Paradise Misplaced

‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven…”

John Milton – Paradise Lost

Sly

Agatha smoothed her skirt, as she rose from the stiff backed chair, and smiled again at Sister Gillian Gayle of the St Vincent and the Grenadines Nursing Employment Agency. ‘Tank you very much. I mean, thank you very much. I will see you next week when I come back for the interview. Thank you.’

Sister Gayle looked up from the tooled, leather-bound diary and held out her hand. Agatha waited, looked at her smiling, took off her glove again, and shook her hand. ‘Goodbye, see you next Thursday at 10.30,’ Sister Gayle was still smiling, but was looking past Agatha to her next appointment.

‘Goodbye. Tank you very much,’ Agatha grasped the burnished brass handle, tutting. She could see Roslyn looking back in through the windows smiling at her, eating peanut sugar cake. Agatha stepped out into the humid air and the unhurried bustle of Main Street.

‘You did here about Merlene and de pickney she had in bush up Buccament?’ Roslyn’s wide, uneven teeth lipstick smudged behind a broad smile.

‘Why you na tell me a dese ting happen so?’ Agatha Evans said as she struggled to avoid the minibuses screeching along the pockmarked highway.

‘Me did tought you did know,’ Roslyn Jones said holding Agatha’s arm, smudging her Sunday best dress with sticky fingers. ‘Dem say she fat like she daddy, but no-one even know who she daddy is from time.’

‘What she did call the pickney?’ Agatha Evans looked across at the Anglican and Catholic Cathedrals, standing together for centuries; divided for eternity. The child could never be baptised in either.

‘Me tink she did name she Roberta, so we know who de farder muss be so.’ They stood again by Big Lloyd’s Butcher shop, where Agatha had waited an hour earlier before her interview. The cow’s head, with its maudlin eyes, had gone.

‘Dat could mean it Robert from Chateubelair or Bob from Calliaqua, or…’ Roslyn stopped and looked at the Cathedrals, before looking sideways at Agatha. Agatha reeled as she thought of the stories whispered, shouted about her father. Shouted at the Rum Shacks late at night, when he would reel around the mountain, homeward; three petit quarts of Mountain Dew firing his belly. All of it could wait and she would be leaving soon. She wanted to say goodbye, but knew there were too many ahead of her to start then.

 

‘Anyway, when you have to go back see Sister Gayle?’ Roslyn said, holding Agatha’s arm tighter as they retraced their steps up Main Street. The sun was at its apogee, but not a bead of sweat glistened between them.

A man of about twenty, in an ill-fitting, much-worn, off-green khaki suit, without shirt or shoes, stumbled past them, turned, and lent on the crumbling wall, by the crumbling verge of a road not resurfaced in Agatha’s memory. ‘Good morning Miss Evans. Anudder lovely day for you,’ he said, reaching higher up the wall for support.

‘Every day is the Lord’s Day and every day he blesses us,’ Agatha said, turning again to speak to Roslyn.

‘Every day is the Lord’s, so you wan come wid me fi de dancehall on Saturday night. We can celebrate de Lord Almighty in dancing,’ he said, still not balanced, but now more upright.

‘Scrampie, what are talking about dis stupidness wid me for?’ I did tell you yesterday, as I did tell you from time, I not going to no dance, no picnic, no film, no nuttin’ wid you.’ Agatha looked down at him, raised her eyes, kissed her teeth, and faced away from him again. ‘Anyway, me father is expecting you in the shop ten minutes back.’ Scrampie, looked at her turned back, but had no comeback, so sauntered up the street whistling.

 

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Visions of the Promised Land

St Vincent, West Indies, 1962

Maudie Lewis had never taken her partner’s name. She once went to church with him, no longer, but read her bible and prayed thrice daily with her mother’s beads. Maudie looked at the clock in the single, corrugated, living space – two minutes past one. She would need to wind it later. A mosquito landed on her arm. She crushed it, screwed her eyes together, crossed herself, and clasped her hands. Opening her eyes, she turned and smiled with recognition. She made to speak. No words came. A knife, sunlight bouncing from its blade into her eyes, ripped across her throat. Maudie fell to the floor, still, clutching her beads.

