And she said to me, you do not know what you say, because the teenagers here think that their culture is nothing. They think they are nothing.’ There is a high level of alcoholism and a high teenage suicide rate amongst them, as in many modern-day native communities across the Americas. After we discuss the situation of modern indigenous communities for a bit, Loic draws a connection: ‘When I was growing up, we were told that our black culture was nothing. If you spoke créole, you were nothing, you were nothing but a nigger.’

‘Would black people use that word against each other?’

‘Yes, it is a very complicated thing. To word is used to mean someone of the most contempt. What is the word for the person who does the colonisation?’

‘Colonisers.’

‘You see, when the coloniser comes, the first thing he do is, he tell you that your culture is nothing, and that you must believe in Jesus Christ. Now, I do believe in Jesus Christ, but I think that this is not good. So, we grew up thinking, I will show you that I am not a nigger, that I am not nothing, and I will speak French very well. To be a negro was alright, but not a nigger. ’

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Église de Balata.

 

I wonder how different it is for the new generation, filled as they are with the images, words and swagger of American rapper culture. In one class full of hyperactive fourteen-year-olds – which I lead by myself – I get the kids to make up role-plays, and three boys who don’t bother to prepare end up badly improvising a scene where they keep calling each other ‘my nigger’ and cracking up. It doesn’t mean the same thing to them. I tell them, ‘You can’t use that word,’ and one responds, ‘But I have black skin!’

‘I don’t care. You can’t use that word in school.’

Or anywhere, I could say – but as a white person talking to a black person, well, as Loic says, ‘It is a very complicated thing.’

Loic mentions Aimé Césaire, the politician-poet and favourite son of Martinique who, along with other famous figures like Frantz Fanon, created the Negritude movement in the nineteen-thirties and -forties. ‘When Aimé Césaire made Negritude, he said to us, you are not nothing. You are black and you are beautiful – before ‘black and beautiful’ became a phrase, that was later. He was before that. And this, for us, was very important. It was a big change.’

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Théâtre Aimé Cesaire, Fort-de-France.

Loic is descended from one of the African captains of the slave ships. ‘That’s why my family has a lot of money,’ he tells me. He has no trouble telling me, but I can tell it is a troubling subject for him. Legacies of all bitter strands taking root and growing on and up into our present.

Modern day youngsters from Martinique have little to look forward to in their native land; almost all of them, if they can afford it, escape to Paris or other parts of France to study and work and make their lives. Then, when they decide to have a family or they just get too tired of the greyness and the cold and the lack of warmth amongst people, they come back to the island where the sea whispers, the sun shines, and people say bonjour and honk their horns as they whizz by on the motorway, just because they’ve seen someone they know and they want to wave and smile and let them know they’ve seen them.

Another teacher gives me lifts, on Tuesday, my longest day. Her name is Maiva, she’s a Math teacher, and I really like her. We chat about our day and what we’re tearing our hair out over this time. She has a new baby who is keeping her up all night, every night. She gave both her children Irish names – ‘just because I like the sound’ – which is so funny to me, and endearing.

She tells me about how she spent her first year of teaching in the outskirts of Paris, at a pretty nice school. ‘And when I showed up, they thought I was the cleaning lady, because I was black, and I had to tell them, “No, I’m the teacher!”’ That was in 2002.

So how French can you feel, I wonder, when you go to France and you are still from a totally different world? The wine is subsidised in Martinique, you can get every kind of French cheese and real French bread, but you couldn’t get bananas like these in the métropole. The tarmac roads are in good condition, but they are laid over ancient traces that were cut into the mountains by the feet of Arawaks and escaped slaves. The Christmas songs are sung in French, but every year you’ll hear a new Creole verse at the chanté nwel, the ubiquitous parties where these songs are sung.

When Charles de Gaulle visited in 1964, he stood on the Savane and cried, ‘Mon Dieu, que vous êtes françaises!’ My God, you are French! But apparently his words were misheard by some and recorded jokingly as, ‘Mon Dieu, que vous êtes foncés!’ My God, you are dark![2]

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Église de Balata.

*

 

As in many other Catholic countries, Christmas is celebrated on the 24th, and so it is on the 23rd that I hear singing coming from my landlady’s apartment below mine. Her family and friends are over, a big group of them, and at around ten or eleven I hear them softly sing together. Martinican Christmas songs are nothing like in England: they bounce and jump and lift up into the air with Caribbean, carefree fun. Some are really funny, too – ‘aWOO aWOO aWOO aWOO!’ they coo at the end of each verse of ‘Dans Le Calme’, which is anything but calme. No ‘Silent Night’ here.

