Footnotes – part one by Pamela Johnson

On a visit to Cuba in 2015 Pamela Johnson had an accident requiring emergency treatment. Friends back home remarked how lucky to be in Cuba – ‘they have so many doctors, such amazing healthcare.’ In this excerpt from a work in progress, she revisits the experience and reflects on why the pursuit of healthcare is central to the island’s history

Sunday 6 December, 2015

The bus to Havana isn’t due until nine-thirty.  Last night I packed my suitcase so there’s nothing to be done but, at seven, I get up anyway. I want to savour one last outdoor shower in the tropical air of Cayo Santa Maria. David, my husband, dozes on.

We’ve no idea what the hotel in Havana will be like or even if the booking is confirmed; this might be my last shower before home. As it turns out, I won’t have another shower for two months. I head for the tiled area open to the sky. With slatted fencing all around and tropical vegetation on the other side, it’s entirely private and makes perfect sense in this climate.

Enjoying the play of water over my skin as I rinse shampoo suds, I study a line of ants marching up the yellow tiles. They navigate a route that carefully avoids my splashes.

It’s hard to believe it’s winter and only three weeks until Christmas. I’ve not even thought of cards or presents let alone bought any. There’s nothing to buy here apart from rum, cigars or cigar boxes and t-shirts displaying the image of Ché Guevara. There are no shops full of glitter and gifts.

Two weeks ago, en route to catch the Gatwick Express, a minicab zoomed us along Oxford Street at five-thirty a.m. With no crowds on the pavements we had an unimpeded view of the decorated storefronts. The excess of Christmas-stacked windows in the dawn light was unsettling. All that stuff.  It was a relief to be lifted out of the festive frenzy to focus instead on this beautiful, complicated island; to visit its sites of revolutionary history; to attempt to compare first-hand present-day Cuba with my vivid childhood memories of the missiles crisis.

October 1962. There I am washing my hands in cold water that streams from the solid brass tap, trying to get some lather from the block of pink carbolic soap.  Alone in the girls’ toilets in the basement of Bolton County Grammar School where six weeks ago I arrived in the first year, excited by the potential that lay ahead. I’m alone because my period came mid-lesson; alone with time to think about the news of ships heading for Cuba loaded with nuclear missiles. Everyone is talking about it; about a clock that is ticking. If the ships don’t turn back – Wooosh! A mushroom cloud. No one survives. If I’m going to die I want to be at home with Mum. President Kennedy has been on the news for days talking about the man with a big beard and soldier boots. Castro, everyone says, is a dangerous man, in league with bald Mr Khrushchev, who must be dangerous because he is Russian. Handsome President Kennedy will have no choice. If anyone can, he will save us.

So I’m given to understand and I believed it then, though, growing up and growing in political awareness I came to understand it had been more complicated. Still, the memory of that terrified child surfaced often during our two-week tour, especially at the start in Havana, at the Plaza de la Revolucíon where we’d stood opposite The Ministry of Defence, an unassuming slab of a tower block, site of 1962 operations. I wished I could have sent a message back to my eleven-year-old self as I listened to the Cuban version of the events that led to the unforgettable stand-off.

‘Always it was meant to be a green not a red revolution,’ explained Raul, our guide. ‘Cuba wanted nothing to do with USSR at the start. Ernesto Ché Guevara made a speech here in this place,’ he said pointing to the ground. Raul always referred to the revolutionary hero in this way. Never simply Ché. 

In 1960 Ché said: Are we or are we not struggling to be a free nation among free nations, without belonging to any military bloc, without having to consult the embassy of any great power on earth?[i]

‘After Bay of Pigs, no choice,’ our guide continued, explaining how, in 1960, the CIA had plotted to invade the island having trained fifteen hundred Cuban exiles in Miami.

‘They even painted an American bomber in Cuban airforce colours! Kennedy didn’t want the world to know he’s behind it. He thought Cubans here would join his side.’ When the exiles landed at The Bay of Pigs, on the south coast, Castro had the Cuban air force ready, along with 20,000 ground troops. Over 1000 exiles were captured and imprisoned.

 ‘What did Castro do?’ Raul paused for effect. ‘He traded the prisoners for 50 million dollars worth of baby food and medicines,’[ii] he said with pride, to prove that, even after this affront, the welfare of the population remained a primary concern.

 Following those events Cuba became piggy-in-the-middle of the Cold War.  If the Revolution was to be about social justice – healthcare, education, housing – Cuba could not afford to spend already scant resources on defending a small island against a super power.

‘That’s why Castro agreed to missile bases on Cuba – self-defence.  Did you know that the USA had secretly placed nuclear missiles along the Turkish border directed at Moscow before 1962? Self defence. Not aggression.’

When the crisis was averted Kennedy agreed to dismantle the missiles in Turkey but only if that fact was not made public.  ‘Kennedy did not want to been known to the world as an aggressor.’ And he made sure it was kept that way so it was decades before the facts of USA missiles in Europe became widely known.

As I turn off the shower, I’m well aware that the floor is flooded and there’s no bathmat. Don’t step on wet tiles. I say to myself. I’m being cautious, as I had been round the pot-holes of Havana, the cobbles in the historic town of Trinidad and the showers in all the Casa Particulares where we’d stayed these last two weeks. 

cobbles in the historic town of Trinidad

Recently recovered from torn ligaments in my left ankle, I know how easy it is to fall.  The skin of my left foot is still purple from the bruising.  

I reach for the beach towel that I’d hung to dry over the fence, fold it in half, the better to absorb the water, and lay it over the wet patch. Carefully, I step onto it, right foot first.

My heel skids as the layers of fabric separate and slide away from each other.

I’m falling. Falling. Falling backwards.

My head, my back

I picture either or both taking a crack on the tiles. I wait for the impact. But there is no blow to the head, no pain. I’m on the floor. Relief!  I’m not unconscious. I turn my attention towards my splayed legs. My right foot flops inwards, as if it will fall off my leg. And what is that raised red patch, that bulge, on my ankle? It’s a bone pushing against flesh, says a calm voice in my head. Keep still. A Girl Guide knowledge of not moving the injured surfaces. At the same time another part of my mind, the bit that’s still falling, hasn’t caught up, says, this isn’t happening. It’s doing a rewind, mentally fixing the foot back onto the leg, does not want anything to do with my hidden anatomy asserting itself.

How can it be broken?  There is no pain, discomfort, yes, a clicking of shifting bones if I move any part of me but it’s nothing like the searing, out-of-body pain when I tore the ligaments on my other ankle. I’m amazed by this but also concerned. If I move will the bone protrude? Two thoughts: 1. If I can get a cast put on we might still be in time to catch the bus to Havana. 2. Bang goes the Christmas shopping and I certainly won’t be able to cook a turkey.

 ‘David,’ I call calmly. ‘Can you bring the first aid-kit? I need the crepe bandage.’ Though I already know that no amount of half-remembered Girl Guide crisscross strapping will be enough. How will I get up off the floor, never mind back to England?

In the last two weeks we have learned much about the health service in Cuba. Now I’m about to experience it first-hand, I try to recall another of Raul’s talks.

It’s easy to see why healthcare became central to the Revolution. The Cuban war of Independence in the 1890s might have seen off Spanish colonialism but not without some US backing. Although the Republic of Cuba existed from the early twentieth century America retained a prevailing influence.  In the 1920s, Prohibition brought the Mob to Havana. Lucky Luciano controlled many casinos through which to launder money and trade cocaine. A few wealthy Cubans in the capital benefited while the majority of the population outside the city was illiterate, undernourished and in poor health. There was a high rate of infant mortality. 

It was against this background that, in 1960, Ché Guevara gave his address, On Revolutionary Medicine. He described children he’d seen in the Sierra Maestra as ‘offspring of hunger and misery,’ who, ‘appeared to be eight or nine years old, yet almost all of whom are thirteen or fourteen.’  His vision was clear as he urged, ‘Our task now is to orient the creative abilities of all medical professionals towards social medicine … to find out what have been chronic miseries for years…The work entrusted to the Ministry of Health is to provide public health services for the greatest possible number of persons, institute a programme of preventive medicine … If we make war preparations the centre of our concern, we will not be able to devote ourselves to creative work,’ that being the health of the nation.

Five hundred, I remember from Raul’s talk, 500 polyclinics throughout the island, free primary healthcare for all with a doctor in even the smallest community. But we are on a far-flung archipelago off the north coast. We are forty-five minutes from the main island. The only way off here is via a causeway, flanked on either side by sea and mangrove. Will there be a clinic out here? If the main function of the polyclinic is primary, preventative care will they have A & E facilities? 

Undisputedly I am in Cuba but I also inhabit a strange hinterland, the place-where-this-has-happened. In that place, I’m still naked and wet; my mind is still willing my foot back on to my leg and I need the loo.

David hauls me upright onto my left foot. Too shaken to hop, supported by him, I manage a swivelling movement into the bathroom. David is as shocked as I am and still half asleep.

‘Call Alex,’ I say. She’s an English woman on the tour who befriended us, a dentist also trained in facial fractures who regularly works in her local A&E.  Over mojitos the other night she’d described how she had reconstructed the cheekbone of some high-up in the Air Force. In return he’d given her a ride in a Chinook helicopter. ‘Alex will know what to do.’

Alex’s arrives and her voice reaches me in my hinterland. She’s calming David.  Now she’s encouraging me to raise my leg as she piles towels on the bidet which becomes a foot rest.  She administers ibuprofen. I tell her I have no pain.

‘For the swelling,’ she says.

I can hear her on the phone talking to reception, asking them to call an ambulance, to bring ice and a member of staff to accompany us in the ambulance. She is calm, clear, polite, softly spoken yet authoritative. She brings me a t-shirt dress, slides it over my head. Putting on underwear is too complicated. It involves disturbing the clicking bones.

How will I get down the steps – there are at least six to ground level?

Now a man in a white medical coat appears with another man in a t-shirt. And there is Belkis, a member of the hotel staff. They are weighing up the options for a route out of the room. Several arms raise and support me on to one leg. The injured leg clicks uncomfortably as it dangles. I’m scooped into strong arms, carried down the steps to a waiting trolley, then fed into a white van. Apart from me on the trolley and the man in a white coat, nothing about the van says this is an ambulance.

‘Carlos,’ the man in the white coat introduces himself. He is a doctor. He lays a reassuring hand on my shoulder. ‘We go International Clinic,’ Carlos says and Belkis nods and smiles. This clinic is 7 km away. It sounds promising.

I wince as the van bumps over potholes, mainly at the fear of further damage rather than pain.

‘I find solution,’ says Carlos pointing to my foot, ‘I always find solution for my patients.’

Belkis smiles and nods and David explains to me that there is, indeed, a clinic out here on the Cayo. I silently give thanks to Ernesto Ché Guevara. Soon we are pulling up beneath a huge portico of what looks like a new building, the van parks beneath it. It protects us from the warm rain that has begun to fall as they slide me from van to clinic, which, a sign proclaims, is Clinica Internacional Cayo santa Maria.

The grandeur of the entrance disappears once inside. It is bare, as if not yet furnished, as if uninhabited. Then into a room in which there is a cumbersome machine that takes up most of the space. Nothing else except for a medical couch. Discussions in Spanish and broken English. I’m not to be lifted onto the couch. Instead, an awkward maneuvering of the trolley until they can swing the arm of the machine over my foot. Everyone leaves the room as the x-ray is taken. I can see David in the corridor on his phone, calling up the medical emergency service that comes with our travel insurance. I’m wondering, since Dr Carlos is now facilitating a ‘solution’ if a precious phone connection might be better spent alerting the tour company that, though not today, we will be in Havana in time for our flight tomorrow.

Once it emerges, several people gather round to discuss the x-ray; an almost two-foot square sheet of negative is held up to the light. Urgent talk in Spanish.

‘Santa Clara. Santa Clara,’ I hear mentioned several times. Santa Clara means a big town, possibly with a big hospital; it means a bumpy two-hour road journey; it means the site of the final defeat of Batista’s troops in 1959, the site where the Revolution was won by the derailing of a consignment of US-Supplied arms coming from Havana and meant to defeat the rebels. Loyal followers of Ché whispered along the track, sent word to say which train and at what time it was expected. A crowbar loosened the points, a yellow Caterpillar bulldozer slung across the track for good measure. The derailed carriages still lie where they fell, now house a small museum to this victory, the crowbar proudly displayed, and at the entrance to the site the bulldozer sits on a plinth – Este monumento a los combatients de la batalla de Santa Clara.

Now my personal derailment is going to send me back there. It’s thanks to the bulldozer and the crowbar that there will be a medical facility where I can be repaired. I steel myself for two hours of foot jiggling, bones clicking. Trying to ignore the fact that, though Dr Carlos, David and Belkis are all putting on a positive face, something in the mood has changed.

I begin to understand we are not going to Santa Clara, though I’m not sure where we are going only that it is much nearer.

‘Half an hour,’ says Belkis. 

We are on the causeway, the road that skims the shallow sea, towards the main island. Through a grubby window I catch glimpses of mangrove, bits of sky, sea. Lying flat on my trolley, I feel as if I’m the one skimming the water.

Dr Carlos continues to smile and press a comforting hand on my shoulder each time I wince as we hit a bump.  It’s not pain so much, rather the disturbing thought of bones set loose. I can’t bear the sound, the unnatural clicking, from a foot I can’t control, that no longer has any relationship to the leg to which it’s meant to be fixed.

Click, click, click. 

It is not my foot, and I am not me.

 ‘Soon,’ Carlos says, ‘soon find solution.’

Solution? This could mean: amputation, death or, at the very least, surgery. The kind of surgery Tricia had last May. Oh, yes. Tricia. The woman I walked and talked with just 12 days ago as we toured the eco village of Les Terrazaz at Viñales.  I push away thoughts of the image she’d shown me on her mobile phone. An x-ray of her repaired ankle – her fibula with its metal plate pinned in place, the tip of her tibia held secure by a stainless steel screw.

 ‘This is worse than the pavements in Havana,’ she’d said having spotted me being super-cautious over uneven ground.

‘Yea, you really need to concentrate.’

We’d stopped for a rest on a low wall. I’d rambled on about my left foot.

‘A nasty sprain, six weeks ago. Still purple, it swells in this heat,’ I held up my foot to demonstrate. That’s when she pulled out the image, trumped my sprain with her break. Walking in Wales she’d stumbled into a hole in the ground and a rock had fallen on to her ankle.

‘So easily done,’ she’d said. She’d been left to sit in the waiting room at A&E for several hours. Her ankle had swelled so much she needed ten days in hospital with her leg elevated for the swelling to reduce enough to make surgery possible. Surgery. Weeks in a wheelchair. Months of physio. No. This won’t happen to me. I have no pain, only clicking. No rock fell on me.

When he’s not reassuring me Dr Carlos is making hasty calls on his mobile. Belkis explains that the person we need is on his day off. Of course, it’s Sunday. We must collect him from his home. I pick up a tone, a look, the sense of an apology, that this is the only way they can help me, that this is some kind of makeshift option, which on the bright side means it can’t involve surgery.