 


 

‘When you speak with them people, them, at the Nursing Employment Agency, use the English your mother did teach you. They cannot understand Vincey speak,’ Agatha Evans’s Parish Priest had said, as he passed her the typewritten reference required with her application. Father Cuthbert Brown lived in London from 1956 to 1959 and was the go-to man for all references, personal and spiritual. Father Brown would never talk of his time in England, bar the 1957 West Indies tour, captained by John Goddard. ‘Why was a white man captaining the West Indies?’ he would say, kissing his teeth. ‘I know he was Bajan, but no white man is a Bajan. He might be born in Barbados, but that did not make him Bajan. You know they said black men did not know how to lead a cricket team or even a horse fi drink water. Clyde Walcott knew how to lead. Frank Worrell knew how to lead. The white man leads the black man. The black man works – knows his place. That’s the way it is. That is the way it has always been. That’s not the way it will be. Go to England and lead, Agatha.’ He kissed his teeth and looked heavenwards.

‘Yes, I will. You told me to when we spoke after mass last week.’ Agatha placed the buff envelope into her bag without reading the letter. ‘Why did you come back from England Father Brown?’ she said.

‘…and wear something nice. Make sure it’s pressed nice,’ he said, opening his bible to the book of James. “‘Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful,’” he said from memory.

 

Agatha looked at him, but his eyes remained on scripture, his mind elsewhere. She walked out from the vestry, crossing herself and genuflecting before the altar. She picked up her Book of Psalms from a pew, continued along the nave aisle, and through the doors into the Kingstown sunshine. The St Vincent and the Grenadines Nursing Employment Agency stood as ever, across the road from her. Shutters down. Closed.

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Sound silenced

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An Unweeded Garden – Chapter 1

‘Tree-adorned mountains loom like giant watchmen posted at the gates of Paradise. The distant hills look like a weary giant lady dressed in parrot green accented with dried-brush beige She lies on the ground to rest.’

Morning in St. Vincent & the Grenadines – Stanice Anderson

———————

Monday June 18th 1956

The rum shacks had their own codes and their own language. Buy Miss Charles a ‘petit-quart a strong rum’ (no brand, no label, no vision later) and she would tell all. The sun ever rose over Mount Soufriere, slipped away again a lifetime later over Mespo, round Crick Corner, and faded in dusk as the bats baited the fireflies and the sand-flies bit burnished flesh.

They had first met on a bucket-sweating morning in 1956 when an uprising – like the hidden sugar cane fields and Cuthbert and Clarissa’s disappearance by Black Point caves – was the talk of every pre-lunch gathering, every standpipe, but not the rum shacks. Conversation at the rum shacks never changed.

After fixing breakfast of fried spam and softbakes, scrambled eggs, and onions on the blackened gas stove, Agatha Evans made eight cups of tea with evaporated milk and four sugars each. Pastor Evans had brought up the water from the rusting pipe at Herbert Bend at four-thirty that morning. She had heard him leave, but not noted his return. He had left again at six.

 

She took out the flattened appointment letter from its typed, buff envelope, and read it again, memorising the journey she had practised the day before, as she had memorised the letter. Her stepmother, Maudie, was still asleep. She did not say goodbye.

Agatha Evans walked June, Nancy, Carlisle, Bernard, Josie, Isaac, and Ishmael the three miles past four rum shops, two churches, and her father’s tailors shop to St Cuthbert’s Catholic school. That day Agatha did not turn into the staff room, but walked on a further mile, skirting the Fyffe’s banana plantation and the Tate & Lyle sugar cane fields towards Kingstown. Crossing Saint David Parish into Charlotte Parish, she plucked a ripe mango and two plum roses from overhanging trees. The skins were soft, the fruit sweet. She leant forward as she ate and the juice dripped in front of her, missing her white sandals. Agatha crossed Main Street, looking to her left and right. She tripped but did not fall in front of St Vincent and the Grenadines Nursing Employment Agency, across from the Anglican and Catholic Cathedrals in Kingstown. She pondered if that was the precise spot where the body and blood of Jesus transformed. No matter. Agatha grasped the brass handle with its burnt toffee patina, looked inside, but as quickly stepped back and walked across Main Street. Standing in front of ‘Big Lloyd’s Butcher,’ she saw that the carcasses still had their heads on. Agatha looked into their eyes and looked back across at the Nursing Employment Agency. Her father had slaughtered a kid four days earlier; Agatha had cooked curry goat, and rice and peas, which they would eat again that night. She had boiled mauby and ginger beer and dried sorrel – she would have to hide it away from the thirsty mouths of her siblings – and would fry plantain and roast green banana.

