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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.



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.



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



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.



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.


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?’


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?’


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.


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.




fucking insane

how does she feel?

it’s not fucking fair

no, you couldn’t have

what? I didn’t hear


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




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



I love you too





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.



I wrote this little song to cheer myself up one day



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.


[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.


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.’


‘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 – ’


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.



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.



[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.


[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).