At last we are off the causeway and turning round a roundabout on which sits a giant concrete crab – through its massive pincers I see its bulging eyes. We are on the main island at the small town of Caibarién on the Atlantic coast.  

We had commented on this crab, four days ago. And the blocks of flats on the edge of the town built in the 1960s. Once state-of-the-art homes, now in need of repair. They were built for workers in the sugar factory and the small harbour from which sugar was once exported, but no more.

Today, we keep stopping to ask directions. Carlos is not clear where our man lives.  In this jumble of tracks, criss-crossed by wires sagging from telegraph poles, it can’t be easy to follow instructions. We drive along streets of much older, colonial style, one-storey houses, with crumbling porticos and faded, peeling paint in every shade: turquoise, yellow, pink.  

Eventually, we pull up at one of these and into the van climbs a man in paint-spattered jeans and t-shirt.  He has a two-day beard and large hands with which he’s been doing up his home, happily engaged in DIY, until we arrive.  He smiles a reluctant sort of smile and Carlos tells me this man has no English. I don’t catch his name and begin to think of him as Dr DIY. He now directs the van to the clinic.

A crowd gathers, a woman holding a baby, children. It’s stopped raining and the sun shines right into the van. I try not to think of my lack of underwear as they lift me out. A horse and cart clip-clops past, hens scratch around the pavement. The kerb is broken; they must lift the trolley to a position where it can be wheeled into the clinic. I notice the words Policlinico II stencilled on the blue-washed wall. Thank you, Ernesto Ché Guevara. No chance of surgery at a primary healthcare centre. Whatever’s happened to my foot can’t be that bad. 

There are colourful walls in the waiting room and many rows of chairs but only one woman waiting. There is a blackboard with a chalked handwritten list that seems to relate to today. I’m wheeled into a room off this waiting area. Along the far wall a sink unit and surface all white tiled but not clean. Above it a window barely covered with a tattered curtain.

Dr DIY finds a bucket and begins to mix what I take to be, hope is, plaster of Paris and try to block out the fact that I have an urgent need to pee. Instead, I begin believe this means an end is in sight – I have a broken bone and Dr DIY’s cast is the solution! He works swiftly, but what he puts on my leg is only half of a plaster cast.

‘Back slab,’ explains Carlos, ‘to hold foot in place.’ In this firm gutter my leg can rest, my foot will be restricted in its movement but clearly, and I see it on Carlos’s face, this not a solution

Nobody has named the injury or explained the protruding bone or said how routine this might be or how serious. But it’s becoming clearer by the minute that treating what they’d seen on the x-ray is beyond this facility.

‘When plaster is set, he will bandage, make secure,’ explains Dr Carlos. Clearly Dr DIY is not an orthopaedic surgeon. He may not even be a doctor but a maker of plaster casts. Will there be a hospital in Santa Clara or Havana that can properly set the bone? With the right expertise bones can be manipulated into a cast, can’t they? What do I know – I’ve never broken a bone before. And, could I make a ten-hour flight with a tight cast on my leg?

I don’t want to be a nuisance but I’ve needed to pee since they wheeled me in.  Now it’s urgent. I don’t want the indignity of peeing all over their trolley but, equally, I don’t want to make more demands. In the end I figure getting me to a toilet is less trouble than cleaning up after me.

‘Toilet? Is possible?’ I venture.

‘Soon.’ Dr Carlos puts a hand on my shoulder and points to Dr DIY preparing to swathe the plaster gutter in lint and bandages.  He leaves the room as the last of the bandage is taped into place, returns with a shiny stainless steel bedpan. Relief.

Back in the van, there are rapid discussions in Spanish between Belkis, Carlos and DIY.  I listen out for the words, Santa Clara. No. This is about money. I have the sense that my treatment has been unofficial. At the first clinic it was agreed we’d pay the hotel with a credit card and they would settle the account. The polyclinic is a place for free primary, preventative healthcare for Cubans not A&E for pesky tourists. Out of kindness they have brought me here rather than schlepped me all the way to Santa Clara. Out of kindness Dr DIY agreed to help.

As it’s our last day we are running low on Cuban currency. David counts all the CUCs[iii] we have and offers the notes to Dr DIY. We’ve been told a CUC is worth 25 times more than the local currency, the CUP. We can only hope the amount we give isn’t insulting.  Dr DIY looks hesitant, awkward, pauses before he takes it. Why? Because it’s unofficial, because it’s too much, not enough?

For the first time he speaks. Pointing to my pristine plaster says:

‘You go your country. See doctor. Soon.’

Dr Carlos looks disappointed but has to agree.

When we pull up outside DIY’s place. He gestures for me to sit up, points towards his house and encourages me to wave to his wife. There, in the doorway, of a modest home that is under substantial repair, sits a smiling woman with a child on her lap. The child is all uncoordinated movement, limbs everywhere, severely disabled. I wave, and his wife waves back.

On the return journey to the hotel, back through the sea, Dr Carlos, with some translation from Belkis, explains that Dr DIY works very long hours. His wife finds it hard to cope on her own with the child and often calls him to come home. And I have taken precious time from his day off, time with his family.

I would like to know more – does Dr DIY work at the other clinics, does Carlos sometimes work at the polyclinic? Clearly they know each other well. Clearly both are committed to caring but are working with scant equipment, doing what they can with so little. I can’t ask complicated questions because I don’t have the Spanish. Even if I did I’m not sure I trust myself to speak because, after all, this isn’t really happening. 

‘What time is it?’ Eventually I try out words that do seem to come from me.  

‘Eleven-thirty.’

Over four hours since something unpleasant happened in the shower. Two hours since the bus left for Havana without us. Now, it seems we are travelling backwards, skimming through sea to the cayo and, hopefully, through time where I may unslip in the shower, watch as the foot realigns with my leg, climb back into bed to start Sunday again.  In reality, as it’s December, high season, with hotels all fully booked, we will arrive at the hotel we should have checked out of to find our electronic room key no longer recognises us.

Part 2 of Footnotes will be published on Thursday 31 December 2021

You can download part 1 here …

© Pamela Johnson, 2021

Pamela Johnson is the author of three novels Under Construction, Deep Blue Silence and Taking In Water, which was supported by an Arts Council Writers’ Award.  Her poems appear in magazines and anthologies. She has also published short stories, art criticism and journalism. 

From 2002-2018 she taught fiction on the MA in Creative & Life Writing, Goldsmiths, University of London, and has devised writing workshops in a range of contexts: schools, community groups, U3A, residential courses for The Arvon Foundation.


[i] On Revolutionary Medicine, Ernesto Guevara, originally spoken August 19, 1960 to the Cuban Militia. Online version at Ché Guevara Internet Archive, 1999, translated by Beth Kurti

[ii] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-13066561

[iii] back in 2015 Cuba operated a dual currency system. Tourists use Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), locals use the Cuban Peso (CUP). The CUP is worth much less than the CUC; US dollars aren’t accepted as legal tender. From January 2021 this system is now being phased out.

Lagos, 1971 (Excerpt from Don’t Mention Her) by Jane Kirwan

In 1970, when Nell qualifies as a doctor, she and her Nigerian boyfriend Jerome decide to leave London and the hostility they’re experiencing as a mixed-race couple. They move to Lagos; Jerome hasn’t been back since the Biafran war started in 1966.     

***

Lagos   1971

Jerome was slouched against the hospital gate near where the mini-bus would swerve to a halt. If they were lucky. Nell made herself look relaxed – thank goodness he still came to meet her.

 Jerome straightened up and they hugged; ‘Was the day ok?’  

  ‘It was ok.’

 Nell backed away as a tiny boy stuck a basket inches from her face. Just before sunset, warm, no breeze, smell of rotting fruit. They’d do the long journey home, repeat it early in the morning. Soon, once Jerome’s job came through, she’d face travelling alone.

   ‘The nurses make it easy.’ Nell smiled at the boy and shook her head. ‘But this time Nneka couldn’t help – a man was staring at me with such venom.’

‘Oh, ignore those idiots,’ said Jerome.

‘It was pure hate, his gaze like ice. Nneka said he was a ‘Been-to’.’

Jerome kissed the top of her head, two small girls giggled.

‘So am I, Nell.’

‘I begged her but Nneka wouldn’t make him leave – she said he’d cause trouble.’

The boy was selling peanuts. Nell found a few kobos, bought a paper twist. The child was in rags – he looked exhausted. Not that they must appear so impressive, Jerome was sweating as much as her in the evening heat. They were both scarecrows; at least at work a white coat covered her shabbiness. Jerome was thinner than in London, his shirt patched, jeans worn out.

‘Did you meet up with Ifechi?’

‘I saw him and his smart new office,’ said Jerome.

Ifechi had come back just after the war ended and, like Jerome’s other contacts from London, proved elusive. When they’d first arrived, people confirmed Jerome’s years in journalism meant finding a job would be easy. He was given appointments for the final paper work – just wait a few days. Slowly, hideously, the offers melted away. Whoever promised it, disappeared; suddenly no one knew anything. At least the hospital had given Nell sessions so they could pay the rent. The flat had been hard to find; they were lucky, but it was miles away on the Kiri Kiri road, the other side of the city.

‘Apparently Ifechi got married as soon as he arrived, has a couple of children.’

Jerome didn’t sound envious, just resigned. Thank god they didn’t have a baby. The boy tilted the basket to show Jerome but Jerome was tougher than Nell, brushed the child away.

They crammed into a space by the door of the packed minibus, its sign In God We Trust; after a while they’d have to change, trust another god. Jerome took her hands. ‘Ifechi wondered if we’d really thought things through?’

‘Oh, great help.’  Nell frowned at the blocked road. Nothing was moving.

Maybe Ifechi had also asked if she might have pressured Jerome to return. She wouldn’t suggest that.

She wriggled herself nearer the door, grabbed Jerome’s arm.

‘Let’s get out, it’ll be quicker.’

The buses were always packed, the other passengers checking her like some pathology specimen. At first, she’d complained, ‘have I got horns?’ but soon stopped bothering. All that mattered was finding a space and for the mini-bus not to get stuck in a jam or change its mind and accelerate off to a more profitable route.

Walking was a crazy idea. There was no path for pedestrians; on one side was a stream with sewage and rubbish, on the other the kamikaze drivers: lorries, buses, vans, revving up to the next jam. Everyone used the centre of the road because the potholes at the edge were lethal. The din as drivers sat on their horns, the screeching brakes and tyres.

Jerome was ahead, almost jogging. A motorcycle missed her by inches as she avoided a couple of emaciated cows being cajoled to the slaughter-house. It was clear from the beginning she should stay this side of the ditch; the shacks, kitchens, and stalls were the same as the miles of living space they’d first witnessed six months ago on the journey from the airport. Not their land, they’d be trespassing; each square foot was accounted for: huts, tea-chests, boxes, tarpaulin hooked over ropes, shells of abandoned cars. Villas for the less affluent – old suitcases, tin cans, marking the boundary of each bathroom, kitchen.

‘Jerome,’ she yelled. ‘Slow down.’

The women standing over stoves had been working since first light. It was mostly children who carried water – tottering miles balancing rusty pails on their heads. One infant, she decided, couldn’t have been more than two, water from a chipped enamel basin spilling on the red dust.

At last Jerome joined her. A couple of boys screamed ‘Oyinbos’. Being called a foreigner infuriated him.

‘Let’s have a treat,’ Nell said. ‘You’ve met up with Ifechi: he might help. Let’s get the bus at the roundabout, go to Kingsway, admire the clothes.’

To her surprise, he agreed.

A blind child was begging outside the department store. A skeletal woman, a toddler swaddled to her back, watched as they kept to the shadow of the buildings.

Nell breathed in the stale, cooled air.

‘It’s quiet as a morgue,’ said Jerome, taking her hand.

‘Did you give them money?’

‘What do you think? I wrote a cheque.’

They wandered through the clothes section: neat rows of shirts, carefully arranged scarves, racks of jackets; everything looked irrelevant and grey compared to the colour and chaos of the street markets. The cool musty air might be comforting after the heat but this was dull compared to Ajegunle where they normally shopped. There, the stalls were packed together: tinned milk next to maize; meat beside plantain then rolls upon rolls of material in vivid colours, an abundance of patterns. On a tiny piece of land by a stall of yams, someone would have set out shoe-laces or a couple of tin plates on a rag. Often the only space to walk was the channels of contaminated water trickling into the ditch.

Two nuns stood at a counter in animated discussion over a pair of socks. They must be baking in their heavy habits.

‘Let’s share a Coke,’ said Jerome as they went towards the escalator.

‘This place is unreal.’

Jerome took her arm. ‘And you relish it.’

               .***

It was months before there was any contact from Ifechi and it wasn’t news of a job but an invite to go swimming. Ifechi wanted them to join him at the pool in the Federal Palace Hotel. It was glorious, water slapping gently against the blue tiles; Nell shut her eyes. Wafts of jasmine. August. In England it was probably raining. Blissful to be here. A midday African sun hit the reflections and she sheltered under an umbrella.

‘Why not get in, Nell?’ said Ifechi.

Her swimsuit was tatty, and anyway it was heaven to stay in the shade, admire Jerome doing front-crawl, ploughing his way through more relaxed swimmers. Ifechi poured a cola slowly, watching it drip into the spaces between the ice cubes. He offered it to Nell, she shook her head.

‘I don’t swim either,’ Ifechi shuddered. ‘Never have.’

An overweight, unfit, middle-aged man, this old friend from London, from before, was meant to be Jerome’s most important contact. But Ifechi was unsettling. Jerome insisted he had nothing to do with the vanished job but he looked shifty, and he flirted.

‘Are you homesick?’ said a beautiful young woman. She’d arrived with Ifechi and another woman, and a gang of children.

Nell must be coming over as some kind of misery. ‘No, no, really. I love it here.’

The two women were fascinating; chatted easily to each other or to Nell but when addressed by Ifechi, refused to answer. Instead they sat back and mockingly admired him. Ifechi clearly found this infuriating. Better not notice how charmed Jerome seemed. 

‘Ifechi is publishing a few more magazines,’ Jerome had muttered when they arrived. Well, that might be helpful.

A couple of the tiny children splashed out of the pool, landed themselves in Ifechi’s lap. He hauled one up, swung it in the air. One of the women frowned, brushed water from her swimsuit.

‘Are they all his children?’ said Nell.

‘I guess,’ said the younger woman. ‘Ifechi has several.’

‘Really? Which of you is their mum?’

The girl smiled, patted Nell on the leg. ‘She’s not here.’

Nell winced at herself. What an idiot.

Jerome pulled himself out, dived again into the water, a clean and perfect arrow that just missed two men.

‘Foolish boy,’ said Ifechi. ‘Well, that’s good that you feel at home.’ He wiped the moisture from a glass of cold beer and offered it. Nell shook her head.

‘Star beer. Not your American rubbish.’

‘Not my American.’

‘Don’t get cross. I love Jerome, truly I do.’

She must try to be agreeable. ‘I like the Star ads.’

