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.
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’arrête!’ 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’arrêêêêêête 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 ‘versionoriginale’, 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
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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, 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?’
‘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. ’
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.’
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!
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.
All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in two weeks.
They’re confused at first, unsure they’ve understood me correctly.
‘What? What did she say?’
‘Stand up. Everybody.’
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.’
All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in two weeks.
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.’
‘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.
‘Well…I believe in humanity.’
‘Ah. Not baptised, not first communion, not confirmed?’
‘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.’
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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 bullshitbullshit 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.’
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.
All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in five weeks.
Weird, exhausting, fantastical dreams. Sea monsters and prisoners.
Such weather! There’s a real fresh breeze these days and everything is grey, but even the grey here is a clear grey – clear grey over deep wet green jungle trees. Refreshing. A good feeling.
I take joy in watching my lithe lizard friend by the white veranda banisters. His spine is a brushstroke of muddy green that melts into the brighter green of his sides and belly. He breathes – his sides flare full, sink back into slender, flare again… ‘Hey buddy,’ I greet.
And one day, when waiting for the bus, I see a new lizard friend – this one bigger, more muscular, grey-spotted. I stare intently at him and try capture him on my phone – he looks at me warily. Then he starts shaking, like his heart is suddenly thumping crazily, and a bill of bright yellow flares up at his throat. Be afraid, he’s saying, be very afraid.
‘I’m not afraid of you!’ I laugh, ‘You’re my brother!’
When I describe him to Florence she cocks her head to the side in the way that she does. ‘That sounds more like an iguana than a lizard.’
‘Yep, they get real big but they start off small. That’s an invasive species of iguana.’
We have two weeks off for Toussaints (All Saints) and our plan is to get a car and start exploring the island. See it properly, be tourists for a change. However, as with everything here, the only way to find out information is through word of mouth, and it takes days of Florence sounding out places and trekking from garage to garage before she finds a mechanic who agrees to help her in her quest. He turns out to be a useful resource: he knows, for example, to look under the seats to check for ripped-out serial numbers, helping Flo avoid buying a stolen car, which seems to be a fairly regular occurrence. When she finally finds something and leaves a deposit, we’re left in suspense for days as they keep phoning to say something isn’t right, the suspension needs some fixing, not sure when it will be finished, she phones, they stall, she phones again, they stall, she phones and phones again… ‘Well, at least they’re answering my calls,’ she says, ‘So if this is a scam, it’s a very long game they’re playing.’
In the meantime, I do a little adventuring to Trois Îlets, the beautiful white-sanded southern area just across the bay that is a mere €7 ferry away (return ticket). Trois Îlets is the tourist spot of the island, and when my ferry comes in, it is full of white people – and already this has become a strange, startling sight: so many white people, all at once! Funny to feel myself distinguishing myself from them – oh, tourists! – when they have probably already seen more of the island than I have.
To get on the top deck of the little ferry and see all of the sea so close is a startlingly liberating sensation. To be on the water. You can see how some people get addicted to it. The first time I get the ferry to Trois Îlets, I am caught in the middle of a soft rainstorm – soft, but I have to hold on to my umbrella and my bags tight to stop them rolling off the sides and blowing away. I get to see Fort-de-France from afar, and suddenly it’s not just a noisy, dirty little town, it’s quite beautiful: the rising mountains and the rows of coloured buildings spreading out like dusty fruits and chunks of chalk. Apparently, Columbus saw this island – called Madinina, Isle of Flowers, by the Caribs – and said it was the most beautiful place he’d ever seen. If he sailed in and saw those mountains and those green slopes against that water, I can see why. Luckily for the Caribs, the Spanish crown wasn’t interested. Unluckily for the Caribs, the French crown soon was.
(In my town, the Arawaks and Caribs are represented on huge coloured murals, copper-red, white and black. A young woman, an elderly man, a smiling girl, two young men at the yole, a particular type of boat that is still used by Martiniquans today. Even though they were finally forced off the island in 1660 to make way for sugar crops and the slave trade, they are still a recognised part of the island’s history. It makes me happy to see indigenous Americans celebrated, especially with such warmth and artistic flair.)