Agatha checked her reflection, checked the appointment letter, pursed her lips, and crossed back over Main Street, this time heading straight into the stuffy, sweaty, light-filled reception room. A singular fan sat in the far corner of the room. She gazed directly into her future.

Agatha took the only free seat in the waiting room, cross-legged she waited to be called.

“Good morning,” said a girl, similar in age, sitting cross-legged to her left, wearing a light cotton shift dress, sandals, with wide-brimmed straw hat on her lap.

“Good morning, I am Agatha. Agatha Evans.”

“Nice to meet you, I’m Roslyn Jones. Wait, did I see you at de Anglican Young People Association picnic in Dubois las weeken’?” she said.

“Yes, I was deh, so. Me brudder Isaac him, was sick so me had to leave dere early so I did miss de Boilene stew and de cricket match,” Agatha said.

She looked at the desk with the brass nameplate at its front and wondered what Gillian Gayle (Matron); State Registered Nurse would be like.

“Deh did also cook up some tasti fri fowl foot,” Agatha said, looking in her bag for her kerchief as Gillian Gayle called out, ‘Roslyn Jones. Roslyn Jones.’

Roslyn smiled at Agatha, took a last look in her compact, snapped it shut in her handbag, and walked to the desk.

Agatha reread her letter, took out her book of Psalms, with its inscription marking her confirmation, and thought about Wales. She had heard of England, knew about London, but Wales. She thought about her father and her stepmother, and her sisters and brothers, the short walk to the reception desk, and the longer journey she was about to take.

‘Agatha Evans. Agatha Evans.’ A voice in front of her echoed behind her as Roslyn walked past her smiling. She winked at her.

‘I’ll be jus outside, deh,’ Roslyn said grasping the doorknob.

Agatha took out her completed application form and medical questionnaire for the Joyce Green School of Nursing. Nurse Gayle’s flickering blue eyes looked up at her then smiled and stroked her arm.

‘Please have a seat. Please do not be nervous. I am Sister Gayle and I am going to go through your application form and tell you what will happen, next. I am so pleased that you are thinking of nursing in the United Kingdom.’

‘Tank you. I mean, thank you,’ Agatha said, looking at the upside-down watch pinned to Sister Gayle’s chest.

‘How old are you Agatha?’ Sister Gale asked.

‘I did just turn, um, twenty-six. It’s on my form,’ Agatha looked at Sister Gale’s bitten fingernails. She would never let her brothers and sisters do that.

‘I know. Do you have your references?’ Sister Gale asked, smiling still.

Agatha passed over the typewritten letter from the Headmaster of St. Cuthbert’s and the sloping, handwritten script of her Parish Priest.

“I see that you are a Primary School teacher,” said Sister Gayle. “That’s good. You are used to taking care of people.”

“It is what the good Lord put me here to do,” Agatha said, trying to smile.

“Have you got brothers and sisters?” Sister Gayle asked.

“Seven,” said Agatha.

“Won’t they miss you? Won’t your mother miss you?”

“My mother passed when I was fourteen.”

Sister Gayle stroked her arm. “We must move on,” she said.

Agatha would have to have blood tests, a chest X-Ray, ECG, a full medical examination, and to get a passport.

Sister Gayle flicked through a tooled, leather-bound diary. “I will book the appointments. Come back and see me next Thursday morning at 10.30 and we will complete everything.”

———————

 

 

Children with first and last names on a direct collision course. Names that secrete within them mass exodus, cramped boats and planes, cold arrivals, medical check-ups.’