‘Ah, the movies again? I love the movies.’ Ifechi made a gun with his fingers, took pot shots at the sunbathers.

‘This is a film-set.’ Nell gestured to the ornate tubs overflowing with flowers, the poolside bar. ‘Or an advert.’

Going to movies had become a treat, a rare one they couldn’t afford. The films were usually American gangsters but the ads were made locally. Lagos was a set where beautiful couples drank beer, smoked expensive cigarettes, drove sports cars and wore Western or Nigerian clothes. Nell went mainly to see the ads: the roads were empty, the water lapping the shores of the harbour uncontaminated with rubbish, oil, sewage, dead dogs. Colours were extra intense making up a world which could be day-dreamed into, and it was here. The other doctors chatted about nightclubs and Highlife. Theirs was a world she and Jerome couldn’t quite get to. None of it. No sitting drinking beer as the sun went down, the right camera angle, lazy long shot.

Jerome was doing a perfect crawl down the length of the pool. He swam so beautifully. Ifechi caught Nell’s eye. He was going to be no help to Jerome at all.

***

The miles of interweaving lanes were unlit, no moon. Nell and Jerome were lost. They clutched each other, could barely make out the path.

‘I never thought of a torch,’ said Jerome.

They were late for Nneka’s party. They’d been to visit a couple Jerome met through Ifechi; supposedly their house was in the same part of Lagos, but they got lost going there and lost coming here.

Jerome was still uneasy after the visit, the man was Hausa and had been intimidating. He was angry at having to wait for them and quickly took Jerome off to his study for a drink. His German wife, Ilsa, looked exhausted. As she took Nell to admire the house, the irritating children, she seemed increasingly uncomfortable with Nell’s questions about life in Lagos.

‘You will get used to it,’ she said. ‘Jerome will help.’

‘We’ve been here two years and I know no one, except at work.’

‘It takes time,’ said Ilsa. ‘And having children helps.’

Well that wasn’t about to happen soon. ‘Jerome is bored with my moans, wants me to be positive.’

Nell was about to tell Ilsa about the small boy in the clinic that morning. Jerome would have stopped her if he’d overheard. Ilsa interrupted, muttering that she should go and organise coffee, see what her children were doing. Nell waited in the garden, taking in the silence. Silly to think people would want to know. No point confiding in anyone about anything, let alone that patient. No point imagining anything she could have done differently.

He’d been sitting in a corner of the cubicle resting his hand lightly on a woman’s knee, making no demands. He had his back to the room, was probably about three. His head was slightly tilted as if he was tired, soft black curls resting against the creamy skin of his neck.

Nell had wanted to delay everything. She could run her fingers up his spine, tickle his hair, but she made herself crouch in front of the boy, read his notes. His mother’s expression was blank – she was staring at the wall.

The patient looked at Nell, his huge eyes cautious. She smiled back. His nose was snub and smooth. His lower lip trembled slightly. Where his left cheek should be was nothing, a cavity with no skin or flesh; it exposed the inside of his mouth, his teeth, his pharynx.

The mother knew the loss was irreversible, its progress inevitable, triggered by malnutrition. Nell would give him a pointless injection of penicillin, send him home. The mother would carry him for miles.

How could any woman do that, watch her child die day by day? And so many like this coming to the hospital for a miracle. As Ilsa came into the garden holding out a grizzling baby, Nell knew she’d never have children.

Jerome was as out of place as she was. ‘We’ll be late for Nneka,’ he said.

At last, by following faint traces of music, they found a gate set into a wall. In a large space circled by small huts, people milled around a central pool of light. Nneka looked luminous. Gold earrings, necklaces, bracelets, gold threads studded with gold beads braiding her hair; chains of gold circled her wrists, ankles, neck. She wore a lemon brocade waistcoat over a lemon satin dress, carried a small chest already overflowing with naira. As she greeted each guest, notes were stuffed among the others.

‘You should have warned me about the money.’

‘She’s your friend.’ said Jerome. ‘Is it really only her birthday?’

After handing over their gift – a scarf from Kingsway – shaking hands with numerous strangers, they sat on one of the benches. Young children ran around handing out cold beer and soft drinks. One of the tiny ones stopped, grabbed Nell’s leg. Nell hauled the child up to her lap. How good to feel the girl using her like an armchair, letting herself be cuddled.

‘That toddler suits you,’ said Jerome.

Was that what might happen? She’d end up exhausted and drained, have several rough children, and Jerome away enjoying himself with Ifechi? And if the children got ill? No, the thought was inconceivable.

Oil lamps had been strung along wires between posts. Nneka and her family walked among the guests, in and out of the light. People had started to dance. Reflections spat and shimmered – not just from Nneka’s gold, most people were wearing lavish jewellery.

‘We’re so drab, Jerome.’

Nell kissed the top of the child’s elaborately plaited hair, the girl smelt of rose-water. The women wore expensively designed wrappers and the men, Jerome the  rare exception, were in embroidered agbadas, mostly full length with matching pants. Guests were still arriving, picking their way along the same muddy lanes.

Dishes started to appear, Nneka brought over chicken and rice.

‘You look wonderful, and such a wealth of presents,’ said Nell.

Nneka shooed away the small girl.

‘Oh, no, Nneka, don’t.’ Too late to stop her.

Jerome finished his food quickly, handed Nell the empty plate. ‘How about more? Fast as you can.’

‘And, if I don’t?’ said Nell.

He was showing off in front of Nneka. All of this, the extended family, the party, the glamour, this crowd of people enjoying themselves, was upsetting him. He’d been disturbed by the couple they’d just visited, but Nell could do nothing; she couldn’t conjure up any family, neither apparently could he.

Nneka grabbed her arm. ‘Come, Nell, let’s get the man more chop.’

As they reached the cooking area, Nneka said, ‘You shouldn’t talk to Jerome like that.’

‘He shouldn’t to me.’

Everyone criticising. Why had Nneka sent away that child?

An elderly man joined them, Nneka introducing him as her uncle. ‘Go and dance, Nell. I’ll take the food to Jerome.’

When Nell left the dance-floor, tired but slightly happier, Jerome was gone. He wasn’t at any of the tables where people were slicing cake, carving up chickens, collecting cans of beer. Where could he go? He’d disappeared. He’d been as lost as she had.

There was a dark corner where she could make herself comfortable, watch the entrance and bench where they’d been sitting. Nneka was having a subdued row with a large older woman in red silk; whenever she paused to listen, the woman tugged at an ornate silver necklace. At one point, Nneka reached across, gently touched it.

As the hours passed, people drifted off. A few dancers stayed with the music, a couple giggled in the shadows on the left. Wait till dawn, find her own way home, but the night was never-ending. She must not cry.

Nneka didn’t seem surprised to see Nell appear, didn’t mention the absent Jerome. ‘Come and meet my mother.’

The woman in red was boiling water on a stove in one of the huts; she beamed a welcome. The room smelt  of coffee. Nneka filled a few mugs and her mother added dollops of condensed milk. ‘Mary, give out the cake, I’ll be back,’ and the mother was gone.

‘Mary?’

‘Yes, and what of it?’ Nneka handed Nell a slice of date sponge.

‘She was giving you an earful.’ The coffee was very sweet.

‘She wants me to find a man, have children.’

Nneka had once told her that her mother had left their village during the Biafran war, come with them to Lagos to find Nneka’s father. By the time they’d got here, he was dead. No money. No support. Three young children. ‘The nuns helped us.’

The sweet drink and rich sponge were too much; it was so warm inside the room, some lilac perfume mixed with the smell of coffee. Nell could barely make out Nneka’s face; it would be wonderful to sleep. Then she remembered why she felt terrible – Jerome had vanished.

Nell woke to the sound of muttered voices. It was still dark, Jerome was back, standing under a lantern by the door, talking to Nneka and a lean woman in a blue suit. Should she interrupt them? He looked relaxed, was enjoying himself. 

Two toddlers were lying on her legs. The blanket felt comforting, the children fast asleep and heavy; there was gentle snoring from the far corner.

There was laughter from beyond the entrance. A bright light flashed through the open door, blinding Nell; one of Nneka’s cousins burst in holding a lamp.

‘Oh, I’m beyond tired! Lord save us.’ The cousin tossed her shoe into the corner.

The snoring shape grunted; Nneka’s mother lifted her head from the mound of blankets, threw the shoe back. The cousin clutched Nneka, and both shook with laughter. Nneka’s gold-braided hair flashed in the light, some of the strands were coming undone. Their hug turned into a dance, they looked glorious.

Nell managed to push the children away. She stood up and touched Jerome’s arm, tried to sound calm. ‘Where were you?’

‘I went to meet some relatives,’ said Jerome.

He had never mentioned relatives.

Biography

Jane Kirwan has published three poetry collections, Stealing the Eiffel Tower (1997), The Man Who Sold Mirrors (2003), The Goose Woman, (2019) and co-authored Stories & Lies with Pamela Johnson and Jennifer Grigg. She won a Arts Council Writers Award in 2002, published a prose-poem collection Second Exile with Ales Machacek (2010), and Born in the NHS (2013) with Wendy French. In 2016 she published a novel, Don’t Mention Her.

You can find a PDF of this story here:

Out of the Woods by Charlie Allenby

Charlie Allenby grew up believing that Epping Forest was a place to be avoided, full of ghosts and criminals. It took a global pandemic for him to give Epping another chance. Join him on his morning bike ride as he recalls earlier memories of this ancient woodland

7.30am. Tyres are squeezed and topped up with air in long strokes of the pump. A light breeze whispers against my bare legs, but the empty blue sky and rising sun suggests they won’t be cold for long. Shoes clipped into pedals, transforming man and machine into one being, the journey is underway. Destination: Epping Forest.

*

There was a time when, for me, Epping Forest was altogether an elsewhere place. 

“My cousin said that if you get to the bottom of the hill and leave your car in neutral, it gets dragged to the top.” It’s Year 7, Maths first thing on a Monday after a hot spring weekend, and there’s an excited buzz in the air. Ross Barnwell, my fellow top-of-the-register dweller, is excitedly retelling how a tonne of metal and four pubescent passengers fizzing with hormones were able to defy the laws of gravity in a scary part of the Forest. “It’s called Hangman’s Hill by High Beach. He said the ghost pulls you up the hill with his noose.”

*

7.45am. Cutting east, the bustling streets of Tottenham stand between me and the tranquility of the Lee Valley canal. The sun gleams off of the football stadium’s roof and catches the golden cockerel perched on its south stand. I pass two cemeteries – one for people, the other for cars. The ticker of a black cab has finally given up. After a life spent navigating the arteries, veins and capillaries of the capital, it sits atop a trailer, awaiting its passage to the afterlife. A breaker’s yard on an industrial estate where smog and grime fills every crevice seems like an understated send off.

The footbridge across the Pymmes Brook acts as the fault line between asphalt and escapism. I carefully pick my way through the flotsam that has washed up on the outskirts of the Marshes – two big cement blocks not enough to stop the canny fly tippers.

fly tipping on the outskirts of the marshes

Passing through the barriers and up and over Chalk Bridge, I feel a wave of relief. The satisfying crunch of gravel tells me there’s not long to go now. I’m almost there.

*

The tale of paranormal activity wasn’t the only thing that defined Epping Forest in my childhood. As I grew older, the stories turned darker. Gangland murders, buried bodies, remnants of clothing found within the decaying mulch. “I heard that if you dig a hole in Epping, you’re going to stumble across some bones,” said another friend, Liam Lockwood, who like me, has found it hard to shake the area’s notorious reputation. The Wikipedia entry for Epping Forest has a separate section on ‘murders.’  It currently includes 11 incidents over six-decades. 

Growing up in Chelmsford in Essex, less than 30 miles from Epping, I never had a desire to put the rumours to bed. My horizons extended north and east: screwball ice creams with their bubble gum ending on the promenade in Maldon, avoiding the tide on Frinton’s concrete sea wall, the salty waft of Leigh-on-Sea’s cockle sheds. The nefarious goings on, on the outskirts of London, were a reason to steer clear; the ancient woodland remaining an uncharted territory that I had no urge to uncover

*

7.55 am. The River Lea is glistening in the morning sun as I make my way north on the canal path. A black cat scampers across my path, diving into one of the nomadic canal boats that line the water from the Thameside mouth to its source in Bedfordshire. The touring bikes and pannier racks of the elders usually found perched on the benches by Alfie’s Lock are nowhere to be seen. No doubt they will be in their usual spot in an hour or so on my return journey.

At Ponder’s End Lock, it’s time to leave the tranquility of the river and rejoin the traffic. Flanked by the banked edges of the William Girling and King George’s reservoirs, the tops of oaks flicker into view on the horizon.

*

My first adult visit to Epping Forest didn’t exactly change my boyhood opinion. In 2019, on my 27th birthday, my girlfriend Izzy and I had gone to hire a rowing boat at Hollow Ponds. Our excitement was soon punctured by a gruff middle-aged man with week-old stubble and the hallmarks of a heavy night, who told us that he doesn’t take cards and we’re going to need to go to the hospital if we want to get cash out. In hindsight, he was just telling us that the nearest ATM was in Whipps Cross hospital, but there was a menacing air to his directions – as though he’d be only too happy to give me another reason to visit A&E if the mood took him.

Having dodged Hollow Pond’s collection of swans, Canadian geese and coots, we jumped back in the car and decided to head deeper into the unknown. The feather-shaped block of dark green stretched its way across my phone’s screen from Forest Gate in the East End to the Essex hinterlands. Stabbing my finger at a car park in its centre, it was time to immerse ourselves in the real Epping.

*

8 am. Approaching gate 101 along Hawksmouth, the tarmac falls away and becomes a rugged, pothole-strewn path. Weaving my way through the craters, I feel my serotonin levels return to normal as soon as the grassy fields come into view. My focus shifts from the actions of the drivers to my new environment – roaring engines replaced by wind rustling through leaves – and a maze of trails unfurls in front of me. I have a roughly plotted regular route but the beauty of knowing somewhere intimately means that, even if I end up on new ground, I’m never truly lost.

The Obelisk at the top of Pole Hill is a necessary, if thigh-burning, pilgrimage – especially on a clear day. Sitting at 0° longitude, it was installed in the 1800s by geographers at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, who would set their telescopes by searching for the granite landmark exactly 11 miles to the north. A neighbouring trig point marks the hill’s peak, but I’m not here for the monuments – in fact, I turn my back on them. Laid out in front of me is a visual history of London. Although a couple of centuries of population and vegetation growth mean you can no longer see as far as the Meridian Line, the latest additions to the city’s jagged skyline hover on the horizon, while in my immediate vicinity lies woodland that stretches back thousands of years.

Obelisk at the top of Pole Hill. Charlie rests his bike after a ‘thigh-burning’ ride
London’s current skyline just visible above trees that have been there for centuries

Photo snapped, I jump back on my bike and let gravity do the work as I descend into the darkness of the forest. A dog appears out of nowhere, a boxer chasing my shadows until I come to a stop in a clearing. Realising the blurred shape wasn’t fair game, it turns on its heels and scurries back to the increasingly desperate voice in the distance.