The water in Trois Îlets seems to be always perfect and light, but powerful always, carrying you effortlessly, implacable, always. Even when the storm breaks again and I run back into the water – it’s warmer in the sea – the rain feels more like a tease, pushing and pulling you back into the heavy hug of the waves. Some beaches are full of people, but with a little trekking through the forest and the hills, there are tiny bays all over the place where there isn’t a soul, just some guy’s back yard, an abandoned shipwrecked ferry, some fishing boats out at sea, leftover floats and debris, the palm trees. I am lying under a palm tree when the heavens open up again, and I let the storm pour down on top of me, grin to the skies.
Florence and I have befriended a young English couple, Tom and Alice, also language assistants. We go to the cinema regularly and experience the oddness of an American comedy dubbed in French: revealingly, it seems a lot of blockbuster American comedies rely upon the particular intonation of the American vernacular (or perhaps it’s more accurate to say ‘TV American’ vernacular) rather than the content of the joke to get a laugh, so in French, most one-liners simply fall flat in awkward fashion. We also see films in French, which are a challenge, but enjoyably frustrating – they motivate me to improve.
We see, for example, Le Gang des Antillais, a film about an Antillean gang operating in Paris in the 1970s. It takes place agains the backdrop of “bumidom”, when a wave of migration from non-metropole France was organised by the BUMIDOM, or Bureau for the Development of Migrations From The Overseas Departments. In essence, it was a method for bringing in cheap, menial labour from non-white French countries like Martinique, Reunion and Guadeloupe, menial always, regardless of the education level of those migrating. At the beginning of the film we see real footage reels, hear real voices: ‘And I thought, why did I travel thousands of miles across the sea just to clean floors?’ a woman asks us.
The film is based on the story of a real gang, and I’m told the subject has been taboo for some time. It turns out that the night we see it is the world premiere – the director, producer and star actor go on stage after the credits fall and thank us for being the first paying viewers!
‘We hope that this film is only the beginning,’ the producer tells us. ‘We hope that from now on, there will be many more films portraying the Antillean people, and that soon we’ll be used to seeing Antilleans on screen in the same way that we see African-Americans on screen.’
One woman in the audience raises her hand. ‘I want to thank you for making this films,’ she says. ‘I have to say that while I was watching, I didn’t see black actors. I just saw actors. And that, I think, is very important. So thank you.’
And she is right: the film deals with racism and racial differences, but throughout, you are allowed to experience something unusual: you are allowed to simply see actors acting, characters living, people being people, being good, being terrible, being decent, being despicable. The lens of the camera is humane in a way that is hard to pin down, but when you see it, you realise how often that humanity is missing, whether the subject is black, female, lower-class, disabled; any one of the lesser-seen, when ‘seen’ means ‘seen’, not ‘viewed’.
‘Thank you,’ the producer replies, ‘It makes me very happy to hear you say that.’
Flo and I have Tom and Alice round for dinner – I cook mussels and spaghetti with nutmeg and courgettes – and then we head down to the Bourg, where there’s a local salsa party going on. The Caribbeans are crazy about salsa – it seems everyone’s in a local class and moves like a pro. For me, to hear those rhythms and see people moving those free, sensual moves just lights me up; in me there are so many good memories of dancing with family and friends and having a blast. I notice, however, that everyone dances in couples, I suppose because that’s how they’ve learned it; but what I love most about Latin music is the freedom, freedom from expectation, freedom from specific ‘moves’, freedom to dance alone. I love dancing salsa alone, free styling. I’ve never really taken a class, and I don’t know any moves, I just know how to move.
But since no one is dancing alone and the others aren’t keen on jumping in with me, we mainly watch at the sidelines. Some people are truly magnificent – and I notice, at times, a little mélange of smooth Latin curving and more African-style jerks and bobs. Very cool.
A couple guys ask me to dance, so I oblige – time to dance! One is good and clearly knows his moves, the other really isn’t good and is just having a go – ‘Go slower! Go slower!’ he keeps saying to me.
‘But this is the rhythm!’ I insist.
Eventually they start playing really cheesy Caribbean slow dancing music, and we head for the pier. A small gang of jazz musicians are playing ‘Summertime’ just for themselves, two guitars and a clarinet. We sit down, gaze out on the lights of Trois Îlets and St. Lucia and the black, waving water.
A man hears us speaking and begins talking to us – he’s from St. Lucia so his first language is English – and starts rambling at length about his life and this and that. He’s not menacing, and we would find him a friendly fellow, if it weren’t for the pair of scissors in his hand that he keeps gesticulating with. We make our excuses and head home.