Zadie Smith – White Teeth

———————

Sunday May 25th 2014

On the phone, they had laughed that day as they had every Sunday for ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, sixty years. Wash in the sink; they had two showers and a bath, but the sink brought Messiah Williams – Agatha Evans hadn’t taken his name and it still annoyed him – closer to God. Brush teeth and rinse twice, once with mouthwash, once with salted water. Bush tea brewed the night before. Breakfast: fried spam and softbakes, scrambled eggs and onions cooked, to within an inch, on the seven-ring range. Agatha had made it and gone back to bed. She didn’t sleep, she read instead. Agatha never ate before noon. Messiah didn’t need a list: season the pork the night before, cook for three hours on a medium high heat ready for lunch. ‘Oh, the devil will find work for idle hands to do,’ his father had told him, every day. He said it to Agatha when she sat at the backroom computer he had never used. Ironed shirt, straightened tie, brushed jacket, and polished shoes. Cleanliness is next to Godliness. Church – numbers down again – the vicar was wearing jeans, so were half the congregation. Messiah had read the Old Testament Lesson, Isaiah 50: 4-7:

“The Lord GOD is my help; therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.”

Brixton market for fresh provisions – shops never used to open on Sundays. Pork perfect – Agatha had turned off the oven an hour before his return. She had roasted breadfruit, yams, dasheen, and plantain, mashed white sweet potato, chopped coleslaw, and boiled rice and gungo peas. Shower to wash the week away – how he missed the bite of salt on his skin – dress again, and wait for the phone. After the first ring, and before the first syllable, he was back. Back to a world where cleanliness embraced Godliness completely, to Pastor Brown preaching the damnation of every soul, bar his and those of his twenty-seven children, and to Bulky leaving.

 

That day, sixty years before, and twelve thousand miles away, his face reflected in polished jacket buttons, Bulky’s in mirror glass boots, he had met her. He thought of the last time she rang, checked his tie, and looked at what sixty years had brought; had bought. It was still early so he closed his bedroom door, walked past the school photographs, and opened the lounge door. He picked up Saturday’s paper, but stayed standing. He went to the bathroom, discarded the paper, took two cod liver oil capsules with lukewarm tap water, and left. Better have a loosener before the door goes. He is late again. It’s the waiting; like waiting for the ring. Come on. Ring! There it goes, finish this, pour another, and then answer it. He can wait. Where is she? She’s answered the door. ‘Helô, mam’ ‘Prynhawn da, Rhodri’ ‘Shwmae?’ ‘Shwmae?’

Words faded into whispers and stillness stood. Rhodri walked past his father’s bedroom, the door open, the sound of his father laughing-whispering-laughing. ‘What do they talk about?’

———– I’d better go and see Keith or Rhodri, or whatever. They both say it with a rolled ‘R.’ Messiah put down the phone and went into the lounge.

Rhodri stared at the door and the space between them. In he comes. Is he going to hug me? He sits down, opens his tin, and rolls with practised fingers. He is, still, looking at me. He’ll speak first if I let him. Think of something. Say something. ‘Can you do one for me?’ Messiah says. The cod liver oil is beginning to repeat on me, I had better have a drink. ‘What?’ Rhodri says. ‘One of those, can you roll me one?’ Messiah said. ‘Yeah, course I can,’ he says. I am sure he stopped when Mair was born as I had a week after the day I first saw him. What looks like a rolled up bus ticket comes back. ‘Do you still check your bus tickets?’ I ask. ‘I’ve got an Oyster card,’ he says still not looking at me.

I should ask him about his children.

‘How are your kids?’ I ask him.

‘Your Grandchildren. They have names.’ Rhodri says.

Why doesn’t he look at me? I need a light. I saw him last Wednesday smoking by the clock tower outside the station, where we used to run for safety past the closed pub doors, to the shared space on the shared floor in the shared bed sitting room. I don’t think he saw me. What if he did? What does it matter, now? ‘Do you want a drink?’ I say, holding the roll-up, waiting for a light. He is smoking now and as the smoke curls around his plastic-framed lenses, he nods. The light squeezes in between the blinds cutting and shaping the rising smoke. ‘Yes.’ Back to silence, I hand him the drink; he sips it and sighs. Back to silence. The telephone is ringing. I hold my breath, but do not move. ‘Dad,’ he says, ‘don’t you want to get that?”