The tracks from here vary in shape and size – bridleways pockmarked with the U-shaped shoes of horses, down to openings in the undergrowth no-wider than a rabbit. I settle for something in the middle. A patch of wood anemones in full bloom catch the speckled rays that have broken their way through the thick canopy to the forest floor. The trail hugs the outskirts of the golf course until it is intersected by Bury Road. Despite being in the depths of nature, the brash hand of humanity – the manicured greens and macadam roads  – is never far away.

wood anemones

*

Even now I know the place better, I don’t think I could tell you where we parked back on that birthday visit in 2019. Rucksack filled with sandwiches, we set off in a westward direction, navigating bomb holes and jumping ditches until we came to a clearing. Our ears were met by the growl of motorbikes – the cracks of the carburettors punctuating the low level hum of riders out for a bank holiday run.

Settling down on High Beach’s grassy opening, it was hard to escape the closeness of the other revellers. Tinny, distorted music blared from cheap portable speakers. The smell of burnt meat wafted from disposable barbeques. Giddy children with bright red faces queued for blue ice pops from the rumbling ice cream van. It was a far cry from the place described in John Clare’s poetry – of airy bounds and left feeling high. Retracing our steps back to the car, my opinion of Epping had hardened.

*

8.15 am. I make my way northwards, loosely following the forest’s ‘Main Path’. Runners, walkers, hounds and horses share the wide dirt track. The gnarled trunks and branches of hornbeams are awash with catkins, ready for the wind to spread their seeds.

The undulating up-and-down of the appropriately named Hill Wood gets my heart rate pumping before I find myself back at High Beach. The cooler temperature and earlier time mean it’s a shadow of the bustling hub I encountered on my first visit. Recounting ‘A Walk in the Forest’, I can now see things through Clare’s eyes. I too love the break neck hills, that headlong go, and      leave me high, and half the world below.

Back on the Main Path, I whizz along Claypit Hill’s gravel-lined forest roads, stopping only to take in the views across the Lea Valley from the lofty heights. The expansive opening and its falling gradient is a brief sensory overload for my eyes, which have become accustomed to navigating the narrow, enclosed trails.

Farthest northern point reached, it’s time to make my way back towards Chingford. The Green Ride path I’m following south was built especially for Queen Victoria’s visit to the Forest in 1882 (although she stayed firmly in her horse-drawn carriage). The mounds to my left are in fact ‘Tank Traps’ built during the Second World War by the local Home Guard as part of the perimeter defences surrounding London. And that’s before you get to Loughton Camp – a collection of banks and ditches that were once the site of an Iron Age fort. Used by countless legends of British folklore – whether that was a base for Boudica during her uprising against the Romans or as a hideout for Dick Turpin – it’s hard to escape the feeling that stories are woven into the fabric of the forest.

The Green Ride built for Queen Victoria’s visit to Epping Forest in 1882

*

Since March 2020 when the pandemic first brought me back to Epping, I’ve uncovered a different side to the forest. This circuit now forms the basis of my near-weekly trips to the wild corner of north east London. The dark and murky side to the ancient woodland still simmers away in the background, but its natural beauty has come to the forefront.

*

9am. The final stop of my Epping Forest loop is Connaught Water. One of more than 100 lakes or ponds that dot the heaths, woodlands and grass, it’s another thing we have to thank the Victorians for. Created in 1880 to drain a marshy area of the forest, it soon became a popular spot for paddling and boating, and was named after the first ranger of Epping Forest – Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn.

Connaught Water

The only thing swimming in it now are the birds that call the lake home, but it’s still one of my favourite spots in the entire forest. Sitting on a bench, tucking into a slightly bruised banana, it’s a great place to watch the world go by. Mallards scrap over bread thrown into the water by a young family, before the resident Canada geese and Mute swans muscle their way through the maelstrom, bringing calm and grace to proceedings. The sun is fully beating down on my bare calves now, providing a welcome warmth after a long and layered locked-down winter.

Food finished, I join the Ranger’s Road and the start of my journey back home. Loose mud flings from my tyres like mortar boards on graduation day as soft dirt paths are replaced by unforgiving, onyx-coloured roads. Retracing my pedal strokes through Chingford, hills seem easier, passing traffic quieter, my world rebalanced thanks to the restorative power of the forest.

I never thought the darkness surrounding this notorious place could be banished, but there is now a lightness and warmth where there was once fear and trepidation of the unknown.

Charlie Allenby is a freelance journalist for various publications including the Guardian and the Independent and is the author of Bike London: A Guide to Cycling in the City. He is currently working on his second book, a cycling-based memoir.

Square, Kings Cross by Annabel Chown

‘Square, King’s Cross’ is a story from Annabel Chown’s work-in-progress, ‘Blueprint of Love,’ a sequence of interconnected stories, in which the lives of thirteen Londoners interconnect, sometimes fleetingly, at other times intimately.

 The characters in ‘Blueprint of Love’ navigate their individual desires and challenges against the backdrop of contemporary London. Some own multi-million pound architect-designed houses, others live in squats or in homes that are about to be demolished.

This is a book which grew out of Annabel’s passion for London and its architecture. In this story, we meet Ilona, a young woman, who left her small village in Hungary for London, and dreams of creating a future in this complex yet intoxicating city.

Ilona spun the wheel. The ball skittered round and round and hands darted across the board, placing chips. As it slowed down the hands moved faster, until Ilona waved hers across the table and said ‘No more bets.’

            There was a hush, as if everyone were holding their breath. Eyes fixated on the tiny white ball, minds willing it, willing it.

            Fourteen.

            A hissed ‘Shit’ from the young Chinese guy in the baseball cap she saw almost every shift. A sigh of relief from a middle-aged woman with unruly black hair and deep rings under her eyes. What was she doing here, alone at three in the morning, Ilona wondered, sweeping away the chips.

            The room had now thinned, but even at this hour a trickle of newcomers still descended the curved glass stair, sucked into this pit where day and night merged. Fruit machines shrieked and bleeped, chips rattled and clicked, and the music played on and on.

The first time she came she’d been excited by the glamour; huge chandeliers with dripping strings of crystals, rich with gold light. Now she also saw the grasp it had, saw the hunger, the addiction, the same faces appearing day after day.

#

After her shift, she showered and ate a bowl of Rice Krispies and two slices of buttered toast at the casino, before walking the short distance to Leicester Square tube. She caught a grumbling eastbound train, her lower back and feet aching after hours of standing, her jaw sore from so much smiling. At least after a night shift there were always seats. Her few fellow passengers were a random mix of early-risers and all-nighters.

            It was still dark when she reached King’s Cross, and St Pancras was lit up. With its turrets and spires, it was more like a castle than a train station.

Most of the curtains on Belgrove Street were still drawn. One side was hotels, the other taken up by the brick storage building. Her ‘home’ for the moment.

Joe was on duty this morning. 

            ‘Good to see you, Ilona. How’s it going?’

            He was always cheerful, even though he claimed not to be an ‘early-bird.’ She liked this phrase.

            ‘Looking forward to sleep!’

            ‘I’ll bet.’

            She was glad when he was around. Not that the other guys there were unfriendly.

            ‘I’ve explained our arrangement and they’re ok with it,’ he’d said. ‘Just keep yourself to yourself. Management wouldn’t allow it, but no need for them to know. A few weeks I’ve told the boys. Until you get yourself sorted.’

            She’d already been here a fortnight. How many weeks did ‘a few’ mean? It was not a precise expression. She had not yet found somewhere else to live. Had searched only half-heartedly, reluctant to visit tiny rooms, some without even a window, in areas like Leyton, New Cross or Arnos Grove, which would take at least fifty pounds a week from her. She wished she could find another squat. Was ‘keeping her ears open,’ as they said, for these were not advertised. Since she first left Hungary, she’d lost count of the number of places she’d lived in.

            Joe was the neighbour of the friends she’d gone to after she’d left her room in Dollis Hill the previous month. She’d arrived home from work one morning to find her landlord, a man in his fifties who owned the house, in the kitchen, a bottle of whiskey on the table. She was pouring cereal into a bowl, her back to him, when he pressed himself against her and put his arms around her. She turned around and pushed him away, shoving her knee between his legs, screaming as loud as she could. She left that day. Stale breath, hot against her ear, the bristle of stubble against her cheek. She still felt sick remembering it.

            Her friends lived in a tiny studio near Mornington Crescent. The first couple of days there her shifts at the casino finished at six in the morning, and she slept while they were at work, was gone soon after they arrived home. But then came nights with the three of them crammed into the room, Ilona on the floor, her friends in their bed.

            It was lucky she got chatting to Joe in the hallway.

            ‘If you’re really stuck I might be able to help you out with somewhere. Just for the short-term.’

            She wasn’t expecting a storage unit.

            ‘How much will this cost?’

            ‘Nothing.’

            ‘Really?’ People never gave you things for free in this city. Why was he doing this?

            ‘There are always empty units. Seems a crying shame people can’t use them  – I hate to see wasted space. You can buy me a beer in return sometime.’

            At first she’d been on alert with Joe. But he was always just his usual good-natured self.

#

Ilona walked down a corridor, past identical closed doors the colour of egg yolks. Fluorescent lights, evenly spaced, hung from the ceiling and were reflected in the pale grey metal walls to the units. Hers was in the basement, right in the centre of the building. Joe had told her it was one of the warmest spots. And one of the bigger ones. Big enough for the mattress, which he’d got her from an abandoned unit, to take up only half the floor area. ‘You’d be surprised how often people stop paying up and just leave their stuff,’ he’d added.

When she switched off the light, her space, with its four metal walls and metal ceiling, was thrown into blackness. In this respect only it reminded her of her bedroom at home, especially on nights where the moon was barely visible. In London there was always light, pushing through thin curtains or under-sized blinds.

That morning she slept soundly. Sometimes there was noise. The rattle of trolleys when people moved their things in or out. Conversations.

            ‘We get all sorts here,’ Joe had said, describing an actress who lived in a ‘shoebox’ nearby and hired a unit for her wardrobe. ‘There’s an old fellow opposite you. Uses it to store his collection of globes. His wife won’t let him keep ‘em in the house. Comes in most days.’

            His door was ajar when she opened hers. She’d never seen him though. More often than not there was no-one around. Just all their possessions waiting quietly.

#

Early afternoon she stepped through the wide doorway onto Belgrove Street, blinking. It was so sunny for late October. And warm enough to eat lunch in the square behind the storage building. She had been taught that the word square meant a shape with four equal sides, but this one was more like a rectangle, and with its far end on an angle. On the next bench sat a man with very short dark hair, speaking Polish on his phone. He’d also been here last week. And she thought she’d even seen him before, somewhere in the city. At the casino? Or had it just been a person who looked similar?

He’d noticed her too, was looking in her direction as his voice rose. He finished his call and walked towards her.

            ‘Hello,’ he said. ‘I know you. We meet before.’

            ‘Maybe. But where?’

            ‘With Antek.’

            Hearing his name, she flinched.

            ‘He bring you to see house we make in Primrose Hill.’

            Of course. ‘Boss man,’ as Antek had described him. They’d been to the house just before they broke up. It was on a tiny street. ‘Is called mews in English,’ Antek had explained.

            ‘Just two people will be living here?’ she asked, walking through room after room with him.

 ‘Boss man’ – she couldn’t remember his name – said something in Polish to Antek after he was introduced to Ilona. They both laughed, and he thumped Antek on the back.

‘What is he saying?’

‘That he is not surprised I have kept beautiful girlfriend hidden.’

Beautiful girlfriend. So beautiful Antek couldn’t stop himself having sex with the waitress from the Moroccan restaurant. The one she’d always been suspicious of. After almost a year it still angered her that she’d had to leave the squat in Mayfair because of what he’d done.

‘What’s your name?’ Ilona asked the man.

‘Pawel. And yours?’

‘Ilona.’

They shook hands.

‘You are working near here?’

‘No, staying nearby. And you?’

‘Working.’ He pointed at a house on the corner, whose dark brick walls and high white-framed windows Ilona had admired. ‘We make refurbishment. So how is the Antek?’

‘I don’t know. We are not together. He is not with you anymore?’

‘No. I have to fire him many months ago.’

She was relieved.

‘Was very good,’ Pawel said. ‘Then he change. I don’t know why. Maybe too much vodka!’

‘Perhaps we are meeting up again sometime?’ Pawel suggested to Ilona before he left. ‘This weekend?’

#

On Sunday afternoon he drove them to Greenwich, crossing the river at the bridge with the two towers. It was one of the few times Ilona had travelled through London in a car.

            The weather was still fine. They walked through the park to the Observatory and took photos from each other’s phones, one foot either side of the meridian line. From the top of the hill the silver-grey towers of the financial district appeared very close. When she’d worked at the Savoy, on a clear day she could see them in the distance from the windows in some of the top floor bedrooms.

            They drank coffee and ate cake in a small white building. Always watchful of how much she was spending, she was relieved when he insisted on paying.

            ‘This building is hexagon,’ he said. ‘In Polish we say szesciokat. I have to learn this word in English as I have client who ask me to make small building in her garden in this shape because she say six is her lucky number.’

            ‘And did it bring her luck?’

            ‘She think so.’

            They laughed. 

            ‘That’s good. Do you enjoy being a builder?’

            ‘Actually I am contractor. Owning company. Interesting work, but also stressful. Complicated clients. Always changing mind. I think is aging me.’ He smiled, touching the greying hair above his ears. ‘And now everyone wanting basements. One even with swimming pool. Another lady ask for two kitchens – hiding maid in one to do real cooking!’

            ‘Lucky people.’ Had any of them come from nothing, or had they been born into such a lifestyle? ‘And lucky for you to be getting so much work.’

            ‘Lucky, yes. And some days I think unlucky too. Everybody always wanting, wanting. Perhaps they drive me to early grave!’

            ‘I hope not.’

            ‘And what are you doing?’

            ‘I work at a casino. As a croupier.’

            ‘You like gambling?’

            ‘I’ve never tried. I used to clean at the Savoy hotel. But I became bored – I was always alone in the rooms, doing the same thing every day. This job has good prospects. And it is interesting to watch all the people who come, to speak with them.’ 

            Most were harmless, many lonely. They told her things – their girlfriend leaving, their business failing – that she would not say to a stranger. Occasionally, inappropriate comments were made, in anger or in lust, but she had learnt the ‘kiss-up’ – making a kissing expression with her lips and placing her hand around her mouth – to call over an inspector to sort it out. After four months there she was still not able to believe the amounts of money people were willing to risk. Yesterday someone had put down ten thousand pounds on her table. And lost most of it.

            ‘You will stay in London?’ he asked.

            ‘I want to.’

            She didn’t tell him her plan to work for a few years and save up enough to study here. To one day be a lighting designer for the theatre. Sometimes it seemed a crazy and impossible dream. This city bled money from you. There were even times she thought about returning to Hungary, days when she could not see anything beautiful about this harsh, rainy northern place.

