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Review: Fanny and Alexander (Old Vic, 2018)

Fanny and Alexander

Old Vic Theatre, seen 9 March 2018

dir. Max Webster

screenplay by Stephen Beresford

based on the TV/film by Ingmar Bergman


[warning: spoilers]


The new play adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1982 TV series (later cut down to feature film length) Fanny and Alexander gives a tantalizing glimpse of what Chekhov could have been if he had had a sense of humour. Bergman’s writing is a gift to any playwright, combining masterful comedic awareness – here enhanced through the playful, back-and-forth riffing of Beresford’s screenplay – with a profound awareness of the inescapable horror of the world; the darkness that lingers nonchalantly alongside its humanity, hope and light. Unlike Chekhov, Bergman’s portraits of family drama manage to be both painfully true to life and simultaneously cast a light (or shadow) upon the wider world, not through clumsy, sociopolitical metaphor but through its central poetic arguments – in Fanny and Alexander, the power and necessity of art and storytelling, as powerful as the bonds of family; the griefs of childhood, love and death; the fatality of moral righteousness and moral authoritarianism. Religion, art, love, death, grief, anger, childhood, ageing – it’s all there, all seamlessly falling into one another like a graceful, violent dance.

Image courtesy of the Old Vic.
The cast of Max Webster’s 2018 production of Fanny and Alexander at the Old Vic. Image courtesy of the Old Vic.

Webster has done an impressive job of adapting the most novelistic of Bergman’s cinematic works to the stage, remaining faithful to the spirit and atmosphere of the original while embracing the imaginative flexibility offered by the stage form. This is greatly helped by Tom Pye’s set design, which foregoes drowning the mise en scène with detail (a trap common to staged period dramas) for minimal but evocative brushstrokes of detail. For example, Isak Jacobi’s puppet-filled house is revealed to us slowly, in tandem with the actors’ verbal description, the puppets descending from the ceiling one by one, allowing the audience to slip into their own imaginative work and fill the rest of the room with more magical paraphernalia. It provides a wonderfully elusive, transgressive space for Isak (Michael Pennington) to deliver his beautiful monologue on the ceaseless, deeply human need to tell stories.

Elsewhere the same effect is achieved through having ensemble members describe to the audience the sumptuous dishes endlessly offered up at the Ekdahl table, immersing all the senses and reaching across the fourth wall to draw the audience into its world. (This is again in stark contrast to the average, incredibly staid period drama, which, for all its knowing looks towards the audience, remains primly squashed between its red velvet curtains.) Such simple tricks reinforce the play’s championing of the imaginative world, rich with colour and texture, over the austerity of the Bishop’s castle, an upside-down world where storytelling is called ‘lying’ and violence is ‘done with love’.

fanny-and-alexander-old-vic film
Jan Malmsmö and Ewa Fröling in Ingmar Bergman’s original TV series (1982). Image from britishtheatre.com.

While the director has largely remained almost reverently true to Bergman’s original vision, there are a few notable interpretations of character that distinguish this production from its predecessor. The most intriguing is also the most difficult: Emilie Ekdahl, actress, mother of Alexander, wife of actor Oskar Ekdahl, and finally, after Oskar’s early death, wife of the above-mentioned Bishop Vergérus. With the help of Bergman’s super close-ups, Ewa Fröling’s Emilie needed very little dialogue to give a mesmerizing performance, radiant with sharpness and energy before her husband’s death, and after it, quietly tormented, sunken beneath a film of ice, but still razor-sharp in every feeling and movement. In the original, she is at first somewhat obscure to the audience, and, like Alexander, we want to cry out in disbelief and terror when she falls in love, inexplicably, with the Bishop – and this distance between her and us is powerful, reflecting the emotional distance that opens up between her and her children, and perhaps her and herself, in her grief.

On stage, an actor has no super close-up to aid her self-expression, relying instead upon dialogue and movement within a given space. Catherine Walker radiates a restless energy as Emilie, and grows into the role – more commanding – in the second half of the play. Beresford’s screenplay alters the story so that Emilie is troubled and unhappy before her husband’s death, giving her a more obvious arc of character development that follows a clear logical pattern, but too neatly explains away her choice of the Bishop and his ‘truth’ that stands in contempt of her profession as a storytelling and a champion of the plurality of voices and truths. I appreciate that this change gives Emilie greater autonomy as a female character whose development does not depend upon her husband’s death, but it takes away from the earth-shattering blow that Oskar’s death is meant to be, as the central event that kicks the story into action and changes the life of Alexander and all his family.

Image from britishtheatre.com
Kevin Doyle and Catherine Walker as Vergerus and Emilie Ekdahl. Image from britishtheatre.com.

Sadly, the earth-shattering blow is already significantly dimmed in this production by the fact that the actor playing Oskar (Sargon Yelda) greatly lets down the rest of the cast with a highly inauthentic performance. With every line and gesture delivered, I winced. This may be in part to a directorial decision to make Oskar – in contrast to Allan Edwall’s world-weary old artificer of the original – a childlike character, more boy and teenager than father figure; but the effect doesn’t come off well, and when the family matriarch Helena (superbly played by the masterful Penelope Wilton) says that Oskar’s death threw the world off-balance, it just doesn’t ring true.

Image from IMDB.
Ewa Fröling and Allan Edwall in Ingmar Bergman’s original TV series (1982). Image from IMDB.