———————

‘The Beginning is always today.’

– Mary Wollstonecraft

 

Monday June 9th 2014

I texted her the photo. She knows where the keys are. I’ll meet her on Westminster Bridge at 09:00. Why did my parents call me Deiniol? You cannot shorten it.

———————

The beginning is never today. Gwenllian Evans stood somewhere near the middle of Westminster Bridge, as close to the centre as she dared. She might have paced it out another day, but, there, then, approximation would suffice.

Gwenllian had searched for her keys that morning, by the light of her phone, when she saw the missed calls and waiting messages. The previous night, Deiniol had texted her a photo of two blue flowerpots, the plants wilting, wilted. His spare keys were behind the red pot with the mock Mayan design. Gwenllian had bent to retrieve them and dropped her phone, cracking the screen diagonally. Fissures formed, crazy paving her profile picture – her mam standing outside Buckingham Palace with Auntie Roslyn in the summer of 1968, looking away from the camera.

Gwenllian had woken in last night’s make up, again, eyes glued, bruised lips sweet. Fags, condoms, lipstick, and lighter had fallen from her fake fur coat, draped across a pink-striped deckchair. Her mother would have said that it was too early for the dress he had bought her. But, no bother. She had never got her; seldom listened to her. She needed a toothbrush, couldn’t be arsed to find one, so swilled her mouth with Glenfiddich, spitting it back into the bottle. She popped the blister packs and swallowed three twenty mgs of Fluoxetine (the maximum Doctor Robert could prescribe) and one Microgynon 30 (in studies 99% effective) with a swig of Glenfiddich. She gagged and grimaced.

Two more missed calls, five minutes apart, around seven-fifteen that morning. He had left a voicemail after the second and sent her a message five minutes later. She would read it sometime, maybe. She had to leave. It was time.

Her Louboutin heels made her taller. She liked that. Her toenails a chipped aubergine in the pallid sunshine. None of it mattered now. She turned up her collar, tightened her belt, and left without a word – who was there to talk to anyway? – eyes front, half-asleep, half-awake. In between days. Two steps, about turn. Gwenllian replaced the keys behind the pot, thistles, and weeds strangling the dahlias. Collar up, belt tightened, Gwenllian walked from number seven Hampton Court, keeping close to the canal; its past weighed down by bricks and bags, and rusted bikes. Gwenllian swiped her Oyster Card and waited. Children in uniform, men in suits, and women in heels – tailored like dummies – nudged, shoved past her as she waited for the train. On the train she stood. Waiting. She waited.

Gwenllian stopped at the Thorneycroft statue of ‘Boudicca and Her Daughters’ and wondered again, why London had so readily co-opted the woman who had razed the city groundwards and just how fucked up the Victorians were.

It was eight-fifteen, now, and all life, seemingly lifeless, filed past and kept going. Here and now became there and then. Life marched past to its own synthesised tribal rhythm. ‘There’s more life in a tramp’s vest.’ She had first met Deiniol Roberts at the Stereophonics gig in Shepherd’s Bush, the day before her thirty-first birthday. He had texted her twice a day, every day, for the next two weeks until she agreed to meet him in Finsbury Park.

 

Thoughts of Finsbury Park could wait and so could Deiniol, as she waited on the bridge. No one looked, but she did, staring straight at them, framing every face. Each face defiantly familiar. She was invisible, their heads bent in reverence to the morning sun and to the mores of modern, predictable, London Life. Their pre-set positions locked in. They headed ever closer to the centre. Spat out from trains, buses, tubes, taxis, and trams to be chewed up later. All pulled by some concealed magnet towards the centre. She could not be like them. She had been one of them. Gwenllian would plan tomorrow when it came.

“Where the fuck is he? He is always fucking late. For fuck’s sake!” she said.

No one heard her, their headphones plugged in, eyes on fingers scrolling though megabytes of digitised data, searching for the perfect sounds to smooth the beast. So many the savage breasts. Gwenllian had enjoyed those final moments of solitude before she gave over her soul to the faceless fiend of The City within the city. She wanted to speak to every man and woman as they passed her searching for answers, but she only knew that she didn’t know the questions. They might all be happy.