            But it had a hold on her. Like a lover who could be both cruel and kind, whenever she’d had enough, it would pull her close again, reminding her there was no other quite like it. It might be lying in a deckchair by the river, listening to a free jazz band outside the National Theatre, the sun hot on her face. Or discovering a beautiful room – used for breakfast only – at the home of an architect called Sir John Soane, with a domed ceiling and tiny round mirrors that looked like windows. Or simply the pink of an autumn sunset, surprising her on the Euston Road as she exited the tube at rush hour.

#

‘Do you like him?’ her friend Tatjana asked.

            ‘He’s nice. But it’s not like that between us.’

She didn’t mention how, when they’d met again that last weekend, to go skating at the Natural History Museum, Pawel had grabbed her hand while they were slithering around, trying to balance on their blades, and said ‘We will fly Ilona,’ and how the sensation of his large, warm palm in her own had felt safe, yet gently electric.

            ‘What does he do?’

            ‘Building contractor. With his own company.’ She respected that he had worked hard and made something of himself here.

            ‘Successful?’ Ilona could almost see Tatjana’s brain working, calculating opportunities.

‘If you mean how much money does he make, I have no idea. I don’t want to be reliant on a guy. I’m not even sure I want a relationship at the moment.’

It was safer to stay alone. There had been no-one since Antek. And boyfriends could be a distraction. She wanted to do her job well, save as much money as she could.

            ‘You can’t always plan these things. You have to grab your chances. Is he attractive?’

            ‘Not bad.’ There was a solidity to him, which was reassuring and very masculine. She particularly liked his eyes, large and green with long dark lashes. ‘But at least ten years older than me.’

            ‘Older is good.’

            ‘I am hoping to have family soon,’he’d said over hot chocolate, after the skating. ‘Maybe even with you if I am very lucky,’ he’d teased.

‘You’ll have to wait years then,’ she’d teased back. ‘I am too young for that.’

‘So I wait.’

‘What have you been up to?’ Ilona asked Tatjana, to change the subject.

‘The same as before. But now I’m studying too. In Business.’

Tatjana had the ability to provoke envy in Ilona, a reaction she disliked in herself. It was not just the news of her part-time degree, but also the soft grey wool coat, the fitted pale blue sweater, which looked like cashmere, the golden highlights in her blonde hair. In her eight-hour shift at the casino, Ilona earnt less than Tatjana made in an hour.

‘I think I have a long wait until I can study.’

‘You know how you can speed it up. Have you thought about it any more?’

Of course she had. And when she heard Tatjana describe how she mentally cut off those hours from the rest of her life – ‘almost like they belong to another person,’ and how they were a small percentage of her week anyway, and bought her huge amounts of freedom – it was tempting. In Tatjana’s eyes, living as Ilona did had a far higher price to pay.

            ‘It’s just work,’ she’d once said. ‘Using your body instead of your brain. And the men are mostly ok, some attractive even – normal people. And if I don’t like someone I just imagine they’re someone else.’

            Ilona’s rational mind had brought her close to calling the agency. But something – call it her heart, her soul – always pulled her back, protected her. You did not just let anyone near your body.

‘I have. And it’s not for me,’ she told Tatjana.

            Tatjana appraised her.

            ‘Shame. You’d be popular. We could even do a double act! Blonde and curvy with petite and dark. You can earn a fortune that way!’

            Tatiana always had been precocious, even back home. Ilona had not told her that at twenty-one she had only ever slept with two people.

‘Leave it Tatjana. I’m not going to.’

#

The weather had now turned. In the basement, Ilona shivered and tried to get back to sleep, wrapping the quilt tightly around her. It smelt like it had not encountered fresh air for a long time. It was noisy this morning, and an hour later she was awake again. She massaged wax earplugs in her palms, until they were soft enough to insert into her ears.

            A crashing sound woke her from a dream in which she and Tatjana, wearing only white lace underwear and with white feathers pinned in their hair, were standing on a stage. Tatjana was tugging her by the hand, urging her forward, but she was resisting. For a second she thought the sound was her falling off the stage.

            Instinct pulled her upright. She opened the door to the unit, peering into the harsh light of the corridor. A man was slumped there.

            ‘Help,’ she screamed, when she reached reception. ‘Help.’

#

It had been the old man with the globes. A heart attack.       

‘If you hadn’t heard him he’d probably be a goner by now,’ Joe said later. The ambulance had come quickly, the hospital only a few blocks away.

‘But I’m really sorry, you’re not going to be able to stick around any longer. It’s too risky. If he’d dropped dead, the police would’ve been in, and you’d have been questioned. Management would have found out you were here, and I’d have probably lost my job.’ 

‘I understand,’ said Ilona. Someone like Tatjana might have known to stay quiet at the sound of anything that could suggest trouble.

#

The globe-man’s heart attack was like a forewarning. Four days later, when she was staying at a nearby hostel, twenty to a room and missing having her own space, her father called.

            ‘I’m so sorry. Bad news. Granny has died.’

            Her parents had found her, in her bed, after she’d failed to arrive for lunch. She’d shown no signs of ill-health. 

            ‘I’m coming home,’ said Ilona. ‘When is the funeral?’ She wanted to see and touch her parents, especially her mother, who’d cried when she came on the phone, and not just hear their voices, separated by many hundreds of kilometres.

            ‘You don’t need to come. I know you are busy, it is expensive. Everyone will understand,’ said her father.

            Walking along Caledonian Road, towards King’s Cross, the wind blew in her face. People rushed about their business, eyes fixed ahead or on their phone screens. A car sounded its horn at her when she crossed the street just after the green man had turned red.

Her body felt shaky, the edges of her skin no longer quite so solid. Today she didn’t want to be alone. Yet she realised how few people she knew well enough here to call. She dialled Tatjana’s number, then cancelled it before it even rang. Would she understand? She wanted to speak to Pawel. His voicemail asked her to try again later. She was very near Argyle Square. Perhaps he would be at the building site.

            The front door of the house was open. She heard sawing and a radio in the distance. She went up the stairs, peering into rooms. There was so much wood. Not just the floors, but the cupboards and some of the walls too. Its fresh smell reminded her of home, of logs stacked up for winter, of her grandmother making a fire. Her eyes prickled.

            She found three workmen at the top of the house.

            ‘Is Pawel here?’

            ‘Coming maybe one hour.’

            ‘Tell him to look for Ilona in the square.’

#

‘Probably best you going home. One week, two weeks. Important to be with family.’ He sat next to her on the bench, ignoring the ringing of his phone.

            Ilona nodded. How much would a last minute flight will be?

            ‘You need help to pay for ticket?’

            ‘You are very kind. But I am ok.’

            ‘Tell me when flight is, and I drive you to airport.’

#

Early morning and they headed away from the city centre, towards Luton. Tall streetlamps glowed pale orange. Soon the buildings became lower and she was given a glimpse of the open land beyond. They turned onto a bigger, faster road, the lights now a brighter orange. Inside the car it was warm. Pawel’s hands held the wheel. She remembered the feeling of his palm, the day they’d skated.

            ‘When are you coming back?’ he asked.

            ‘In one week.’

            ‘Good.’

She leant back in her seat. It was good, it felt good.

There was a strange beauty to this dark landscape they sliced through; motorway lights, almost floating in the darkness, tracing the curve of the road ahead like endless miniature suns.

Biography

Annabel Chown was born in London and studied architecture at Cambridge University. She worked as an architect in London and in Berlin, and taught architecture at Kingston University. Her memoir, Hidden: Young, Single, Cancer was published in 2020 by Blue Door Press. Her writing on breast cancer has also been published in Red magazine and The Telegraph.

@annabelchown

http://www.annabelchown.com

You can find a PDF of this story here:

You can find Annabel Chown’s Instagram account here.

Mirror, Mirror by Mary Hamer

The glamorous villa she’s rented for a family holiday is all Serena  hoped for. Why then does she find herself beset by figures from the past?

Verona: a girl steps down from a train. The case she’s carrying is cheap, knocked about. It leaves her ashamed. Stoical, she looks around for the stranger, the father of the children she is to teach.

In the car she knows to make conversation. Later, at the house, she will find the dress she meant to wear is hopelessly crushed. She will put it on anyway. The maid will take her for sixteen.

Back in Italy fifty years on, a grandmother now, she gets out of the car. Driving down from Naples, the map on her lap and a sheet of instructions from the agency, Serena hasn’t been looking forward to pleasure.  Fear—of making a mistake, misreading the map, having to turn round and go back—left no room for that.

She’d do a lot to avoid going wrong, having to turn back.

Plus it’s the whole enterprise: renting a villa, inviting every one of the children and grandchildren. So much to take on.

Yet as she sets out to explore, to take possession, something in her settles.

She is starting to register a sense that she’s been here before.

Where and when she doesn’t ask.

She is just aware of being reminded.

It’s not really the house, satisfying and solid, that feels so familiar, though its long mass of pale stone is faintly glamorous, perhaps out of some half-remembered film. No, it’s something about the setting, the caressing warmth. The pines are so tall, the spaces between so wide. As though she had shrunk, was small once more. The needles are crisp, they tickle her feet through her sandals. She treads over towards the low wall that stands between her and the sea. Beyond, a white sailing boat small as a toy, glitters and rocks.

Now, looking back towards the wide terrace below the house she has a distinct sense of recognition. And of responsibility. As though she’s being invited to accept this place as her own, a demesne. Hers to keep ordered, to protect. Those tall trees, the falls of pink and white oleander too, lift her heart: beyond explanation it’s like coming back home.

She comes to a stop. How could that feel good, ‘coming home’? She has put everything into leaving behind the home she grew up in. She’d got away. Escaped.

Caught out for a moment, she pushes the confusion aside. Concentrate. She had put everything into finding a place for her family. Officially, to celebrate her seventieth birthday. Not with a party, they’d had that months earlier on the day itself: no, she just wanted to bring the whole family together once more. She was aware that some resistance was likely.

 ‘Never again’, one family had said after the trip for David’s seventieth. It never occurred to her that the most powerful resistance might be her own.

Serena had conceived the whole project in terms of practical issues: the question of the number of bedrooms, the location, the distance from the beach. Not least the touchy matter of dynamics between families. Longing on her own account to avoid the tense conjunctions, the furious whispered complaints in private, the pressure on her to make life happy that came with being a mother, especially the mother of a step-family, she’d managed to come up with a plan that would definitely keep family A and family C apart. Above all, with discretion. She really didn’t want anyone to guess or feel cheated.

There were four families to accommodate over the two weeks. With a bit of juggling the cordon sanitaire could be made to work. It would all be fair, she told herself. Glossing over the contortions involved, she was confident she had been fair all round. One way and another it had all taken a lot of managing but she was relieved. Everyone would have their due. 

And it was certainly easier to manage than when she was a girl, dealing with her old family. Then all she could control was her own behaviour. She’d been determined to keep some kind of order for herself and her small brothers when the hands-on mother who used to take care of everything collapsed and seemed to have forgotten them. A frightening stranger who kept kneeling down in the street to pray had taken her mother’s place.

She’d turned away from that sight as a girl but just recalling it still froze her. She refused to be associated with that stranger. But she was pleased, looking back, at the way she’d managed to take care of her brothers. She’d made sure there was always something to eat and read the little boys stories in bed every night, like her mother used to. She’d been good at that.

In the days when they were still getting to know each other, David had been curious about her family.  Had it marked her, he wondered, all that responsibility, not even a teenager.

‘D’you think you still feel resentment?’ he’d asked.

The question came back to irritate her as she stood among the fallen pine needles. What choice had she had? She couldn’t just stand back. Let everything fall apart. Collapse. Be like her mother. Never.

‘What choice did I have?’ she repeated.

But now, spoken aloud here in this place that was inexplicably familiar, this place which enfolded her in warmth, the question refused to die away.

Had she forgotten anything?

Even the bathroom was glamorous, all glittering gold tiles and mirrors. They were still admiring it when the grating of wheels on fine gravel brought them out onto the terrace. It must be the cook. As they watched, a figure emerged and started unloading packages from the back seat. A week earlier in London, sitting at her computer Serena had chosen the menu for that first evening. She made for the kitchen. On her way she barely noticed someone, a scrawny woman lugging bucket and mops in the distance. 

Moving between the formica–topped table and the tall fridge was a woman with a broad pleasant face, who introduced herself as Valeria. She explained that Lilli—that must be the woman with the mops—was the maid and responsible for housework. To Serena Valeria looked as much like a nurse as a cook in her white overall and cap. But there was nothing clinical about her. Laughing, gesturing, she displayed the large rough-skinned lemons she’d bought from a neighbour. The cheeses came from a small dairy she knew: tomorrow a special local variety would be available. ‘Basta’, she apologized cheerfully and stopped herself. ‘I do run on.’

Serena only had scraps of Italian picked up in Verona before she was twenty but it seemed they were somehow going to be enough to make a bridge between them. What’s more, their tastes coincided completely. Hearing that local ingredients, simple dishes, were what was wanted Valeria beamed. Just what she herself believed was healthiest and best. Lunch would be at one, dinner at eight. Did that suit? Menus would be agreed the previous evening and she, Valeria, would shop for ingredients every day.

‘I will take care of everything,’ she confirmed.

In the nicest way Valeria was treating her like a child. Her words opened the door to a world without responsibility.

Serena had loved the idea of being free, not having to shop or cook but she hadn’t imagined how soothing Valeria’s daily presence and their evening consultations would be. ‘Non ti preoccupare,’ Valeria would calm her, using the intimate form as though they were family, whether Serena was at a loss for vocabulary or for ideas for the next meal. She brought a steady rhythm to the days. And neither Serena nor David had foreseen how the tiresome squabbles and decisions around a kitchen and mealtimes— ‘we need to eat earlier’, ‘my children won’t eat that’, ‘I’ll just make a snack’—were transcended at a stroke. Everyone showed up, drifted along, and sat together round the long table on the terrace for breakfast, for lunch, for supper without demur.

It was a pity Lilli was in charge of breakfast—it all seemed a bit beyond her, especially the coffee—but that cast the only shadow.

Serena herself was changing. In this world of calm she felt herself opening, letting go. From the first, she felt no call to organise, to make plans. When David spoke of visiting the Greek temples at Paestum she fell in with him, though with reluctance. Such educated interests seemed to belong to another world, a different life. Children’s stories, with their tales of enchantment, were a better match for the life she was experiencing here. As though under a spell she was all sensation, given up to the heat. Charmed by the sense of being wrapped in warmth—even in the early morning, when she stepped out onto the terrace in her bare feet, the stones were already heating up—she looked for no further explanation for the change in herself.

At the same time, though she’d told no one, she was in constant pain. This did trouble her. Not quite physical but almost, insistent, specific. Nothing like anything she’d felt before, she’d been struggling to give it a name. Turning back to the stories her mother read her as a child, ‘A shirt woven of nettles’, she murmured at last. Like the fairytale about the shirts the sister wove with blistered hands to save her brothers. She’d always rather seen herself in that girl.