It soothes me as I try to fall asleep.

 

Christmas Day is the most beautiful, tranquil morning. The light through the soft mist, reaching over the bay. Trois Îlets’ silhouette in the beautiful cloud. A fresh air. No one out and about, no cars making noise. Peace.

I discover an old Peggy Seeger song from 1970 that fills me with glowing inspiration and makes me want to learn a whole folk and blues repertoire. It’s called ‘I’m Going To Be An Engineer’. My parents have flown to the island to see me, and so I have hugs in my life again. My brother has sent me, via them, a book of Moomin comics, and I treasure them. They make me want to draw lots, all the time.

One of my neighbours is a white French man who always goes around naked in his flat – which is level with mine and looks into my room – and he has an annoying habit of just standing and staring at me, whilst naked. Or else he’s staring at something really interesting on the wall beside my window. Sometimes he puts some shorts on and says ‘Bonjour!’ in a friendly way, but often it’s just the staring. I don’t mind nudity, but nude staring is extremely off-putting. On Christmas Day, however, even he doesn’t annoy me. He’s a bit creepy, but probably harmless. We wave at each other.

On St. Stephen’s Day, I look up out my window, and the clouds roll by so close. I realise what it is to live on a mountain. I want to go on living on mountains, close to the clouds.

My mother brought over my old cocoa cream that I wore in London, and I put on it on one night and go to sleep breathing in memories. Maybe that made me dream – what, I don’t remember. But I woke up with a light, faraway feeling. It’s hard to put into words. But memories came back – good memories – memories that I’d pushed aside to make way for the painful ones that needed attending to. So then memories were prickling under my thoughts the next day, filling in the background light with colour; old, warm colours.

I take my time getting up, take a long time to do my stretches, breathe slowly. Feel like dreaming, drawing, or scribbling. Body feels in touch; senses so awake again. I stretch and breathe, and the gentle push of the breathing penetrates the deeper knots of muscles in my middle. The daze has gone.

Half-way through dinner that night I have to leave to go cry in my bedroom. It is a long, exhausting cry. All the muscles in my face clench, my nose and forehead block up with phlegm and a dull pain. It feels like some sort of threshold being passed.

The next day my body is exhausted and severely dehydrated. So I drink water and listen to The Strokes. Later on we go to the Les Salines, a famous long white beach jam-packed with tourists. I take a walk all along the strip of sand, up to the rocks where there is almost no one. The sun is setting and the fierce waves cool to grey-blue. The sea is merciless today, and kids running wildly into her make me smile.

On New Year’s Day I hear drummers drumming, and neighbours singing, still drunk, and they go on and on and on, and I’m glad, so glad to be here for the winter. It’s an adventure and it is temporary, but it doesn’t feel temporary, it doesn’t feel like an excursion. It feels, now, like my life.

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All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in two weeks.

 

[1] http://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/magazine/martiniques-tough-choice

 

[2] http://www.martinique.franceantilles.fr/actualite/politique/la-11eme-visite-presidentielle-25-06-2009-36252.php

 

Teenagers

Dispatches From Martinique

5. Teenagers

 

‘Okay, everybody stand up.’

They’re confused at first, unsure they’ve understood me correctly.

What? What did she say?

‘Stand up. Everybody.’

Stand up?

I’ve told them all that I speak no French. Most of them believe it, some have their suspicions. Their level of English is not incredibly high, but that’s not a problem; the problem is that their level of confidence is incredibly low. They think they’re much worse at English than they actually are; or, more precisely, they think their ability to learn, try and succeed is far more limited than it is. I spent the first few weeks just watching them while the proper teachers did their thing: who’s talking to who, who’s friends with who? Who’s confident, who’s silent? Would this class work better in one big group or split into smaller groups? Would they work better paired with their friends or do I need to mix them up to get the inactive ones active? The Misbehaving One is chatting, yes, but this time, what he’s saying is, ‘Wait, is this what we’re doing or this? She said this, what does that mean?’ Okay, so he’s not on a totally different planet.

This is my most challenging class, a group of twenty fifteen-year-olds. All the teachers sigh in despair about this grade level. They’re just out of collège (middle school), full of hormones, full of chatter. For many, future diploma results are very much not on the horizon.