There are a lot of sad, troubled people around town. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, as people have a habit, in general, of just voicing their thoughts aloud – they’re not talking to themselves, exactly, they are just comfortable releasing their passing, inner thoughts as vocalised sounds, and if you happen to hear them and answer back, great, we’ll have a conversation, and if not, fine, they’re just expressing. It’s an endearing quality; endearing to me not least because in London I often catch myself voicing my passing imaginings aloud without realising, and suddenly noticing that I must look bizarre. Not so here.
But sometimes people are just off. Waiting for the bus stop, a woman just starts arguing with the air, and I can’t quite tell what she’s saying because mostly it’s in Créole – but often you can tell what people are saying without needing to know the content, and she’s angry, and people need to listen, because she’s angry, and no one’s good enough to do anything about it. The other locals nearby keep glancing in her direction, so whatever she’s saying must seem a little off to them too.
It’s hard to tell with the old men sometimes whether or not they are just being as men are here – yelling, ‘Mademoiselle, one coffee with me, one coffee!’ – or whether they are, in fact, unhinged. But in fact, I feel less threatened by the potentially unhinged than I do by the very sane men who throw their ‘Hello!’ in front of my path like they’re sticking out a foot to trip me over. One day I’m walking by with my headphones in, looking at my iPod, and a man does this. I pretend not to have heard, so he says again, aggressively, ‘Hello!’ (in English), so I say, ‘Hello,’ and keep walking. And of course, the hissing, the kissing noises, men leaning out of their cars as you walk by.
There are fine distinctions between aggression and just trying your luck – when a young man on a motorcycle slows down beside me as I walk home from the grocery store to ask me for my number, I just tell him I have a boyfriend and he moves on his way. Or when a man sees me texting and jokes, ‘Ah, he’s not showing up, why don’t you have a coffee with me instead?’ I can laugh and say, ‘I don’t think so, monsieur.’ But aggressive is different, and the line is fine but sharply clear.
Jane and I get talking on this topic one day. ‘It’s like they’re establishing how entitled they are to interrupt your day and make it known to you that they find you attractive,’ I muse, ‘And if you ignore them, it’s an insult to their virility.’
‘Like – “who are you to turn me down?”’
‘Yeah. “You think you’re better than me?” But mainly, I think, they’re not trying to make you feel uncomfortable. Mainly it’s just how it is here. It’s all a messy tangle of assumptions.’
‘What I really can’t stand,’ she says, ‘Is the hissing and the kissy noises. I’m not your fucking dog.’
‘And I’m not a fucking toy.’
We reflect on how difficult it is to explain just what it’s like to have to have that sixth sense wherever you go, the one constantly interrogating, Am I safe? Is he going to hassle me? Is he going to attack me? What do I do if he jumps out of that car? How many people are around? Should I avoid eye contact? Am I safe?
It makes us angry.
The grey death of mosquitoes smeared on the skin like soot. My war with them has recommenced, as has other forms of keeping everyday life moving instead of slouching – ironing, changing sheets, clearing desk, making smoothies, cleaning the microwave. That all temporarily subsided in rhythm over the past few days – getting very much into the feeling of being on holiday now. I’m on a tropical island! How did that happen? I spend days really happy, sorting things on my computer, reading and answering emails, eating and feeling food so delicious. Drinking coffee that seems to taste better and better as the hours drip by.
Today the sea looks like it’s the surface of another planet! There was a thunderstorm in the morning and the waves are still chopping up even though there’s nothing but a breeze left and occasional distant thunder-rumbles. The sea is like a frozen crumpled ice cloth sheet…
Then, at around 16.30, I take a walk to get the last of the daytime light; the sky is heavy with the promise of storm, and the sea is still hacking away at itself. Flo calls me – she has her car, finally! – do I want to go to St. Pierre to see the cemetery for All Saints?
I meet her at the Bourg and meet the new ride, a thirteen-year-old Skoda with a German engine actually capable of getting up the mountain, thank God. The waves are crashing up against the pier when we leave.
St. Pierre is the historic capital of the island that was utterly destroyed by an earthquake in 1802. Tonight is All Saints. In Catholic countries, families go to the cemetery to tend to the graves of loved ones. The earthquake-town spirits are out dancing with the storm, and it’s going to be a wild, roaring night.