Only much later did she think of hair shirts and shame. ‘Saints used to wear hair shirts under their clothes, right next to their skin,’ her Irish mother had explained when she was small. ‘No-one else could see, though. It was a secret. They did it because they knew they’d done things that were wrong, and they were sorry.’

But she really couldn’t see how that applied to her.

Insistent, inexplicable, constant, the sense of discomfort would not leave her. Yet it didn’t take away from her pleasure, the satisfaction in this place she’d chosen. It was as though it went with the pleasure, was its twin, this pain that felt as close as the warmed stones under her bare feet. Like the reliable and welcome heat, pain was the constant medium through which she moved.

She had never known anything like this she told herself.

Simple ease wasn’t possible. Fevered skin nagged away at her, couldn’t be avoided, didn’t allow escape. With no idea what it meant or whether she ought to do something about it, she spoke of it to no one. Not so much stoicism as bewilderment: Serena couldn’t understand what was happening to her.

   *

The first couple of days unreeled without any effort on her part. She really had joined the ranks of the children. Though they were a good deal more active. The undergrowth beyond the pine trees crashed and echoed to wild games. On the terrace the occasional pock of table tennis rallies. Younger children, joined by one adult or another, shrieked and splashed, away beyond the pool-house. Mothers peered over their sunglasses to applaud, spread suncream, then picked up their novels again.

Life at the villa seemed protected, positively enchanted. At all hours the faintly orange scent of the pines. At night a young fox blurred by in the dark beyond the gleam of the citronella coils laid out to keep the mosquitoes at bay. Lit by the glow from the kitchen, Valeria stood chatting with the maintenance man’s wife, admiring their new baby. Beyond the curving black trunks of pine and eucalyptus the sea shone. Serena and David swam twice a day.

There were always new surprises, new cues—as it first seemed—for delight. Until the day she came to a halt touching David’s bare arm.

‘Look, along there, down the lane. It reminds me of that Indian film we saw. The procession. Chanting priests, the drugged widow on the way to be burned…’

Her voice tailed off. The memory stirred something like dread in her. 

Behind them the empty path, pale stones underfoot, overhead dark foliage, formed a tunnel. Brooding, deserted, blank. Waiting, as though an actor were about to appear.

In fact, the person who did actually make an entrance every single day was Lilli, bringing the breakfast. A gaunt half-starved figure, overladen, arms at full stretch around a carton packed with supplies she’d picked up from the supermarket—croissants, milk, bags of coffee, yogurts—she would cry ‘Signora, scusa, scusa’ as though the day had already defeated her.

The very sight of Lilli was disturbing: Serena knew it didn’t bring out the best in her. She wasn’t proud of herself but she did resent being faced with this sad creature. Lilli stuck out in that place.

Besides, Serena sometimes feared she herself might look like that.

Deprived, frantic. Placatory.

Lilli had more to do than she could cope with. She ran between kitchen and terrace frowning. It looked as though it was the first time she’d had to serve breakfast. Every morning there was a meal for eleven to lay out but she made no use of a tray.

They wanted to find a way to help but that only seemed to confuse her. The numbers were too great for making coffee on the stove, the only way Lilli was used to. It meant they all had to hang about while children clamoured for food and Lilli herself was miserably flustered as she ran up at last with the tall metal coffeepots. Yet it was too hard for her to change, to face learning something new, something that would be easier.

‘Non sono capace,’ she quavered, when David offered to show her how to use the cafetières. Instead it was agreed they would see to the coffee themselves.

But there was no rest for Lilli. As soon as the family had taken their places at the table, she hurried off to do out the bedrooms.

Serena tried to see as little of her as possible. 

Unexpectedly, she herself became busy. Once she’d noticed the washing machine in the kitchen it seemed to set off some kind of internal alarm. She couldn’t imagine what had got hold of her. In spite of herself she collected load after load. As if she couldn’t just be on holiday, be free. The others did collect their own clean clothes from the washing lines but she still found more tasks for herself. Her arms full of crumpled dresses, she came to a halt. She was as bad as Lilli. What could be going on?

But she was tired of mistrusting herself, all this anxious second-guessing. She must get a move on. She put the dresses down on the bed and set out to ask Lilli for an ironing board. After all the years that had passed since her weeks in Verona as a girl, she could still remember ‘stirare’ was the word for doing the ironing.

She brightened, stepping out into the dazzling light. It brought back mornings in Italy when she was nineteen: her first long vacation from Oxford. A summer near Verona, in a long low house overlooking Lake Garda, engaged to live with the family and speak English with the children.

A godsend. It had saved her from having to go home.

The household she was joining had a steady rhythm. Before breakfast the clack of high heels on terracotta would tell her that Anna, the mother, was hurrying between the children and checking that the maid had set the table properly and was getting on with the coffee. In the afternoons big cheerful local women came in to take care of the laundry. It was too hot inside, so they set up their ironing boards out in the open on the terrace. In the background songs played from a little radio perched on the windowsill.

Serena stopped in her tracks. She’d surprised herself. She remembered it all in such detail, even that awful crumpled dress she’d put on the first day. It was all coming back irresistibly, in a cascade. How they gave her an evening at the Opera, finishing up sharing pizza round a table out in the warm darkness, and once the mother took her to Venice for the day. Another time there was an expedition to one of Anna’s favourite small shops. She made Serena stand in daylight by the shop door, then ran back and forth trying different shades against Serena’s skin, to find the right silk scarf, in a soft green. Later she’d picked out a dress from her own wardrobe in the same tone and made Serena a present of it, with the right lipstick.

Yet those warm memories were mixed with a sense of her past unease in the face of all that was offered her. It was as though she’d known at the time that she didn’t deserve such kindness. In fact, no longer kept in soft focus, the memories of that Italian summer were edged with shame. She approached that gingerly, not sure now what she was letting herself in for. She would have preferred not to know, to forget but the shame wouldn’t go away. In spite of the strong sun, a shiver crept over her and she sank into a wicker chair.

It was too bright out here after all. She was squinting.

She couldn’t stop the flow of recollection now, it moved on like a film unrolling. Here was the evening when a friend of the husband, an American on vacation, arrived for dinner.

‘What a place you’ve got here,’ the visitor had said, transparently impressed, as they stood with their drinks on the terrace, looking out over the lake.

He’d turned to Serena.

‘We don’t have anything at home like this and I guess you don’t either.’

She had been stung, pierced by a resentment and shame she couldn’t bear to analyse.

Fifty years on she stood cold under the bright sun, arms clasped around her heart, breath short. It was as if he knew. Saw through her to the father who had lost his job, the slumped figure of her mother, ash from her cigarette dropping into the sugar bowl unheeded.

 With relief she came back to the present.  Exhaled. Reassured herself. No wonder she hadn’t wanted anyone to connect her with that home.

Out of the shade it was already uncomfortably hot, not ironing weather, as Serena finally made her way up the external steps leading to the bedrooms, wondering all the while at her own actions. But in a few moments Lilli’s response to her request seemed positively freakish. Without a word to show that she had understood, she led Serena into the upstairs salon. By a small table she paused. From a clutter of bric à brac she selected a metal statuette of a horseman. Lifted, it revealed a key.

Lilli looked round.

Finger to her lips, she hissed, ‘Between you and me. Not the agency. Not the owners.’

Serena recoiled, queasy, as at the whiff of something tainted. Lilli seemed so abject, so sly. Even a bit mad. Ever since her mother’s breakdown mad people frightened Serena. Just seeing one in the street threw her off balance, let alone having to engage with one. But this time she couldn’t get away.

All she wanted was an iron. But her Italian wasn’t up to raising questions, plus she was intent on keeping her distance. That was the way she’d managed with her mother. She wanted nothing to do with this woman, Lilli. She must calm her down, appear to consent to this pact. Smiles, gestures, nods. Keep them empty.

She didn’t register how much it disturbed her, this renewed withholding. Instead, she found herself thinking of fairytales where a girl has to ask an old witch nicely for her help. In reality she found it hard to say how old Lilli was. With that haggard look she could have been fifty. Younger than Serena, anyway. Yet in spite of that, in front of her Serena didn’t feel in charge, she felt powerless, depleted, no more than a girl.

Retreating awkwardly down the stairs clutching iron and board, she hovered between triumph and confusion. She’d got what she needed: whatever was she doing? In 30 degrees of heat, she’d set herself up to do some ironing. She wasn’t sure she wanted the others to know.

 Later, in the shuttered darkness of the afternoon, she took up the iron and reached for her favourite dress, a fine black poplin. Expensive. But it had been worth it, she’d loved how it made her look. She spread its billows over the ironing table.

Sleeveless, buttoning at the front down its full length, with wide skirts, she’d often thought it was modelled on a priest’s soutane. Today though, for the first time she asked herself what she’d been up to, wearing it. For her, with her Irish mother, her convent schooling, there was no question. Putting on a priest’s soutane was an act of sacrilege. She had managed, somehow, to avoid that knowledge when she was admiring herself in the mirror.

The iron wasn’t heating up. She jiggled the lead till the red light came on. She wished she had something to spray the dress with while she waited.

Now she was wondering. Could there have been a certain defiance in flaunting herself in that pretty girly soutane? She’d never imagined that. Yet something in her must have been savouring it: the secret pleasure of mocking priests and their authority just by walking down the street.

The street had been a place of humiliation for her as a girl. She used to shrink at the sight of her mother kneeling down on the pavement, arms stretched out, muttering loud prayers. It was worse in church, where she turned up hunched under a vast shawl and made her way to the communion rail bowed almost from the waist, eyes tight shut, lips in exaggerated silent movement.

Serena always pushed the memory away.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

Yet today, all of a sudden, she could see the element of pantomime in that scene. Not piety, but performance. A mockery of the priests up at the altar in their embroidered copes? Mockery not unlike her own gesture, dressing up in that soutane.

You couldn’t put a pin between them.

Her mother and herself.

She paused. Stood the iron back up.

Now without any effort on her part a different memory fell into place, a memory of information that had come to her long after her mother’s death. At the time she hadn’t known what to do with it, the rumour that as a girl her mother had complained of sexual abuse—claimed that a priest had been abusing her.

In her mother’s Irish family it had been remembered as ‘troublemaking’: back then nobody would have listened or believed her. She’d have been shouted down.

Serena stood, her task ignored, shame-faced. How could it have taken her so long to put two and two together, to connect those scenes in the street with that whisper of abuse from the past? Now she was paying attention, the scenes she’d resented because of how they made her feel began to look different. To be a sign of resistance. Mockery, revenge. A claim for attention.

Her mother had not given up. You couldn’t deny it showed spirit.

Except. Except that she, Serena, had denied it, seeing only failure.

She was going to need time to absorb this image of her mother. It wasn’t entirely clear where she was left herself.

Meanwhile, the frivolous soutane was much too dry to iron. She stared at it, distracted.

The following day, she was forced to go and ask Lilli’s help for a second time. It really was the last thing she wanted, more dealings with this sad figure. A child had peed his bed and a clean sheet was needed, no question. But she shied at asking for one, at speaking of something so intimate, even though it only involved a child. She’d have preferred to keep her distance, put a stop to Lilli’s attempts to establish a bond with her.

Dishevelled as ever, Lilli was at work cleaning a shower. Serena had no intention of being trapped in a small space with her again: a hail from the threshold would get her attention. Serena had been pleased when she realised she could at least remember that ‘cambiare’ was how to say ‘change’.

As if at the chance she’d been waiting for, a cue, Lilli dropped her mop and let out a burst of Italian. The words ‘ogni giorno’ were repeated. Serena understood enough to make out:

‘I’ve been changing all the sheets every day. They told me to change them every three days but I took no notice. I change them all every day’.

Serena stiffened, shrinking back in shock. The woman really was a bit crazy she told herself.

Lilli’s ongoing quarrel with her employers were nothing to her. She resented being drawn into any trouble with the powers that be.

It was dawning on her that the name for what she felt was anger. She hated having the business sprung on her like this.

She did know, without being able to name it, that she felt accused. She concentrated on justifying herself. It wasn’t anything she’d asked for or thought of wanting, a daily change of bedlinen. She had simply asked for a clean sheet. She would have liked to keep raging that this tiresome woman was putting them both in the wrong with her unwanted favours.

But Lilli had left her work and crossed the room forcing Serena to step back outside. Lilli’s narrow face, too close to her own, was needy, eager for recognition, for thanks.

Resistance, almost violent, took over Serena.

‘This is nothing to do with me,’ she told herself one more time. She didn’t quite have the heart, though, to hold out. Italian or no Italian—and she didn’t have the language to argue— she couldn’t quiet the sense that raising objections, refusing thanks when they were so much desired, would show a mean spirit.

And besides, it had already happened. Lilli had put in all that extra work on their behalf. Serena had to accept that she was under an obligation. Dimly, grudgingly, she began to concede that perhaps Lilli did deserve some thanks for what would have been sweating labour. They must all have slept in more comfort through those hot nights on sheets that were fresh and smooth.

She couldn’t summon the actual words but did manage to force a smile that she hoped looked grateful. Her only thought was to get away. Away from this woman who kept wrong-footing her.

Empty, exhausted, surrendering, she sank onto a long sunbed and lay back shutting her eyes. Gradually she became conscious of the drone of a small machine in the background. Coming from the house, it was soothing, a reminder that out of sight someone was busy and in charge. It buzzed, she sleepily thought, just like the sound of the hoover when she was small, out in the street on her tricycle. As she gripped the handlebars, feet planted, looking out at the world, there had been comfort in that sound.

Still not quite in command of herself next morning, it was with dread she realised that Lilli was looking for her. She wasn’t sure how much more of this she could take. Beckoning her down the path that led along the side of the house, Lilli paused by a vast arched opening, great wooden doors leaning casually apart. Reluctantly, Serena followed into the shadowy space. She was struck how far it reached back. Once upon a time, she guessed, farm animals might have been sheltered there, a shuffling, nuzzling presence.

Once they were both deep inside and out of sight, Lilli pointed towards a large package she’d evidently parked there earlier. Amongst the rubble of past years—forgotten highchairs and collapsed pool toys stored in there out of the way—the shiny new wrapping paper stood out.

Where it had been torn back, there showed through dark blue—oh no, Oxford blue, how did the woman know that? Lilli ripped away more paper, to reveal a stack of thick towels, a good half dozen of them, rich and inviting. Serena was confused. She hadn’t asked for any such thing.

‘They’re new, Signora. All new. I took them for you. From the store. The owner doesn’t know. For the pool-house.’

Finger at her lips, Lilli smiled, scrawny, waiting.

She was being offered a present, all wrapped with care, and she couldn’t get out of accepting it: this Serena faced, however uncomfortable it made her. However nervous she was of Lilli and of getting involved.

Gaining a moment, scarcely knowing what she was doing, she stroked the towels. They were lush, highly desirable, in line with everything about the life they were living in that house, not anything you’d want to reject.

Reject? Once long ago there had been a pile of towels she’d rejected. The shame of it went far deeper than any passing embarrassment. So much more than the towels had been at stake.

It was at the time when her mother was said to have partly recovered, though she was no longer the woman she had once been. Other people still called her ‘Madge’ but Serena was determinedly keeping her distance. She refused to acknowledge the mother who had gone away, leaving her. She closed her heart.