‘Leave your chairs, leave them. Okay, are we in a circle? Kind of more like an oval, but okay, I can live with that. Right, everyone take one step in.’

We do. Now we’re all tight together, shoulder to shoulder.

‘Let Madame in,’ I say, indicating the teacher. They giggle at hearing me call her Madame. I ask them to call me by my name, Mariella.

‘Okay. Now. Everybody – lift your arms as high as you can, up to the ceiling!’

They watch me, agog, as I do this. A wave of murmurings ripples through them. I keep on going – ‘as high as you can, as high as you can!’ – and about half of them start to do it with me. Then, slowly, the rest raise their arms as well. They chatter and giggle as they do so – what is this?

One girl stands with her arms crossed. ‘We’re all going to keep our arms up until everybody does it!’ I say, and I pull a funny face at her.

She’s not impressed. ‘I’m not doing it,’ she tells Madame.

I change tactic and decide to continue. ‘And now everybody let your arms drop all the way to the floor!’ I flop to the ground like a puppet. The buzz of bemused murmurings heightens. I yell over it: ‘Nod your head yes! Shake your head no! Flop your arms around from side to side! And then rooooll up!’

I roll up and see that about half of them have done the flopping and half remain standing around, a wall of cool between them and such childish displays. No time to pause, keep going.

‘And again, reach your arms as high as you can, up to the ceiling!’

And this time – they all raise their arms with me. They’re all doing it, including the girl who initially refused. Most of them are laughing outright now, smiling.

‘Okay, now put your hand on your stomach like this. Repeat after me: rah, pah, tah, kah, rah, pah, tak, kah!’

Rah, pah, tah, kah, rah, pah, tah, kah!

‘Now just the consonants! R-h, p-h, t-h, k-h, r-h, p-h, t-h, k-h!’ 

‘R-h, p-h, t-h, k-h, r-h, p-h, t-h, k-h!’ 

All of a sudden, we’re a synchronised group , hands on diaphragms all, making the same silly sounds in perfect time. These are activities I learned from drama and singing coaches, but I’m trying to use them now as a way to get them to be silly and stop being so self-conscious, and to start to get in touch with their bodies. The energy in the room has soared from half-dead to electrified, but not only that: it’s beginning to focus, coalesce, build up charge. Game time.

‘Okay, now we’re going to play a game called Zip Zap Bang. All of you have a gun in your hand.’ The cool boys smile and nod in appreciation. ‘We have a ball of energy that we have to pass around without stopping. If you go to the left, you say zip. If you go to the right, you say zap. If you shoot across the circle, you say bang! And if anyone stops or says the wrong thing, they’re out.’

Dear God, they love it. They get the concept so quickly, and soon they’re taking it very seriously. They laugh. They protest when they think they’ve been unfairly defeated. They try to clarify the rules to make sure they won’t be out next. They focus. They roar.

‘Hey hey hey, QUIET DOWN!’ Madame tries to yell over them.

Amazingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, it’s the ones who normally don’t participate who get the most into it. One boy, eyebrows permanently sloped downwards in Ultimate Mope, starts laughing hysterically as the game goes on and he’s still in it. ‘This is stressing me out, this is stressing me out!’ he cries, grinning wildly.

One boy who is constantly being told off for misbehaving hangs on to my every instruction, keen to win, and is smiling the whole way through. When it comes to the show-down between the last two remaining girls – ‘Bang, BANG!!!’ – they all go wild.

As order collapses and their wildness throbs through the room. I decide I won’t attempt to shout over them – futile endeavour – so I just wait for them to calm down and beckon them all back into a circle.

Okay, now for the actual teaching bit.

‘Remember those sentences we wrote up on the board, with the past continuous and past simple? We’re going to get into groups of three and act them out.’

I think that if I’d tried this at the beginning of the class, it would have been impossible. Now, however, with only a few minutes of class left to go, they immediately get to work. Some groups are unsure what to do, not understanding all the words in their sentence, so I spend a little time with them explaining – but the fact that they’re actually asking me what the words mean instead of just letting those enigmatic scribbles on the board pass them by is a big step forward. Now that they’ve been warmed up and loosened out, they’re happy to accomplish the task, they’re not freaked out by acting; and since they can’t act out something if they don’t know what it is, they ask.

We run out of time and the class finishes before any of them have had a chance to act out their scene, so I think, okay, we’ll get one group to do their thing and then I’ll let them all go.

‘Does any group want to volunteer?’

A girl flies out of her seat with her hand up. ‘We do!’