 

She did not want to doubt him. He was the most inconstant of her flightless coterie. The best had flown further south the previous summer. Gwenllian flipped the box lid with her thumb, discarded the silver pull, pulled out her lucky Lucky Strike, and checked her pockets for her lighter – he’d given her that throwaway souvenir of a Thursday night in starless Soho. Seven pints in the upstairs bar at the Dog & Duck, two double whiskeys, and a fumbled fuck in an alley by Libertys. Disposable life. Her feet stabilised by a bin, the wall sun-baked all day, was now clammy. He said that he worked in films and that they should diarize. She had left her knickers, lit a cigarette, and caught the tube back home. No one talked at night either. Headphones on, world out. Everywhere.

 

The greying clouds whirled above her, before meandering past; others followed. It hadn’t been like this the last time she’d stood there. He had arrived first and was tussling with Araucaria, as he did every Wednesday. If only she had been stronger then, she would not be here now.

 

Gwenllian’s mother, Agatha, had only one hero and she quoted Mary Wollstonecraft daily. She missed her mother, more at that moment than at any time since she had left. She remembered the quote as she remembered that same spot on the protean river.

“Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, I shall be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold… I shall plunge into the Thames where there is least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek…”

‘Excuse me?’ the hint of an accent, not London or anywhere she could place, but it would come.

‘What?’ Gwenllian said, stuck between Soho nights and Westminster mornings.

‘Have you got a light?’ he said.

She had missed his face, caught in thought, but had seen a whir of brown: suit, shirt, shoes, no tie, and square rainbow cufflinks. An odd distraction, but in the city, maybe not. Liver-spotted hands clutching a roll-up in the left and a hardback in the right. It looked like de Maupassant. Bel Ami. She had read it at school.

Why was he stopping? Speak to someone else, already, is it! She was waiting. Couldn’t he see that?

‘No,’ she said. She looked at his feet and her feet and the free morning newspapers compacted into the pavement between them.

She had just found the lighter and could hear the zip of the wheel, feel it gouging, as the light glowed orange and red and her face grew ashen.

Why was he wearing a brown suit?

‘Why are you wearing a suit?’ she asked him, looking at his knees.

‘Yes, you have,’ brownsuit said. He was still there and even that look hadn’t shifted him. He might not have seen it, she hadn’t looked above his waist and was still trying to place his accent, which broadened and softened to a street-smart mockney as he went on. He smiled, mugging to some hidden audience, eyebrows raised, he started to head towards the city.

‘What do you, like, want from me?’ Gwenllian asked his departing back.

‘A light,’ he said without turning. He waited.

‘Oh.’ She handed him a drooping, moistened butt. He looked at her looking at his neck, took the dog-end and flicked it into the Thames; that ever-present, ever-changing, brown splodge daubed by a pre-schoolers fist. It was so close; she could touch it. She could smell it.

His unlit roll-up now in the curve of his mouth, yellow dried spittle cornering his lips, he looked at her a second time.

‘What’s wrong with your lighter?’ he said.

Why would he ask that? She ignored the question and said, ‘That was like my last one.’ It wasn’t but it might have been. She lit another cigarette, balancing it between her lips, turned up her collar, and tightened her belt.

‘You look freezing, do you want a coffee?’ he said. He said the words slowly, looking at her feet. However casually he had tried to frame the question, she felt his desperation.

‘I don’t see no ice and coffee wakes me up,’ she said seeing a diamond stud in his left ear.

‘There’s a shop just over the bridge. Do you want to go and get some?’ he said.

She looked over his shoulder, back across the bridge, and checked the time on her phone. The cracks had widened. He was late. She had time. She could wait there or in a coffee shop. Waiting is waiting whatever the venue.

Gwenllian knew that she couldn’t go back, but inching towards her future chilled her more. Her toes, now, the same colour as the polish. She saw him now, saw the bridge, saw the sun, and saw the river and finally she got it. It all seemed so clear as she slipped off her shoes and took a step towards the other side. She had waited and so could he.