Her mother was no longer behaving oddly, though now a bit unkempt and hesitant in a way she hadn’t been before. She was well enough to go out alone.

If there was one thing that ‘d always given Madge a kick, that was a bargain.  There’d been a cut-price drapers in the village that she enjoyed going round. When she got home that afternoon she was full of triumph in the bundle of towels she’d bought. For Serena, however, they were a reminder of humiliation. In their drab stripes and thin texture, she saw only the shameful proof that they were poor, now her father had no job.

The very thought of those towels used to make her shrink.

With that thought however, came another. She’d always known that her response, ‘Those towels look a bit cheap to me’ had been cruel. But now for the first time she faced what she’d really done. Rejecting the towels wasn’t the worst of it. It was the woman herself that she’d rejected, the mother who had once taken care of her.

Too angry to forgive her mother for leaving she’d frozen her out.  No more enjoying the warmth of each other’s company in the old way. She had never never once melted, despite what it cost. Cost both of them.

The waste, the sorrow of the past could have silenced her.

Yet she had to act right now, in the present.

Her head was spinning as she fought to make sense, to know how best to respond to Lilli. She hadn’t the tools, the language to insist that the towels should go back. And anyway, who knew how Lilli would cope with being challenged? A scene would be dreadful. And too unkind.

The towels weren’t really that important, Serena told herself at last.

It was Lilli.

But how had Lilli managed to see right into her, to catch sight of things that she had put aside, kept hidden away even from herself? Hidden away as she herself had been long ago, one cold day at a bus stop, when her mother’d held open her own brown tweed overcoat so that little Serena could join her, buttoned up inside it together keeping warm.

Lilli was waiting. The silence felt as though it lasted years.

At long last Serena managed to choke out ‘Grazie’.

Then stumbled back towards the light.

Dazzled at first, she put up her hand to shade her eyes.  A faint alarm came over her as the pots carefully spaced along the terrace caught her eye. Surely those oleanders weren’t drooping like that when they’d arrived? Close up, the jasmines too were limp.

It was all her fault. She’d neglected them.

The sickening moment passed and she came to, embarrassed at her own silliness. Common sense took over and she set off to make use of the house phone. A slender young man duly appeared, trailing a hose from pot to pot, missing out a few and having to be reminded.

She needed time to think.

At that hour of the morning the terrace was deserted. She moved a wicker armchair to the corner of shade and sank into the cushions. This was all too extraordinary. Compelled time after time to face a woman she shrank from, only to come away with a gift. It really was like a fairy tale.

Yet as she began to feel more herself again, slowly the commonsense answer came to her: perhaps Lilli’s strange behaviour was really just about money. About being short of money. If Lilli had kept making certain she was noticed, that might simply mean she wanted to make sure of a good tip.

Just looking at her, you could tell that she was not only hard up but crushed, thoroughly demoralised. The sight of Lilli, with her hungry look, a cigarette at her lips as she waited for a lift after work, had made Serena more uncomfortable than she knew. It was unusual, now she came to think about it, to see an Italian woman cut such a poor figure. Perhaps Lilli had no idea how to make the best of herself. Or perhaps, it abruptly occurred to Serena, perhaps too many bad things had happened to Lilli.

Her feet were getting scorched, stretched out in the sun. She tucked them back into the narrow shade.

If Lilli didn’t have magic powers, if she wasn’t some kind of witch, then it must mean that her own mind had been playing tricks. If that was really the right way to put it. Serena shifted among cushions that were suddenly uncomfortable, too big for that chair.

A suspicion began to creep over her. If this wasn’t a fairy-tale, then perhaps it might be a ghost story. Was it too far-fetched to say she’d been haunted? By the mother who had never wanted to give up on her? By her own heart’s truth?

There were no answers for her questions.  Nevertheless, she wasn’t left irritated. She felt calmed.

Resolute, she got to her feet and made for the glittering bathroom with its many mirrors. The image she found there pleased her. In spite of all her old fears, she didn’t look crushed like Lilli, not in the least. But the lock that fell over her right eye—that was just the way her mother’s hair fell, in the photograph by her bed at home.  A smiling woman, her small son pressing against the silk of her flowered skirts, that last summer when she was still herself.

‘You’re exactly like her, the way she was before she fell ill. You would have loved her,’ an old friend of her mother had once said.

From outside came the sound of high-pitched voices.

The families were beginning to gather for lunch. A few details to sort out here too, now she’d come back to herself.

Now as the little boys arrived, tumbling over each other, pushing, shoving, exclaiming, Serena took charge.

‘Let’s make sure they’re separated from now on at mealtimes’, she said.

The parents were surprised.

‘Oh. Don’t you think it’s rather sweet, the little squabbles and the fights they get into?’ came lazily back.

‘Not at my table.’

Her response, assured, definitive, seemed to her uttered in the voice of a grande dame. She knew it came out of a book, didn’t care how it sounded. She meant it.

Biography

Mary Hamer, educated by the nuns and at Oxford, began as an academic exploring Trollope’s writing practice, long before she began to wonder about her own. The books that followed – exploring the image of Cleopatra, on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and on trauma ( see www.mary-hamer.co.uk) – moved her closer to thinking about living women and the world which shaped them. Turning to biofiction in Kipling & Trix, winner of the Virginia Prize, she called attention to the woman who shared a traumatic childhood with her famous brother. Mirror, Mirror is the first short story Mary has published.

You can find a PDF of this story here:

Snow on the Danube by Francis Gilbert

Snow on the Danube (Blue Door Press 2019) evokes the lost world of Budapest during and between two great wars  and is recounted in the inimitable voice of Count Zoltán Pongrácz: a fussy hypochondriac who becomes an unlikely and compromised hero when the Fascists take over his beloved country and he is forced to rescue his adored, wayward sister Anna. An unlikely comedy, a document of filial love and a compelling portrait of the horrors of war, Snow on the Danube is the story of one man’s quest to save everything he loves most: his family, his friends – and, perhaps, his soul.

The Beginning    1920

Hungary wore black on the day of my birth. Street vendors tied black ribbons around bouquets of flowers; archdukes donned their darkest garb and thrummed their fingers on gold-tasselled armrests. Tram-drivers left their trolley buses in the depot and sat with their children in their tiny flats. Priests and civil servants hoisted black flags and watched them flutter in the air. The streets were empty. Church bells rang. Gamekeepers cancelled their early morning walks; they slumped in their chairs, hounds at their feet. Maids failed to make their daily trips to the grocers and lay on camp beds in their cubby-holes; bakers neglected to light their ovens and open their shutters. The keeper at the City Zoo threw a few thin slabs of meat to the lions and slouched home.

It was a day of national mourning. In Paris, a treaty was signed that butchered Hungary. Two-thirds of the kingdom was turned over to Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. Hungary had supported the losing side in the First World War.

My father had two reasons to wear black on June 4, 1920. Not only had he lost the family’s monumental Transylvanian castle in the unceremonious carve-up of the Treaty of Trianon but he had also, on the very same day, to endure the birth of his son.

My memories from those very early years are vague. I don’t remember much about the family’s life at our chateau in Villány. I can recall my father’s imperious voice barking orders at the workmen who toiled all day at the bottom of our ornamental garden. ‘Down there! Careful now. Easy with those girders!’

His shirt sleeves were rolled up and his bald head seemed to glow as he twirled his silver-topped cane. In his polished hunting boots he was a mass of perspiring muscle, mushrooming dust as he heaved bricks. I had no idea what was going on but I guessed it was of the utmost importance.

My first memory of my sister is of her informing me about those mysterious, grunting proceedings. Her black hair brushed my cheek as she leaned towards me and whispered: ‘They’re building a bridge. Papa says it’s very important that the lions have tongues.’

Trying to connect the idea of the bridge with lions was very difficult for me. I imagined that Papa would place real ones on the bridge and this was the whole purpose of the exercise: to give the lions a decent home.

This supposition was no more ridiculous than what he was attempting to do. My father, being fanatical about bridges, thought that he could somehow rectify the dire financial problems afflicting his vineyards by building a replica of Budapest’s Chain Bridge at the bottom of his garden. He persisted in believing in this illusion for a long time, even after the construction of the imitation bridge had bankrupted him, forced him to sell the chateau and move permanently back to Budapest.

Many years later, when I would stroll with my father on the actual bridge in the Budapest twilight, he would sigh and point to the monumental but tongueless lions, commenting regretfully: ‘People were coming from miles around to see my Chain Bridge at Villány. The archduke Frederick himself greatly admired it. That bridge was the only thing that wretched estate had going for it: it was a rotten, dry, wizened sort of place. We never grew a single decent grape there.’

After the Count’s death, I discovered that this was an outright lie. Although my father sold the chateau, he continued to own vast tracts of the vineyards. He had the good sense to appoint an honest and practical Magyar supervisor to run them all. This doughty chap wasn’t even discouraged by the lack of any venue to make the wine in and converted some abandoned cellars on the estate for that purpose. The fantastic Hungarian wines that this chateau-less estate produced was the only real source of income that my family had.

But, of course, I knew none of this as a tiny child gazing on all those workmen toiling away at the banks of the small river that babbled at the bottom of our garden. At the grand opening of the bridge, which most of the neighbouring villages attended, my father held me up proudly before the stone lions.

‘My lions have tongues that definitively exist — unlike the lions on the Chain Bridge in Budapest. They’ll be seeing my lions’ tongues for miles around! Just look at them!’ the Count roared as he held me aloft before the curled manes of those sandstone felines. To be honest, I don’t remember this but the anecdote was recounted with such regularity in the following years that it has almost become a genuine memory.

Certain smells awaken glimmerings of the chateau at Villány in my mind. The sharp, rich tang of fermenting wine transports me to the time when Anna gave me an illicit sip: I can still see her dimpled fingers wrapped around the glass. The cool dampness of mould compels me to recall the wooden barrels in the wine cellars. The baked warmth of the hard earth makes me see those dry vineyards tapering off into the horizon. And the delicious whisk of a breeze sends me back to the moments when I would stand in the middle of the bridge, watch the water ripple underneath and feel the airy draught against my cheeks. Ah yes, I’m never far from those sensations.

My sister told me that we used to play a lot of games around the bridge’s building site. Her favourite pastime was a game that she had invented after reading Molnár’s The Paul Street Boys. This was a classic Hungarian children’s story about a group of boys who engage in a fierce battle with a nasty gang to claim ownership of some derelict but treasured land in the slums of Budapest. I’m not sure that our massive garden in Villány, with its circular ponds and cherub-infested fountain, topiary hedges and lichened griffins, replicated those conditions but apparently Anna managed to persuade the servants’ children and myself that it did.

According to my sister, we all had a marvellous time throwing sand and bricks at each other and hiding behind wheelbarrows until I received a vicious crack on the head.  Anna had to scoop me up in her arms and run with me into the drawing room where my mother was reading. Mama said there was so much blood spurting out of my head that Anna’s white frock turned red. Because there was no hospital nearby, they had to take me to a gypsy healer who waved some leaves over my battered skull and curtailed the bleeding.

My only memory of the event is of a warm stickiness sprouting out of my scalp and wondering whether cocoa and other hot beverages were extracted from people’s heads. Push back my hair and you can still see the long, white scar.

* * *

Yes, yes, yes: there are black and white photos from this time. There’s my father, the Count, standing in his hunting gear and deerstalker hat with his Purdey shotgun in front of the fat-tongued lions. There’s my mother, sitting under a parasol in her white, floral dress, reading Pride and Prejudice and looking like the fair English maiden that she was before we moved to Budapest. There’s me, as a baby, wearing a long, cotton dress with frilly edges and long sleeves being carried by my mother in the road leading to the Archduke Frederick’s farm – his wine cellars and hunting grounds were close to us and we used to visit them regularly. What big round eyes I have! But you can certainly see in my pale, agitated face the first inklings of the illnesses that would plague me for the rest of my life.

The Chain Bridge, Budapest

* * *

And there’s Anna. Doesn’t she look naughty with her dark, inquiring eyes, her cheeky grin, her thick black hair, and her high, Pongrácz cheekbones, all dolled up in that ridiculous harlequin’s costume and hat? She always loved dressing up, even in the days when she became a hardened communist.

And here we all are together in our stately horse-drawn carriage, setting off for Mass in our Sunday best: my father is dressed in sober black with a top hat and my mother entirely obscured by the huge, netted hat she’s decided to model. And there we are behind them: me, in an absolutely tiny shirt and tie, and Anna looking distinctly grumpy in a Transylvanian frock. She never liked acting the role of a Magyar. But my goodness, she looks so slim and young!

* * *

It’s a shame that I remember so little from that time, but I was only five years old when my sister and I left Villány. My memory only revives when we moved to Budapest. And those first days and weeks I can recollect so vividly that I can shut my eyes and replay them with the same ease that a projectionist can pop a film into his whirring machine and shine it in Technicolor onto the darkened cinema screen.

Budapest 1945

Anna ran out of the apartment. If she had been speaking sense, I probably would not have followed her and tended to the unconscious Miss Virág. But my sister wasn’t herself at all: there was a desperate light of optimism in her eyes, the kind of optimism that quickly dwindles into suicidal depression once it has been disappointed. I felt that she was in more danger than my tutor.

I pursued her onto Andrássy where she slackened her pace, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep up. I called out to her to come back but she ignored me and, thus, I trailed after her through the nightmarish wreckage of Budapest all the way down Attila József utca right down to the river.

The relatively intact state of my apartment had been an exceptionally misleading indication about the general condition of our capital city. How can I begin to describe its ruinous condition? The streets were strewn with overturned tanks, burnt-out trams and cars; flames still lapped at the ruins of great apartment blocks and grey smoke drifted around the tree-tops. Great swathes of the apartments on the ring road around Deak Ter had been obliterated, leaving only charred timbers, pulverized bricks, broken tiles and smashed glass, and the dead bodies of dogs and cats. The corpses of Germans, Hungarians and Russians littered the gutters. Although most of the bodies were of uniformed soldiers, I did come across one unfortunate Swabian flower vendor who was still holding out a sprig of heather and lavender in her hand as if she was just about to sell the pitiful herbs. Her throat had been slashed and the blood had dried around the deep wound like old egg yolk.

After that I determined that I wouldn’t look closely at anything lying on the frozen ground unless I absolutely had to. However, despite this pledge to myself, I couldn’t help discerning that much of the snow was streaked with bright, red blood and many of the icy puddles were the colour of English strawberries. Her determination to reach her destination seemed to make her oblivious of the carnage around her; she hopped over bodies, skipped across gutters full of bloody pulp and twisted metal, and ducked around the abandoned trams and tanks.

As we approached the Danube, we heard feet tramping through the snow and the howling screech of a Russian officer. I swivelled round and saw that a large infantry division was marching in our wake: the sound of a drum reverberated through the eerily quiet, snow-thrilled air.

I managed to catch up with Anna on the fragmented remains of the Corso. She had come to a dead stop in front of what used to be the Carlton hotel and was staring at the Danube. The snow mocked us as it fell so peacefully onto the icy water.