‘Okay, three, two, one, go!’

The sentence: I was in the bathroom when I heard someone scream. One girl sits on a chair, minding her own business, then the other walks in front of her and lets rip an incredible, piercing ‘AAAAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!’ Ah. That’s where the enthusiasm came from.

‘Excellent! Anyone else?’

One girl in a group with two other boys raises her hand; they protest, she remains resolute.

‘Okay, three, two, one, go!’

We were working in silence when he suddenly burst into tears.

‘Excellent! Next group?’

I don’t have to pick anyone: they all end up volunteering, even though the bell has rung. Next up is the misbehaving boy, accompanied by his bespectacled friend who is always playing the clown and muttering inscrutable, random things. When I explain to his group what the word ‘gossip’ means, I see his bespectacled face withdrawn in uncertainty, and when I ask him if he understands, he nods silently. It strikes me that the ones who try the least are probably the least certain of their ability. His group goes up and they act out the scene perfectly.

While my brother and his friend were gossiping, I painted a picture of a forest.

‘Perfect!’ I tell them.

They grin and nod. ‘You hear that?’ says the misbehaving boy. ‘”Perfect.”‘

We finish and I let them go.

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In another class, we’re working on debating skills. Above are some of the arguments they have to argue either for or against.

Man!

All I did was take games and activities that I learned from doing drama and music, and apply it to this incredibly mixed group of bored adolescents, secretly (or not so secretly) throbbing with life.

The beauty of this job is that it leaves me with the time and energy to do things like this; I don’t have to worry about marking, or about getting them to pass an exam. I’m just here to make them feel a little more comfortable about expressing themselves in English. It’s the fear that is their greatest enemy, as it is for all teenagers, as it is for all of us.

They really are lovely kids, all of them. Some are loud, some silent, some friendly and smiley, some reflective. They’re happy to be with each other, cheeky, all soft around the edges. They’re grumpy and mopey too, of course, plenty of grump to go around; but I often revel in the grumpy ones. I was a grumpy one: often was I told as a young child told that my face was an eternal scowl, that I needed to learn to monitor my self-expression in case people got the wrong idea about me. Then I grew up and realised that that was a useful life skill, sure, but also a trap, one of the bullshit how-to-be-a-person traps that well-meaning people neatly lay before you on the path to adulthood.

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Courtesy of an unknown local child.

I have the advantage of being not much older than my students, but old enough to command just enough respect. Maybe even a little admiration: I’m from London, which is cool, of course. The first time I have class with my groups I invite them to ask me questions, and one of the more advanced groups goes on for the full hour: ‘Why did you come to Martinique? Do you like Martinique? Do you play an instrument? In London, do people really drink tea all the time?’

‘Yes. Lots of it.’

All in all, I have classes with over a hundred different kids, so it’s hard to learn all of their names, but I’m getting a few of them. Often students will greet me if they pass me on campus, girls mainly, although once a boy stopped me to say that my class had been really ‘super’ – and he was with his mate, and all! I smiled at him and thanked him.

There’s one girl who, without fail, will always greet me thus:

‘Hello!’

‘Hello, how are you?’

‘Oh,’ she’ll say, grinning in a conspiratorial, girl-to-girl way, ‘You know.’

‘…Oh, yes, I know!’ I laugh. I don’t know. I don’t even know what class she’s from! But I love seeing her and hearing her talk to me like I’m an old friend she’s gossiping with: ‘Oh, you know!’

I try to remember to encourage them as much as possible. Something I quickly learn to do, after group presentations, is to make notes about good things that each group had done, or that the class in general has picked up on. When every group has gone up, I stand in front of them and consult my notes and say, ‘Thank you so much, that was great!’ Or if it was a role-play, ‘You guys are all such good actors!’ Or whatever. And then I give them specifics, I really like how Group A noticed this, ah, Group B saw something that no one else did, Group C knew how to…

And when I look up at them as I compliment them, I see them smile. Even the advanced classes, who don’t have many problems at all, need to smile at their successes, not constantly frown in concentration, scribbling notes. Everyone needs to smile at their successes, but it’s easy to let them slip by and barely notice the treasure you made with your own hands float away on the water, down into the drain.

When I was an adolescent, we were encouraged to write ‘reflections’ after we did a piece of work, which I hated because it seemed like busy-work, and because it was hard for me to take pride in anything I did. If I was supposed to be picking up on things I did wrong and saying how I would do them better – well, I already thought everything I did could be better, miles better! I yearned for it all to be better.