———————

“You’re like book ends, the pair of you, she’d say, Hog that grate, say nothing, sit, sleep, stare… The ‘scholar’ me, you, worn out on poor pay, only our silence made us seem a pair.”

Tony Harrison – Bookends

———————

Sunday May 25th 2014

Rhodri tried to remember rapping the same brass knocker he had struck for years – until they had given him his own keys with the St Christopher fob – up the path, through thistles and weeds, bus tickets and weak-as-piss lager cans. He always tried to picture arriving. “Life is a series of miniscule, microscopic moments,” Gwenllian had said to him sometime, somewhere. He would picture it, remember it, later. He had an empty canvas before him, but could not find inspiration anywhere. He needed to think.

 

He remembered knocking the door, now, and the reverberation. Headphones in, Lee Scratch Perry’s adventures in ultra-dub. Stinging-nettle-knuckles, he remembered those; but why no bell. They had taken the old knocker down sometime after he had left. When he came home next, it was gone. He had meant to ask them why, but he had another picture to paint. A full canvas this time, but still no inspiration. Rhodri wanted to write, to set scenes, to picture conversations, to draw living characters, but the muses mocked him. Again.

The bass kicked in, the drums followed its lead. He felt them in his heart and his lungs shook as he took a final toke on the chillum and knocked the door again. Knocked the chillum against his brogue boots and took the damp, stained cloth from the mouthpiece. His mam, Agatha, had never like reggae, dub, or soca. “Why you have to listen to that large island music?” she would say, taking the needle off the record scratching the thin vinyl on the way and replacing it with Tom Jones. Agatha loved Tom Jones, the book, the film, the man, and the music.

One day you was dreadlocks, well dread, next day you was ballhead, clean shave. One step forwards two steps backwards, Jah in a Babylon.Onward forward don’t step backward soundtracked every summer journey in the battered car with the pink ice cream stains on the scalding leatherette. Only through his headphones, through the worn tape on his personal stereo. His mates had Walkmans – should they be Walkmen? Rhodri had an ALBA Personal Stereo from the Littlewoods catalogue. Twenty monthly payments at eighty-five pence a week. He had never paid it off.

Rhodri knocked again, took his headphones out, and heard his father’s flat monotone striking up, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” A ‘Negro Spiritual’ – sang tunelessly, but it knocked the cacophonous dirge at Twickenham into the cockiest of cocked hats.

His mam outlined through the sunburst stained glass drew the latch across, turned the first of two keys, and smiled at him, strands of her hair falling lazily across eyes and nose.

‘Helô, mam’ ‘Prynhawn da, Rhodri’ ‘Shwmae?’ ‘Shwmae?’

Words faded into whispers and stillness stood. Rhodri walked past his parents’ bedroom, the door open, the sound of his father laughing, whispering, laughing.

The smell of the weather blended in with the leather, as Rhodri took in the changing room. A new mirror over the fireplace, a new fire screen below, and fresh daffodils his mam would replace with the yellow roses and irises he had given her as she cwtched him and he kissed both her cheeks. Her hair tickled his nose. He giggled and his mam giggled and cwtched in closer.

‘I’ve got an appointment at the hairdressers on George Street tomorrow,’ she said as she took the flowers to the kitchen. She filled the kettle and flicked the switch.

His dad opened the door to his room and Rhodri’s switch flicked. He sat down, the brown leather still cold on such a sunstruck morning. He put the marker, the outward ticket with the square-torn corners, between the ninety-ninth and hundredth pages of the book he hadn’t opened on the train. Rhodri looked up towards his father. He didn’t smile. They didn’t shake hands. They had never cwtched. Every hair was in place. As their eyes met, they quickly darted left to right, away from each other, to find neutral space elsewhere in that cluttered living room. Rhodri heard the heavy dub echoing around the space he gave it, but not there. His iPod was still playing Lee Perry, reedy resonances escaping from the headphones, into the room, around and between them.

Had his dad said something? To him? Rhodri groped for the answer to a question. Was it a question? Were there even words? Had he heard him or was this just some deeper echo as the bass beat his chest? He pressed stop and the silence engulfed them, held them in place.