The church at St. Pierre – huge haunted smoked up stone thing! Giant ghost cut from statue stone!
Then the cemetery on the hill, Jesus looming white over the spectacle on his tall crucifix, white tiled plots for whole families, red candles glowing across them. Unimposing little crosses, statues, angels, reaching and imploring. People stood in small family groups, standing by their dead ones and keeping silent, or praying, or talking together, laughing, murmuring. A couple old men standing alone, gazing at a lost one’s tomb, cloaked in quiet solitude. People meeting old friends and acquaintances again and exchanging greetings and news. The mood, half somber, half jovial.
We climb up to where there is a monument to those who died in 1802 – that is, every inhabitant save one prisoner, locked away in an underground jail. Next to it, we see the poorer graves: they looks like little grey boats, names hand-scrawled in black marker on wooden crosses. Filled to the brimming with extravagant, colourful, plastic flowers.
We have finally been paid for our first month, so we treat ourselves and eat creole food in a proper restaurant (cooked by a French couple) as the storm finally breaks and ‘Behold, the heavens ope,’ and then we run back to the car. And as we run, the rain pelts its fingers so ferociously, my eyelids are almost glued shut with heaven water. It’s practically pitch black and we’re right next to the crazy sea, there are boats on the waves soaring and swooping and crashing down again. In the dark, we fall into a massive body of water by the car park that wasn’t there an hour ago.
And the lightning!
Constantly the world erupts into light, a murky blue-grey, sometimes purplish, sometimes almost white – at one point as we drive back and the heavens slip down on us, it’s the whole sky glowing in stutters.
One day I randomly say to Flo, ‘You know what, I fucking love living here.’
All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in two weeks.
I realise that if I don’t start banging on the door and shouting as loud as I can, no one will hear me. So I start banging with the flat of my hand, and shouting, ‘Florence! Florence! I’m stuck! Florence! I can’t get out! Florence! Florence!Florence! I can’t get out!’
But the storm is thickening out and it is far louder than I am. The flat of my hand goes bang, bang, bang, and my chest starts to strain with summoning this much lung power. It’s three in the morning. ‘Florence! I can’t get out! Florence! Help me please! Madame Robert! Madame!’
Eventually I lean over my desk to unlock the windows, pull them open and stick my head out and call so that the landlady might hear me: ‘Madame Robert! Madame Robert!’ The rain is like a sheet of white noise sinking into every space.
I send texts to Nicole and Madame Robert and try calm down. They’ll see the messages in the morning, someone will come to help me. All I can do now is sleep.
At six thirty in the morning I wake and see a message from Nicole. She’s on her way. Half an hour or so later and she and Madame Robert open my door. Nicole’s face appears.
‘But it works!’ she says.
‘No,’ I say, and show her: from the inside, when you turn the handle, it swings all the way around, and the door stays shut. It’s not even locked; it’s just that the latch holds tight when you close it and you need to turn the handle to release it. I realized this in the middle of the night when I needed to go to the bathroom.
It is my first night in the flat, which is the second floor of Madame Robert’s house. Almost as soon as I saw it I decided this was the one. I had only seen two other places – dingy, unventilated studios further up the mountain where I would have had to live alone – and still had two more viewings scheduled, but this place was beautiful. Furnished not to be functional but to feel like a home: a warmth-coloured kitchenette, a wide open lounge and dining space, reds and beiges and wood and white tiles, three little bedrooms with double beds and air-conditioning (I chose the one with the view of the sea); and for the finishing touch, a generous balcony curling all around the place in an L-shape, big enough for a whole other dining table, washing-machine and chairs. Someone was already living there, a young woman called Florence, so I wouldn’t be alone.
We made our arrangements and I moved in a few days later. During the day, when Florence was out, Madame Robert showed me all the necessaries and began to talk. This talk turned out to be a bit of Talk. It’s a little hard for me to follow Madame Robert at times, as her talk is a bit like the sea waves: they ebb and flow and ebb and flow and sometimes dwindle to a mutter and sometimes roar up into high drama for added emphasis. The movements of waves are fairly repetitive, and unending.