One day I was sifting through some old documents and I found a beautiful, hand-made book of ink-and-coloured-pencil drawings I had made in sixth grade to illustrate the different Ancient Egyptian gods. My reflection was full of things I had done badly. My teacher wrote, ‘I’m sad to see you don’t think more of your work.’ And when I looked at it, now in my early twenties, I was sad too, profoundly sad, sad like the surface of the water had suddenly been broken by a big, heavy stone that shot all the way down to the bottom of my lungs.

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It’s hard being a teenager. I’m young enough that I can still remember, vividly. It’s full of violence, full of fighting, particularly with yourself.

But being a teenager is also the time you start questioning, being critical, learning how to protect yourself – often over-protecting yourself with coldness, sarcasm, persona layered upon persona. It gets a bad rep, but the truth is, it’s a crucial skill-building time. How to sort the bullshit from the treasure. How to deal with the bullshit. How to stop making bullshit. How to see the treasure.

If these instincts are crushed by adults through humiliation or neglect, children will grow into trembling, anxious crowd-pleasers, as I have seen, as I have come close to being at times when I worried too much what others would think and how they might judge me, how they might reject me and leave me to be alone again.

Teenagerdom is not a rough edge in an otherwise soft-smooth childhood. A time of rough edges it certainly is, but they’re crucial, vital, life-giving edges. Rough like coral can be, bumpy here, smooth there, curved and elegant, then broken and jagged, colours dancing and changing. It teaches you who you are. It teaches you how to assert your own boundaries and challenge those boundaries laid down by others. It screams out to you from within your very body – no, no, no, something is wrong, I’m not sure what it is, but I need to find out. I can’t accept this even if they ask me, even if they demand it of me, even if they fight me. I will fight them. Eventually I will figure out what fights are worth fighting and what fights are a waste. Eventually I will figure out how to just be myself again, like I was when I was a tiny thing, in a time I’m not sure I even remember. I’ll fight, but I’ll laugh and love my friends as well. I’ll trust and love people easily, far more easily than I will as an adult. I’ll mess around. Race. Wrestle. Tickle. Clown. Play.

Sometimes I walk through the campus and I see teenagers walking to and fro all around me, and one will jump up to touch the awnings three feet above him. A boy and a girl will kick bottle caps in a race to get the corrugated iron gate, and grin in victory or curse in defeat at the finish line. They’ll smile and say hello! They’ll burst into the most insane belly-laughter, and go on, and on, and on. Teenagers are magic.

In another class, we’re doing a discussion on ‘myths and heroes’. I ask them all, ‘Who are your heroes?’ My mother, they say. My auntie. Grandmother. Bob Marley. Jesus.

One silent girl with gothic makeup says, ‘Myself.’

The class scoffs. I quiet them. ‘Why?’ I ask her.

‘Because I am the only one who can save myself,’ she answers simply, not dramatically, neither negatively nor positively. Simply. She sticks to herself in class.

‘That’s a very wise thing to say,’ I tell her. ‘Thank you.’

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All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in two weeks.

Dancing Together, Far Away

Dispatches From Martinique

4. Dancing Together, Far Away

 

I’m waiting for the bus that never comes, and an old lady gets out of a car that slows down to drop her off. She says goodbye to the woman driving and pulls out a green orange from her purse, shifts her limber hands around it and pops two pieces into her mouth. She is wearing a black dress and black headscarf; she’s small and delicate-looking, but not in her eyes and mouth, which are strong and steady.

‘Have you been waiting long?’ she asks me.

‘Ten minutes or so.’

‘Ten minutes?’ and then she mutters about the buses. A few moments later she pulls out two oranges with one hand and hands them to me. ‘Tiens.’ Take.

‘Oh no – ’ I start to say.

‘TAKE them!’ she grumbles. ‘That lady gave me loads.’ So I do.

‘You’re going into town?’ she asks.

‘Yes. I have a çclass.’

Bèlè? You dance bèlè?’

‘No, I’m only just starting.’

She mainly speaks in Creole, so I can’t understand most of what she says, but she starts saying something about bèlè and does these little moves, a smile creeping over her face.

‘Do you dance it?’ I ask her.

‘Hmm. More when I was younger.’

She asks me where I’m from. ‘London,’ I tell her.

‘Ah,’ she says, swapping to effortless English. ‘I lived in Paddington for nine years.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes. I am from St. Lucia. I went to London when I was twenty years old.’