Lest you think I am biased by my love for the original, there is one new interpretation of character that works incredibly well, and that is Kevin Doyle’s Bishop Vergérus. A cold character of inscrutable violence in Bergman’s original, the Bishop is here rendered no less damnable but greatly more human, another tortured soul that mirrors Emilie and in fact outdoes her in grief (another point of contention for me – where is Emilie’s grief, such a powerful element to the story, in this production?). He is wholly convincing as a man convinced of his own moral righteousness and the truth and authenticity of his own, grown-up moral path, the path towards a single God and away from artifice and the superficial idols of the theatre, of fantasy, of magic and dreams, those deities so brilliantly invented by the storyteller of history and worshipped by the theatre-goer, the TV-watcher, the book-reader, the cinema-sitter…and of course, children.

Which leads me to my final note of praise, for the young actors playing Alexander and Fanny the night I saw the production, particularly Alexander, who was stunningly alive with the story he was telling, electric with emotion, invincible on stage. Sat beside Penelope Wilton, the pair leave us with a portrait of the old and young generations coming together, undistracted – like the other, self-absorbed grown-ups of the family – from the simple awareness that family and love are most vital to the fullness of life. They know that not claiming to understand the tumultuous twists and turns of life – ‘I don’t know [why things change]’ – is a more genuine venture than any attempt to claim a single moral vision of the world. Long live the joyous artificers.


Mariella Hudson



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

So I’ll try again.


Dispatch From Martinique



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

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

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

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

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


Dimanche Gras

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

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



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

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

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

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


Mardi Gras 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Was it you?’ they ask.


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

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

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

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

‘No, it wasn’t us!’

‘You’re not laughing at us?’


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

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

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


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

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




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

‘What’s that smell?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

He booms, ‘You don’t hit people!’

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

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

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

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

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




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


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


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

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

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

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




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

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


Ash Wednesday

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


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

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




fucking insane

how does she feel?

it’s not fucking fair

no, you couldn’t have

what? I didn’t hear


I know

I’m fucking proud of you


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

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

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


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




fuck everyone who doesn’t make you feel safe

fuck them

fuck their idiot ways

you are so fucking strong

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

feel it, and absorb it

but don’t get stuck in it

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

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

don’t get stuck

the motherfuckers are not worth it


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


I hate them

I hate them all


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

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


that’s true

you deserve all the wonderful things the world has to offer

because it has a lot of wonderful things to offer

we just have to sift through all the shit first

you’re growing up



I love you too





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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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



I wrote this little song to cheer myself up one day



Sometimes things feel really fucked up

Really really really fucked up

and I always feel I should do something

but in fact most times I cannot.

But I do love a lot, relentlessly,

and I cherish any little love that falls my way.

I pick it up off the pavement

blow off the dust

and kiss it awake.

I’m always brave.


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

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

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


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

Dancing Together, Far Away

Dispatches From Martinique

4. Dancing Together, Far Away


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

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

‘Ten minutes or so.’

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

‘Oh no – ’ I start to say.

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

‘You’re going into town?’ she asks.

‘Yes. I have a çclass.’

Bèlè? You dance bèlè?’

‘No, I’m only just starting.’

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

‘Do you dance it?’ I ask her.

‘Hmm. More when I was younger.’

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

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


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

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

‘Are you Catholic?’ she asks me.

‘My mother is Catholic,’ I answer carefully.

‘And you?’

‘Well…I believe in humanity.’

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

‘Baptised, yes.’

‘Not confirmed?’


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

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

‘What’s your name?’ I ask her.

‘Elvira Louisa Anne.’

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

‘And you?’


‘Mariella. 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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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 bullshit bullshit start to fade into background noise as I occupy my hands with feeling another’s forehead, chopping up ginger and lemon for tea, pouring water.

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

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

Red wine and sardines.

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

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

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

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

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

Hibiscus for Christmas, because soon it will be here…

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


Dispatches From Martinique

3. Toussaints


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.’

‘An iguana?!’

‘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.

Trois Îlets, view from Anse A L’Ane


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.

I found out that Jean-François is in fact a womanly, womanly cow. I think the name suits her though, so I call her Fran for short. One day I walked up and she seemed really tranquil, even from afar, and as I approached, an egret hidden beside her flew away. ‘Were you talking with your friend? Oh, I’m sorry for interrupting,’ I said. She seemed really peaceful, like the way you feel when you’ve just had a long conversation with a heart-solid, old friend, and your soul feels rested.

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.

St. Pierre, ghost town. It was impossible to take pictures with the lack of light – only this one came to life.




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.’


Parc Aimé Césaire, Fort-de-France

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

Bats in the Tumult


Dispatches From Martinique

2. Bats in the Tumult


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.

The ‘Bourg’, our village centre.

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.

Anse Madame (‘Madame Bay’)

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![1]

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


The tumult.

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.

I saw this while passing over a bridge in Fort de France. All of the debris from the hurricane being washed out of the city.



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.’

‘Oh, okay.’

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.’

‘Your 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.

Another neighbour: this guy (or girl?) lives on the hill next to the dual carriageway that I walk up to get home. I think I will call him/her Jean-Luc, or maybe Jean-François after Jean-François Lyotard.

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



[1] Pronounced a bit like “mwan sho”