The gist of this Talk is:
‘When you are living here, you’ve got to make sure you keep things clean. Like this – ’ she gestures to the cans of tomatoes and spaghetti packets I’ve taken out for cooking dinner, ‘You can put these away. You have to keep things tidy and ordered. Before you came, I cleaned the whole house, to receive you. And this year, I told the organization, “I don’t want any more language assistants.” Because last year, I had three girls here. One English girl and two Spanish girls. They destroyed the cooker. You see this? I had to buy a new one. And the oven. See? Make sure to clean. I cleaned up the whole house, to receive you.’
Eventually I have to say to her, ‘Madame, you don’t need to worry. I am very clean.’
‘Well then tell the others to be clean!’ she cries.
When I wake up that night to go to the bathroom and find that the door handle swings all the way around and I can’t get out, I panic. And when I eventually realise that no one can hear me for all my banging and yelling, I decide to use my resources. If I piss on this woman’s floor, she is going to have an aneurysm, and I haven’t signed my contract yet.
Luckily, before going to bed I had brought two glasses of tea and water with me to sip while reading. I quickly down the remaining contents and position myself carefully. I’m lucky – two glasses is just enough. I open the window and toss them out – and then panic again – shit. Have I just thrown two glasses of piss on to her balcony?…Well…it could be the garden. I’m going to say it’s the garden. And I finally go back to sleep.
As Nicole and Madame Robert inspect the door I say, ‘I’m going to get something to drink,’ bustle past them and into the kitchen and find a bottle and drink, drink, drink. It’s a tiny room to be locked in all night.
For all my initial twinges of misgivings, Madame Robert is in fact a very warm and generous woman, full of sparkling energy. She tells long and elaborate anecdotes, complete with sound effects and character development. Like many of the older Martiniquan women I meet, she is fiercely maternalistic. She brings us bananas from their garden; home-made sweet potato and banana jam with all sorts of dark, nutty spices; a huge avocado the size of my hand, to say sorry about the locked-door incident; and her husband sometimes goes fishing and gives us a fresh fish or two. She makes sure to tell us what to do and not do, but she is looking out for us.
Florence is from Louisiana, and I like her immediately. She teaches me to gut a fish.
First, de-scaling with the rough strokes of the back of a knife. The little shiny circles fly up into my hair, my cheeks, everywhere, and they’re sharp and hard like flattened seashells, almost transparent but stained with pink, white and ice-blue.
Then, hooking the knife under the fins and working it around to saw them out
Then a split down the belly and fingers in to stroke out the insides, red pink gloop and stringy sacs of organs.
Florence then goes for the gills, lets me try and work my fingers under those bone-hard razor-toothed semi-circles, pull them out and get to the rest of the gloop inside. It’s immense fun.
As my fingers pull out organ strings, I say, ‘I often think, when I see things like this… This is what the aliens will do to us.’
Flo has a warm and cheering way about her, and we laugh a lot. We soon become comfortable enough to moan and cry and go kind of nuts around each other too. We keep each other going through a week of intensely frustrating bureaucracy. This includes: attending inductions given to all language assistants in which we are given vital documents that will allow us to do things like open a bank account and being told that we must do so within a week or else not be paid our ‘advance’ (ie the first month’s salary at the end of the first month as opposed to the second. What?); opening a bank account; discovering that in France one needs to arrange an appointment to open a bank account and that this process can easily take two weeks; waiting for the housing organization to open again (closed for the hurricane so everything’s postponed a week) so that I can sign my contract and open a bank account; looking for banks that don’t require appointments; finding one and being told to come at a certain time; arriving at said time and being told that it’s the wrong time and to come again at another certain time; being told that we don’t have all the right documents; arranging and waiting for all the right documents; arriving with all the right documents and being told that we don’t need all of those; opening the bank account and being told we have to wait a week before we can use it; going in person to the organization responsible for paying us and begging, crying, and eventually managing to hand in everything later than the deadline in order to be paid at the end of the month like a normal person.
Ah, France. At least I’m not required, as is usually the case, to have a guarantor just to rent a place. Nicole spent seventeen years working in the métropole before returning last year to Martinique; she had warned me of the intensity and thickness of French red tape, even for her living in Paris. ‘And if you’re black,’ she told me (she is), ‘Then it’s not just a matter of having a guarantor; you have to have a guarantor that earns a lot of money.’
The house where I live with Florence is in the next town over from Fort-de-France. We’re at the base of the mountain, a fifteen-minute walk from the beach.