So then we really get talking. She tells me how she returned to St. Lucia and then decided to come to Martinique; how her family moved to all sorts of places; an uncle took the boat to California and it took days, that was in 1918, 1920. She has family in St. Lucia whom she visits, but she lives alone in a basement flat, and she’s going into town for the church service in the cathedral.

‘Are you Catholic?’ she asks me.

‘My mother is Catholic,’ I answer carefully.

‘And you?’

‘Well…I believe in humanity.’

‘Ah. Not baptised, not first communion, not confirmed?’

‘Baptised, yes.’

‘Not confirmed?’

‘No.’

‘You know,’ she said, touching my arm, ‘You should do these things, because if you want to get married, they won’t let you without first communion or confirmation. I don’t know what it is like in other religions.’

‘Ah, okay,’ I answer, grinning, ‘Thanks.’ She talks to me like I’m a friend already; even her religious advice is given as a tip, friend-to-friend, rather than as an admonishment.

‘What’s your name?’ I ask her.

‘Elvira Louisa Anne.’

‘Elvira Louisa Anne. That’s a beautiful name.’

‘And you?’

‘Mariella.’

‘Mariella. Nice to meet you.’

The bus arrives, at last, and we continue chatting on the journey to town. We exchange numbers and agree to have lunch sometime. ‘Come over whenever you like,’ she says as we reach our destination. We kiss and go our separate ways, she to church and I to dancing.

*

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One morning I randomly decide to sketch an inky picture of the view from the balcony.

Bèlè is a powerful, sensual, traditional Martinican dance, done in groups, couples and solo all at once. You are guided by the drumming of hands, tic-tacking of sticks, call-and-response singing between musicians and dancers. Your bare feet smack against the wooden floor. Your centre of gravity is low, close to the ground, you sway and shuffle and swing like a tree in a storm, but always there is that hidden control, such control, utter in-tuneness with body and beat. Good bèlè dancers make it look effortless, but in fact it is an extremely demanding art form, extremely physical. You bend your body and jump forward like an attack, feet landing full on the ground, and back, and forth, and back, then it’s all on the heels and balls of your feet sliding across the ground as your weight shifts in the air, then it’s down low with your hips and your arms reaching out, elbows, palms. It’s a joyful dance. When you have a partner, he or she is almost always a fair distance away from you and there is rarely any contact, but you look them full in the face, smile, enjoy being yourselves together. It’s a bit of a tease, too, a good-natured challenge – oh, that’s you, is it? Well, this is me! Are you ready?

It’s incredibly fun, and incredibly tiring. The sweat pours off of me as I curve and bend and jump and swing. Hips, arms, elbows, knees – somehow it uses all of your angles, amplifies their angularity and still makes them seem supple, earthily sexy, earthy grace. Strong. It’s really, really fun, and I love it.

The people in my class are a real community, as well, very much working together. Everyone helps each other out, points out where their place should be during the more complicated, eight-person routines, gives tips, laughs at the crazy physicality demanded by some of the moves – what! That’s insane! We’re almost all danm, women, and we are always accompanied by a small band of drummers and singers, who sometimes join in when we need an extra kavalye, man. The women are mainly middle-aged, but there are a few in their thirties, and the occasional men who show up are in their late twenties and thirties. There’s one particularly good dancer with an eternally cheeky smile who brings her little daughter to sit atop a cloth in the corner. When she dances, her arms soar like a bird.

I am the youngest there, and I’m also the only white person there, but I don’t feel self-conscious at all. I’m here to learn. The women and men immediately take me in, encourage me, learn my name, smile and greet me the next time I come.

Our teacher is an extremely elegant, droopy-lidded, middle-aged lady with a strawberry-blonde afro, elbows eternally bending outwards, ready to swoop out the arms and fly. She is a very good teacher. She conducts the class almost entirely in Creole, but translates for me if I really don’t understand. To my pleasant surprise, however, by my second class, I don’t need much translation; I’m picking up words already.

This is thanks to the other piece of Martinican culture I am trying to immerse myself in: the Creole language. On Monday afternoons I attend a class with a small group of people, mainly older Martinican women, though there are a couple French people who come and go.

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Waiting at the doctor’s. After a few moments of striding around, this guy started going COCK-A-DOODLE-DOOOOOOOOOO. The nurse came out, looked at him, said, ‘He hasn’t taken his ticket, that one,’ and went back in.