His dad walked to the mantle and moved a jar of potpourri an inch from its prescribed position of the last fourteen years.

‘How…um…are you ok, Keith? Um…Rhodri. Been up to anything lately? Are you…?’ he said and moved the potpourri back again.

“Keith?”

“For fuck’s sake, how many times do we have to go through this shit?” Rhodri wanted to tell him about the high water mark and the wave breaking…Why not? If anyone could understand fear and loathing…anywhere…it was his dad.

‘What you chatting about!’ The rasp of sucking teeth. Stewps. ‘Why you have your face like who shit dere?’ his dad said.

 

Rhodri heard him say, this time, ‘Did you know that spectre is an anagram of respect?’

‘Yes.’

Patterns everywhere, they liked it that way, they always had, and he always had. Rhodri had never liked crochet. It was the picture of his childhood. Crochet and Tretchikoff’s Green Lady.

——-

‘How are your kids?’ he asks.

‘Your Grandchildren. They have names.’ Rhodri said, finding an undiscovered pattern in the antimacassar on the sofa opposite.

 

Nothing. Silence skips and bounces between the walls; break it, or watch the fragile peace shatter. The low water mark. Rhodri could sense the squalling shower outside as it cast shadows on the dividing wall, reflected by the fireplace mirror into half-formed opacity.

‘They miss you, you know. You can come and see them any time.’ Rhodri said, seeing his dad’s cataracts clouding his once mahogany eyes.

——-

Rhodri’s father turned, as if to look at him, but sought safety in the carpet again. Rhodri knew the rhythm. Keep dancing. The clouds will break soon and someone will change the record.

The floor was his; his honour. Tony Harrison lay open on the low central table, the middle pages proud.

Dust wrapped the VHS collection, next to the DVD player his dad would never use. Never know how to use. Someone else can do it. There is always someone else.

‘Cricket,’ Rhodri said. He had given that to him, on his birthday, a treat that second heady summer. Cricket and C.L.R. James always worked. They defined the ends of the wicket’s twenty-two yards. Rhodri could not see the boundary rope from the middle. ‘Shall we go?’

‘Can you get tickets? I’ve not seen them since we went in…1984 was it?” his dad said.

‘I can get tickets through my work; I told you last time I would sort it out. It’ll be a good day out. We’ll go for a few beers before and after in the Brockwell Park Tavern and watch the cricket. We’ll get roti on the way back, and…’

‘When is it?’ his dad asked, sitting on the sofa opposite and sipping from a glass of Laphroaig.

——-

Rhodri was on the bus taking him back again, sitting there, staring at his dad’s cataracts, trying to remember the words from the Harrison poem.

‘Back in our silences and sullen looks,

For all the Scotch we drink, what’s still between’s

Not the thirty or so years, but books, books, books.’

 

Front row at the Charlotte, he could taste the words, feel with calloused fingertips every chord. Music was everything back then, music they did not share.

Those three words remained unsaid, stuck in their throats like prawn shells.

——-

‘It’s on Saturday 25th. I’ll meet you here at ten and then we can get the bus over. We’ll have a good day,’ Rhodri said, and looked towards the kitchen, where is mam was still making tea. She still warms the pot. She still uses a pot!

‘Cheer up,’ his father spits into the dregs of his glass, drains it, and looks to Rhodri’s right, turns, he knows what’s there, but cannot see beyond the reflection. Rhodri wants to say something, but reopens the book. He wants to rise, but he is pinned like the stoner in the shared days of his Oxford back room.

‘Are you coming to the cricket or not?’ Rhodri asks, putting down the book and walking towards the kitchen.

His mam walks in, teapot and cups, saltfish, yam, and dasheen on two plates. The lights, always on, rebound off her best china and the room opens. A bead of sweat runs down a stray, kinked lock, and falls to the ground between them.

———————

War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

George Orwell

———————

Île de Gorée, Senegal – Sunday June 19th 1796

Kofi Uwosu tasted blood; smelled blood. A glancing blow from a carved wooden club struck him from behind on the left temple. A left-hander. Blood again. Smell. Taste. Focus shifting to a point. Light. Gone.