And, oh, the beach. There are plenty around, and Flo has already scouted out a few out-of-the-way ones, but I am pretty content to go straight to the most populated (which is really not that populated). I walk to the rectangle of water enclosed by buoys. The vastness and the power of the sea stills scares me a little, even though the waves here are soothingly crystalline and, when there’s been no storm, clear, calm. No debris or rocks or shadowy uncertainty beneath you as you swim – just fine-rippled acres of sand. Despite the serenity, I stick to the buoys to be safe; besides, they give me a good way of counting laps. And it’s so strange a feeling, doing this exercise that my body is so used to, but in such a different setting, and in such a different way, negotiating with the advance and pull of the sea. No chlorine pool this. It really feels a living thing that abides your presence – for now.
Up, breath, down, up, breath, down, shoulders, arms, legs, feet, neck, waves…I can see hordes of little slender fish move as one, a flashing curtain of colour. One day I see a flatfish on the sand, right there, just beneath me. I’ve never seen one in the flesh before.
The life all around my neighbourhood puts a spark into my everyday and makes me so happy that I chose not to live in the middle of a city. When I drink coffee on the veranda I am level with the tops of the pomegranate and lime trees planted in Madame Robert’s garden, and I see little black hummingbirds fizzing by the flowers. They tremble by me as I eat breakfast, most no bigger than the length of my pinky down to my wrist. Sometimes I see them quite close, small, rich black, a thin curved line of a beak, a dash of pink-red on the breast and a silver green streak under the wing. Then there’s a more slender, subtle green one; some with tufts of metallic blue on the crown; and the most beautiful of all, black with fully-turquoised wings and that thump of bright red on the heart. They’re not alone by the fruit trees: huge hornet-like-things hover by there too.
There are other little birds that often swoop into the kitchen when I’m not there and then swoop out as I step back in. Lime green lizards dance over the walls and white columns of the veranda banisters, long talons curled and slender body curving. And at dusk, out of invisible tunnels in the wet beach sand, little crabs so bright yellow-green tumble out and hurry away into hiding again.
Teaching the teenagers in my eight classes is pretty fun. The level of English varies from okay to pretty good, but I find the key difference is the level of confidence rather than competence. I am at ease with this age group. Even when they are sulky or silly, all the better for it, I can probe and provoke and invite them to express themselves, and if we get some of that done in English, fantastic. To begin with, I introduce myself and the teacher asks them to ask me questions: we go over London (a great source of fascination), tea and if it’s true that everyone drinks it, public transport, music, shopping, and my own particular, non-English heritage. (To give them an idea of how big Peru is, I draw a cube that represents the surface area of France and then, next to it, draw another three of those cubes stacked on top of each other.)
Some of my classes are actually Maths and Physics classes – here, if you reach a certain level of English, you have the option of taking other curriculum classes in English, the ‘Euro’ option. So not only are these kids grappling with, say, algebra, they are also grappling with the fact that in English a decimal point is a full stop rather than a comma. Man. I couldn’t imagine trying to understand chemistry in French.
In one particularly good Euro class, the kids are really interested and engaged, and they ask me loads of questions. They’re also excited because they’ve just come from an awards ceremony where they received one of their diplomas, which their teacher encourages them to show me.
‘Congratulations!’ I say.
‘Thank you!’ they sing.
And singing is one of the questions that come up – do I play an instrument?
‘I used to play piano and bass guitar, but now I mainly sing.’
‘Can you sing something for us?’
So before I know it I am singing a bluesy folk song and getting them to clap along; I medley into ‘Amazing Grace’ and some of them sing along with the little bits they know, and at the end they erupt into those wonderful, whooping, ebullient cheers that I remember filling up my own high school years. Kids are great.