It’s funny, I spend half my time observing and engaging with the particular psychologies of adolescents, and then one day in Creole class I see the adults acting like children. There is a slightly nervous, forty-something French woman with glasses and a rabbity face. She asks to read a sentence to check if her pronunciation is right, and one of the Creolophone women in class keeps correcting her as she speaks, which to her is probably a sign of encouragement, but the French lady takes it as a put-down or a distraction, and all of a sudden she yells, ‘Oh la!’ or something like that, as if to say ‘Oh, for God’s sake, stop interrupting me, you rude woman!’ – and she SLAMS her hands on her table for emphasis. The Martinican woman looks at her for a moment – and then she SLAMS her hands down as well, three times as loud, exclaiming, ‘Don’t get ANNOYED!’

Next to me is an older Martinican lady with spectacles and silver hair pulled back in a ponytail. She is very grandmotherly towards everyone, and she chuckles at the scene. This woman is clearly in love with Creole – her eyes shine every time we come across a new idiosyncrasy and peculiarity in the language.

‘It’s a bit complicated,’ the teacher will say, apologetically.

‘It’s magnificent,’ she’ll respond. ‘It’s beautiful.’ She and the other Martinican ladies all express how impressed they are when I read my first paragraph. It’s an extract of a literary piece on the naming of the hurricane, which comes from the name of the Arawak god Hu Ran Can, a bit of a trickster, I hear.

I stay after class one day to chat to the silver-haired lady and our teacher, Jean-Luc. ‘You’re Martinican, aren’t you?’ I ask her. ‘So how come you’re only learning Creole now?’

‘Well,’ she explains, ‘It was forbidden to us. Creole was the language of illiterate people. They told us – the French told us – that we had to learn French if we wanted to get on in life.’

‘Ah, I see. I was wondering about that. Because I asked some of the students that I teach, and it seems that some of them speak Creole at home, but some of them don’t, and many of them have grandparents who refuse to talk to them in Creole. Or can’t.’

‘It was considered a vulgar language,’ Jean-Luc adds, ‘Which is why many people, many Creolophones, don’t realise that there are rules and structures, that it’s a fully-developed language of its own. But it is. It’s just that the status of the language wasn’t considered equal to French.’

And it’s interesting – in Creole class, whenever a French student asks something like, ‘But why is it like that, it wouldn’t be like that in French,’ a Martinican student will rebut, with an indignant tinge to their tone, ‘Mais, ce n’est pas français! C’est créole!’ It’s not French, it’s Creole! There’s clearly still some tension alive from this colonial-era conflict of cultures. Language is power.

I walk out with Annette, as the silver-haired sweetheart is called, and we chat some more. I tell her how I’m also taking bèlè classes. ‘Bèlè!’ she exclaims, ‘Well, if Creole was forbidden, bèlè was completely off-limits! It’s a very sensual dance,’ she adds, eyes twinkling.

It’s a joy to learn together with Martinicans. I’m happy to get closer to the life and culture here, because here that cannot be anywhere else.

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*

Florence and I go to buy vegetables from a market she’s discovered, tucked away on a residential street in town. The old man selling there responds to my bonjour with theatrical joy. ‘BonJOUR, mes enfants!’ he cries. I pick up a giraumon squash and ask him how I should cook it. He’s at a loss. ‘Ask her,’ he says, indicating the woman selling alongside him, ‘She does the cooking. Me, I don’t know cooking. I know what it looks like on the plate, that’s it!’

We pick up groceries from the big supermarket further along, and night is descending by the time we push our trolley full of bags through the parking lot. A drunk old man is slow-stumbling around, and all of a sudden he rushes forward and tries to swipe the umbrella sticking out of my trolley. I rush forward – ‘Monsieur! No!’ but he doesn’t make a serious try for it, he just stumbles and starts saying stuff at us, curses, maybe just nonsense. We push our trolleys quickly past him – the car suddenly seems too far away. He yells after us, and once we reach the car he comes up to us again.

It’s been a long day. I am tired and hungry. This probably works in my favour, because I cannot be fucked. I stand between him and Florence as she opens the doors and unloads the bags. He looks at me, angrily. I stand my ground. All of a sudden he bursts out laughing and holds out his fist for a fist-bump.

‘What do you want?’ I say, controlled, but ready to yell and scream and attack, if needs be.

He mumbles something.

‘What do you want?

‘I am sorry,’ he says, in English. ‘Look, I am sorry.’

‘Okay,’ I say. ‘That’s fine. Is there anything else?’

‘My name is Alain,’ he says. ‘Alain is not a bad person.’

‘Okay,’ I say.

‘What is your name?’ he asks.

I sigh. ‘Joyce,’ I say.

He looks at me. His hand drops, and his face suddenly withdraws into an expression of something…resentful. As if he knows I’m lying. As if I couldn’t even grace him with a little humanity, even though he’s said he’s sorry, even though Alain is not a bad person. He finally goes away, and we get in the car and drive home.

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*

Being sick is like the world on heat-wave. You can’t move anywhere, can’t leave the house, can’t comfortably stay in bed. The place that is supposed to give you fresh life and succour – the outside, the inside – now sucks your breath away and drains your muscles of blood. Everything is corrupted for a while, a long, long while…until, eventually, it passes, simply, as if it were a gust through a desert only, shimmering and shifting the shapes a bit, thought at the time it felt like the seabed was being slowly ripped from the flesh of the earth. Shiver. And it’s like this for any kind of sickness, it occurred to me, whether the flu or fever or just a long period of slow-churning emptiness. Far-awayness.

Florence got a bad, bad fever, possibly from a mosquito bite. She got zika as soon as she arrived, and the doctor told her there’s nothing you can do but rest and hydrate, same old. I’ve been sick many times in my life, so now when it happens, it sucks, but I’m more or less psychologically prepared, and so is my body: okay, we’re doing this now, well shit, okay, fine. But Flo hasn’t had a fever for about fifteen years. Her body is not prepared.

For days she can barely move, hardly eat, pain everywhere. Freezing at night but skin burning up. As soon as I hear that she’s sick, I make a Peruvian chicken and ginger soup, sopa de kión, which my parents always made for my brother and I when we were sick. I can tell you objectively, from an atheist’s perspective, that it is heaven-sent: you sweat and sweat the ickiness out, and the hot broth fills you with a glowing feeling of aaaahhhh. At least, that’s the kind of noise Flo makes throughout the meal. For my part, it gives me a great excuse to buy rice noodles. (Thank God for the Chinese corner shop, Chan’s, open 24/7, another heaven-send in a Catholic country where everything is shut on Sundays.)

In between going to classes and doing a serious Terminator-style clean of our rubbish bin, which is full of maggots, I do my best to take care of Florence. I realise that it comforts me to comfort others. My own premenstrual presentiments of brain-fog-heaviness and Jeeeesus fuck it fuck it fuck it bullshit bullshit bullshit start to fade into background noise as I occupy my hands with feeling another’s forehead, chopping up ginger and lemon for tea, pouring water.

‘Thank you,’ Flo says, ‘If you ever get sick, I will surely take care of you.’

‘Don’t worry. We all have to take care of each other.’

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Red wine and sardines.

Because if we didn’t – every time I see those lonely ghosts staggering through town, in the middle of the day or at night, a man like Alain, a woman like the one yelling and squinting in our headlights in the city at night, high on crack like so many here, all these people somehow lost –

There was this man at the dock in a crumpled tuxedo suit, face shrunken, hair wispy on his head, a walking stick in his hand, a shout jumping out of his throat every few seconds, directed at no one – HEAH! HEAH! HEAH! He sat on the bench near me and, when he saw me, began to smile and tell me that I was very beautiful, other things I couldn’t catch. ‘Thank you,’ I said, turning myself away and focussing on my book. He didn’t bother me, but when he got on the boat and it started to swim away, he suddenly turned and realised that I wasn’t there. HEY! he called out to me. I looked up. He waved. I’LL BE BACK AT 9.30! he called. He waved and waved. ‘Okay!’ I called back. He made a striking silhouette – dishevelled tuxedoed figure, standing tall, alone, on the top deck of the ferry, waving with his full arm, like a man on a desert island welcoming his rescuer at last, waving, waving.

I always wonder, how did it happen? Slowly, barely noticeable, or triggered all at once, in an earthquake tumble of events? Did drugs push it into being, or poverty, trauma, loneliness? Nobody to talk to, hold, agree or disagree with? Bad luck?

What were they like before? When was ‘before’, fifteen years ago? Fifty? Last month?

The brain is so unbelievably malleable. It’s like the rivers being shifted by erosion and chance – you could go this way, you could go that way, you could go back, if you were given the right contours, the right instrument of change. Perhaps.

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Hibiscus for Christmas, because soon it will be here…

All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in five weeks.