It begins to feel very normal being here. Another place, another job. Rain, buses, people, students. Rent, groceries, flat mates. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. When I don’t have to be in town I am very happy to stay at home, avoid the sun and sudden rain, read, watch Orange Is The New Black, drink coffee, consume unusual amounts of sugar in an attempt to absorb more energy, avoid the sun…
But it is definitely draining. Waking up at 5.30, getting to and from school, the centre of town, home – even though each journey takes no more than half an hour tops on the bus – in the heat – the heat – the heat – the waiting for the buses – especially at Pointe Simon, the bus terminal, a flat expanse of tarmac that Flo dubs ‘the third circle of hell’, where the heat grabs on to your bones and won’t let go, and the bus drivers won’t let you on while you wait and they look at their phones – the heat – the insane heat –
The heat is definitely not normal for this time of year. At seven in the morning it’s already thirty degrees Celsius, and it ascends from there. One day the humidity reaches ninety per cent. Flo meets a man who has been going in and out of Martinique for the past fifteen years, and he tells her, ‘The weather used to be predictable. It followed the seasons. Now it’s totally unpredictable.’ Others tell me that for the past few years there has been this unseasonable heat wave in September or October, when the breeze is supposed to be lifting the spirits a bit. (Credit goes to global warming, as all the countries of the equatorial belt have been aware for the past twenty years.)
The Martiniquans themselves can’t stand the heat. This is the one phrase in Creole I have mastered: mwen cho! I’m hot!
The heat makes dealing with anything a thousand times more agitating and exhausting, be it bureaucracy, bus stops, speaking in my third language, understanding anything in my third language, leaving the house, buying food and toilet paper. Emotions. Thoughts. Hormones. Images. Thoughts. Dreams. Exhaustion.
My third week is a tumult of a week. The mornings and the evenings begin to trap me with my own thoughts that lead nowhere but misery. The people I’ve left behind, some perhaps permanently. The things that feel like failures. The things I am afraid of. The things that feel inevitable, unvanquishable, lodged permanently in the unguarded room of the tired brain. The people I miss. The people that have haunted me. The spectre of ill health that I start to feel taking some kind of tangible something, taking something, taking.
And then I will do something nice, go for a swim in the sea, do some yoga and wake up feeling energized, and then all of a sudden
Can’t face going to the shops to buy groceries. Then all of a sudden, I run out. Miss the bus. Walk all the way down the hill. No bus for twenty minutes. Walk all the way back up. So hot. So sweaty. Wet skin.
Ok, ok, relax, breathe.
Deep breathing, it’s cool, it’s cool…
I go to the bathroom.
There are five mosquitoes in the bathroom.
‘I will kill you all, you motherfuckers,’ I tell them. Only one mosquito shoots away with his little mosquito life.
That day I decide not to go to the grocery store after all. Instead I stay in and Skype two of my old, dearest friends. I talk to my brother and my parents. I cry, for hours and hours. When I’m finally done, I feel better. Something in my chest and my core feels lighter, like a wet cloth has been twisted and twisted and finally wrung out, just about dry. The crying will come back, and I let it come, and go, sometimes wringing out the tight twist in my lungs, sometimes just like a sudden cut to the skin, shocking but shallow, soon over, done.
On Wednesday I accompany Madame Robert to her choir evening at the local church. There are plenty of people, lots of old ladies but also some young ones, and three middle-aged men. The leader of the choir is an old man with a bad voice, but they are a committed lot. The heavy repertoire book weighs my arms down and makes it hard for me to release my lungs and sing right, so eventually I quickly memorise what I can and put the book down. Most of the songs are Our Saviour-themed, of course, and most are definitely not to my taste, but there are a couple great ones, including a fantastic Creole song. One of the men gives a call – the rest of us sing a response. He gives the call – we sing back. It’s wonderful.
They are extremely welcoming, lending me sheet music, pointing out what song we’re at, asking me if I’m alright. They even have a special ‘welcome’ song they sing to anyone new who joins them, no matter how briefly! It is a lovely little group to be in, and despite a couple terrible songs we have to practice over and over, I am half-considering joining every week. The problem is that it’s an evening class, and the next day I have to be up super early for school. I am considering the pros and cons as we put away the chairs, leaning more towards the cons, and one of the ladies taps me on the shoulder. ‘Mariella,’ she says, ‘We’re going to have a little pray now.’
We all stand in a circle and hold hands. They close their eyes as the choir leader gives thanks. I keep my eyes open and watch what is, to me, an interesting and vaguely disturbing spectacle. It is intensely important to them, of course: some of them are probably here not only because they like to sing but because they want to feel like they are a part of a community, a close-knit community that brings them closer to their God and their own hearts. One of the women starts crying as they pray.
But I know that the energy in that room is not emanating from another presence other than our own. The energy is from within each of these people. But they don’t believe that; or rather, they half-believe that. But the other half is God. And it is not true, no matter how it comforts them. And I feel that I probably won’t come back, at least not every week, because I can neither hold hands with this untruth and pretend, nor insult these kind people by abstaining and explaining that I think their deeply-held inner truth is simply not true.
The next day I wake up at 5.30 and have three classes in a row, I don’t eat enough, I wait in the third circle of hell for a bus. A shabby-looking man, who at first I think might be drunk, starts talking to me. Whenever a man starts talking to me in the third circle of hell – a common happening – I am polite but clearly not interested. However, this man keeps talking to me and after a while it seems like he just wants to talk to somebody.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Ah, you speak English?!’ he exclaims, changing to English, as always happens at this point in the conversation: it’s practice-English time. ‘I used to live in Paris, but I never went to London. I would like to go.’
‘Oh yeah? Did you like Paris?’
‘Yes, yes. I am there for years. I wish I could have stay there.’
‘So why did you come back?’
I wouldn’t say he’s bouncy, but he’s kind of bouncy-in-slow-motion. His voice and his manners are lively but easy. He has an almost-gentleness. But at this point a shot of anger pulses through his words.
‘Because a fucking – ’ He stops. ‘How do you say…I had his trust. And he breaks it. How do you say?’
Eventually we figure out that he’s looking for the word trick.
‘He tricked me. When I went to Paris I was twenty-three. I was a student. I was a good student, I was studying my Masters in Economic Science. And this guy I knew, a friend of a friend, he sold me some… how do you say…’ He mimes.
‘Yes, but it wasn’t. It had crack in it. And it make me go crazy.’
Despite the shabbiness he is a handsome man. Forty years old, he tells me, grey twinkling on his loose afro curls that tumble around his face like a mane. His face is a little tired, but it often loosens into this mischievous child’s grin, even when he’s telling me things like:
‘For a long time I was just… I had to go to a hospital. For a long time they keep me there, make me go to sleep. And then I have to go home, back here… But ever since then I am…’ He gestures again. He can’t keep away from the drugs.
‘I know I can stop,’ he says. ‘I can stop. But it is hard. I stop, and then I go again.’
We talk for a while. At one point he abruptly says, ‘Hold on, I come back,’ and after a while he reappears with the sheepish grin and says, ‘I get my power.’
‘From the, uh…’ Drugs.
‘Yes. It is my weakness. Everybody has a weakness. You see, I don’t change.’
‘You can change,’ I say gently – but in fact he means, it has no visible effect on me.
‘But yes,’ he agrees, ‘I can change. I can.’ He tells me how he found God, and God is the one he trusts now. ‘Because I don’t trust man anymore. I don’t even trust girl. I have been with many girls, and even them…’
‘There are good people and bad people.’
‘No. Only God is good. People are bad. Only God is good.’
‘But people can only be people. Nobody can be perfect.’
‘No. Nobody can be perfect.’
Between him and the Wednesday night choir, I am so glad I’ve lived a lucky life, and I don’t need any God to give me hope.
He gets on the bus with me and we continue to talk, and he tells me all about the great meal he had last night and recommends I try a robinson (‘What?’ I say, not understanding his accent. ‘Like the man who is on an island,’ he explains. ‘Ah! Robinson Crusoe!’ I say. ‘No,’ he says, not understanding my accent. ‘The man who is on an island.’) We move on to Communism, which he thinks should be implemented in order to help all the people who have nothing while there are others who have too much. I make a half-hearted attempt to blandly advocate a half-way system, as in France where there is socialist capitalism, and I listen to myself and think, God, you sound so gutless. You haven’t even read any economics or social theory. You have some high school Russian history, but that’s it.
It has been such a long morning that I am getting exhausted summoning the energy to answer his every remark and make statements about how a little competition is good for the economy but a social welfare system is important blah blah blah. Eventually we part ways.
‘Okay, bye, Mariella,’ he says. His name is Gregoire.
One night I slowly make my way back up the hill to go home as the sun is setting, the blood rushing through me and throbbing in my brain. Darkness looms over like a sea wave in slow motion, and I see –
Bats! So many! In couples, it seems, sputtering, twisting, dancing diamonds piercing through the night air. Bats! Amazing. So graceful. So sputtering with energy. Diamonds.
They dance in a tumult, and tumble over each other, and spill into the night descending. I like these new neighbours of mine.
All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in two weeks.