“Ahhh!” Anna screamed.

I rushed up to her and took her arm by the railings of the promenade, which were now as looped and bowed as shoe laces. Then I embraced her, and she buried her face in the crook of my shoulder. As I held her, I could see what had happened to this once beautiful part of Budapest: every bridge had been blown up and all the great hotels on the Corso were simply piles of rubble with the occasional glint of a chandelier or hint of red carpet poking through the devastation.

I remember thinking it was a good thing that my father was dead: he couldn’t have borne the vision of the Chain Bridge’s lions with their manes blasted away and the middle of the bridge sliding into the unforgiving currents of the Danube. Nor could he have endured to see the great Buda castle’s dome stripped of its green copper finery and its inner scaffolding exposed to the elements. Most of all, the smell of burnt flesh and rubber and wood, and the crackle of simmering fires eating up the great hotels of the Corso would have told the Count that everything civilised about Hungary had been lost, irretrievably cast to oblivion. And yet, I couldn’t help feeling that my country deserved it. Quite frankly, I didn’t care that the Chain Bridge was totally destroyed.

You can find a PDF of these extracts here:

Biography

Francis Gilbert found the process of working with the other members of Blue Door Press on Snow on the Danube an enriching and enlightening process. He began the novel in the late 1990s, doing much research and rewriting the novel a great many times. It was not until he worked with Blue Door Press in 2016 that the narrative finally took a compelling and original shape. You can read about this process in his blog here: https://bluedoorpress.co.uk/2019/03/12/the-importance-of-patience-why-it-took-21-years-to-publish-snow-on-the-danube/

The Danube, the Chain Bridge and Budapest

To A Lost Sister: Fairweather Beach, 1979 by Kellie Jackson

An excerpt from Kellie Jackson’s novel-in-progress 

From a carefully curated life in London, Cate is called back to her native Australia where she grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, part of a working-class family in Newcastle, New South Wales. This ‘The Steel City,’ an industrial port, also had a beach culture. Aged 14, Cate’s life was thrown off-course when her siblings, Cara and Dom, were in a car accident. Cara and friend Bernadette died, Dom survived. Now approaching 50, Cate is struggling with a failing marriage and an empty nest. The family crisis that forces her return brings a showdown with the past. Here, Cate recalls and addresses her lost sister Cara – a memory that takes her to a place ‘altogether elsewhere.



Fairweather Beach is a fictional place drawing on three beaches featured in this 1960s image: Bar Beach, Dixon Park & Merewether Beach 
 

We are at the beach behind the surf club. You’re letting me sit with you and your best friend, Bernadette. Normally at the beach you ignore me, especially if you’re with friends. This time, because you’re in trouble again, you’ve had to bring me with you as punishment.

We sit facing the car park, backs to the sun-baked brick wall, bums on towels laid out on the cement. You have a new jar of coconut oil and Bernie has a dribble of Hawaiian Tropic which we smear on our bodies to burn better. You and Bernie are keeping a roll call of who’s going in and out of the surf club bar. Our brother Dom’s at work with Dad. Dom’s best mate Thomo is upstairs getting shit-faced with some of the older guys. They’ve been drinking jugs of beer since lunchtime.

I’ve got Flowers In the Attic to read and I’m loving it. The girl in the book is locked up in the attic with her brothers and sister and left for dead by their mad mother. I’ve just read the bit where the girl and her brother kiss. Imagine kissing your actual brother. Foul. I’ve heard what happens later in the book and I can’t imagine it. I can’t imagine having sex with anyone, full stop.

Led Zeppelin’s spilling out of the back of some bloke’s panel van. He keeps giving you and Bernie the eye, but he’s too much of a Westie for you both to even give him the time of day.

The sun is a monster. I’m wearing my baseball cap and you tease me about it. I don’t know why it’s not OK to wear a cap, but so what, I like it. I bought it from a surf shop at the top-of-town with my Christmas money from Nan. My nose is permanently peeling and scabby, my lips too. I’m supposed to stay out of the sun today but I want to get as brown as you and Bernie. Mum reckons Bernie’s got a bit of foreigner in her somewhere. Me and you with our hazel eyes and mousy hair are freckled and golden, but we’ll never tan like Bernie. Plus she’s got that long wavy hair, honey coloured, threaded with reddish blonde sun streaks. She’s got the best hair of anyone we know.

You and Bernie are restless, a pair of cats with twitching tails. I’m just pleased to be allowed to sit with you but wonder how you’ll make me pay for the privilege. You both make up a rule that we have to each do a circuit around the surf club and report on activity out the front on the beach side. Except we don’t take turns. I do it and you pay me in chocolate paddle pops and a carton of hot chips. I don’t mind because I’m broke. You get your money from your casual job, Thursday nights and Saturday mornings at Best and Less. In August next year, when I turn fourteen and nine months, I can put my name down for a job. Bernie gets an allowance on top of her casual job at Eastham’s Jeans, so she’s always got money in her purse.

Each time I do a circuit the grassy area out the front is deserted. No wetsuits laid out on the benches to dry. No towels marking a camp. No bikes or skateboards to trip over. Lots of people are away with their families. It’s that time of year when the long summer holidays are slowly unravelling toward the new school year. We never go away. Bernie’s parents have a caravan at Shoal Bay and head up there for a couple of weeks when school breaks up. She hates it because she’s an only child. Sometimes she’s allowed to invite you along for a week. Bernie’s parents take you out for prawn cutlet dinners. They hire bikes for you both and you’re allowed to ride wherever you want. At night you all play cards and board games together which you say is boring but I’d like it. In the morning the rosellas wake you up squawking and carrying on. Some of them are so tame you can feed them from your hand. Best of all you get to buy cherries and watermelon from a man who has a fruit and veg stall in his truck and drives through the caravan park right to your doorstep. Wish I could go, I’d love to sleep in a caravan, even just for a night.

I’m leaning into you, shoulder to shoulder, as you thumb through Dolly magazine and point out to Bernie all the stuff you’d buy if Mum and Dad won the lottery. I like what you like. Bernie’s losing interest, so you toss the magazine aside and say, ‘the only bloody thing we’ve ever won in our family is a meat tray at the pub raffle.’ 

You and Bernie are so bored. No-one to spy on and no one to flirt with. But I’m in heaven with you two, weighing up a rumour, circulating for days, about a keg party down the coast for someone’s twenty-first. Maybe that’s where everyone’s at. Our next door neighbours had a keg of beer in the back yard at their New Year’s eve do and I could hear everyone, including Mum and Dad, getting pretty silly. I worry for a minute when you and Bernie start talking about hitching to Redhead Beach to track down the party. Thank goodness you both decide it’s too far and besides if you were busted you’d be in even more trouble with Mum. I stick to my strategy, keeping as quiet as a praying mantis. If I pretend to read my book, I can listen to you both. You talk about getting your periods in embarrassing places, like the time it happened to you at the beach in a white bikini. White bikinis, see-through when wet, are a general disaster, you both reckon.

Renata Rossi and Suzanne Heggarty walk past and say, ‘G’day. How’s it going?’ And you both say, ‘G’day, alright,’ all friendly-like.

Then the minute they’re gone you talk about the time back in Year Eight when Renata went off with some guy called Goat on a Mary Immaculate Youth Club trip to Luna Park. On the way home they messed around in the back row of the coach and he spoofed all over her jeans. She was so worried that she might get pregnant that she brought the jeans to school to show her friends. ‘Renata’s not the full barrel of biccies,’ you say. She’d freaked out because this was the year Sister Margaret had advised all the girls to place sheets of newspaper across a boy’s lap before sitting on it to avoid accidental pregnancy. I can’t imagine sitting on anyone’s lap, but I keep that to myself.

Our bums grow numb on the cement. It’s too hot. We decide to go and pinch Nev’s ancient Malibu from the surf club. Nev’s a lifeguard in the summer and works on the roads in the winter. He’s busy in the emergency room looking after some kid with heat-stroke. He lets us get away with stuff because we’re locals and because he likes us. He’s OK, not too pervy, for an old guy.

I can hear The Eagles playing loud from the car park. We sing along as we struggle across the grass with that big beast of a board. A herd of little girls bursts from the change room. They cut across our path without looking where they’re going. Each wears a towel coiled at one end like a crown on their heads and the rest billows veil-like around their skinny arms. They wear swimmer bottoms, the kind with a frilly skirt like we wore when we were little.

‘Watch out, squirt,’ you say to the biggest one. ‘Nearly knocked you flying.’ She pokes her tongue out at you. So, you pull a face back. The kid doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

‘Nice cossie, but,’ you say, and she puffs out her little belly and says thanks, all shy. Her hands reach out for the towel to make it into a cape and she flies off like Supergirl after her friends.

A Westerly blows in hot gusts. Everything has that beach smell: sun lotion, vinegary chips, calamine in a bucket, ciggy smoke, and the sugary taste of chocolate paddle pop at the back of my throat. The wooden stairs cut between the dunes down to the sand. Pig grass grows wild across the embankment, with hot pink flowers the shape of exploding stars. The surf’s slicked flat and drowsy. The water’s clear and emerald green moving slow as oil.

‘Hey! Mini Devlins!’ someone yells from up high across the grass. ‘What are you’se lot up to?’ Dom’s mate, Fat Thomo, stands on the balcony of surf club bar. He salutes us with a jug of beer in one meaty paw and a schooner glass in the other. I don’t mind Thomo even if all he’s good for is smoking bongs and surfing.

‘Hey Thomo,’ I yell.

‘Just ignore him,’ you say.

‘He’s harmless,’ Bernie says.

‘Where’s Devlin at?’ yells Thomo. He means Dom.

‘Working with Dad,’ I say.

Scott Campbell suddenly fights his way through the fly-screen streamers. He blows in Thomo’s ear then slaps him on the bum, saying something about what are you up to you fat bastard.

‘C’mon,’ you groan. ‘Let’s keep going.’ 

‘Wait a sec,’ says Bernie. She flicks back her long hair and with her free hand adjusts her bikini bottoms even though it all looks fine to me. Nothing falling down or up her bum.

‘What are you doing?’ you say. But then I catch a glimmer of recognition in your face as you follow Bernie’s focus of attention. Scott Campbell standing on the balcony.

‘What?’ says Bernie.

‘Scott Campbell’s an arsehole,’ you say.

‘A good-looking arsehole,’ says Bernie.

‘Don’t make me spew,’ you say, glancing back at Scott who still has his eye on Bernie.

Bernie’s flexing her power. You’re both starting to get so much male attention that it’s hard not to notice. But it’s more than that – a hint of something competitive and unspoken that I can’t quite understand.

‘C’mon Berne,’ you say. ‘Get your arse into gear, it’s bloody boiling.’

I hold my breath as I don’t want you to start fighting with Bernie and wreck everything. I’m having a lovely time and I don’t want to go home. So I’m really happy when Bernie sees Nev looking pretty cheesed off and heading our way.

We haul the board down the wooden stairs as fast as we can. Nev must have spotted us and followed us outside. We’re halfway down the stairs when he blows his whistle at us like it’s full time at the footy and says, ‘where’s your manners, did you ask for permission to take that board?’ I’m ready to take the board back immediately. I hate getting in trouble.

‘Can we borrow the Malibu, Nev?’ you say. ‘Please?’

You and Bernie start a staring competition with Nev. Neither side blinks.

‘Please,’ says Bernie, jutting out a hip.

Nev doesn’t have the the energy today and backs down like they knew he would.

‘Next time, ask first,’ he says.

‘We will,’ you both chorus.

‘And look after it. No dings,’ he says. ‘ I mean it.’ Then he wanders back to his bench on his bantam hen legs.

We heave the board onto the burning sand and scorch the soles off our feet. The shore feels miles away. The tide is out. We stop for a break and flip the board on the sand, fin-side up to rest our feet on top. Then we hop and squeal to the shoreline for instant relief, sinking into the wet sand. It’s as if the water makes everything better. You and Bernie are friends again.  

We glide the board through the shallows till the water comes to our waists. You and Bernie dive through the gentle roll of waves and pop up, flinging back your hair. I hold my nose and sink down. It feels so good, warm as bathwater. We jostle and push each other into the water. We keep one eye on the board so it doesn’t drift away. I come up and my hair sticks in the air like a cocky’s crest. You laugh and say, ‘let’s play hairstyles.’ We used to play this game all the time when we were little. Ducking down into the water and coming up fast to flip our long hair into crazy shapes that make us scream with laughter. I love to make you laugh, it keeps you close.

You and Bernie lie front down across the Malibu. ‘Push us around, Kitty-cat,’ you say. You haven’t called me that in a long time. So, I wade you both through the shallows in the low swell and you soon get sick of giving me orders and start talking the good stuff again. Without me saying anything, you tell Bernie to shove over and make space. I flop down next to you and wiggle in. We go with the soothing roll of the waves. I love it here. I love the scatter of people rising under beach umbrellas cocked at angles to find shade from the late afternoon sun. I love the little kids swimming and playing at the water’s edge. I love the golden sand and the blue sky. I love this place and never want to leave or anything to change. We drift with happiness while the sun burns our already sunburnt skin. It feels good to be with you and Bernie, to catch you off guard, and without boys around or our parents or anyone to judge.

We’ve been so long in the water the tips of our fingers turn white and wrinkled like when you stay in the bath for a long time. I close my eyes, saltwater-sore, when something from behind grabs my ankle hard. My heart explodes and I shriek in surprise.

‘Dom, you shit,’ you shout and kick at him. He has you by the ankle too. We both flip around to aim a kick at him but he’s too quick and slippery for us. He’s hooting with laughter, splashing water in our faces and calling us babies. He picks me up bodily like he’s a caveman and throws me over his shoulder. I’m screaming and laughing and bashing at his back but he’s too strong. You grab hold of his waist to tackle him, but he pushes you off into the water. When you try and surface he shoves your head back under. Bernie slides off the board and watches, eyes bright, chewing her thumb nail. She wants to join in and edges towards us, hair-flicking like a champion.

‘Pants him,’ she shouts, and goes for his board shorts.

‘Don’t you dare,’ he says, keeping her off with one free arm. ’Don’t you fucking dare.’ He throws me in the water and I fly headfirst into the swell. I’m laughing and screaming as I go in and end up with a belly full of water.

By the time I get to my feet, spitting and spluttering and checking if I’m decent, Bernie’s at it again. ‘Bet you can’t pick me up,’ she says.

Dom stops messing about for a millisecond and says, ‘Wanna bet?’ She gives him one of her looks like she thinks she’s Farrah Fawcett.

‘Jesus, Bernie,’ you say, skulking off to retrieve the Malibu drifting to the shore.

Bernie dives into the water and Dom catches up with her. They shove each other around in the surf while you and I catch our breath and flop back on the board.

‘Dom’s such a dick,’ you say.

‘Yeah,’ I say, even though I don’t really think he’s a dick.

‘Bernie’s such a little pricktease,’ you say.

‘What? Yuk,’ I say, not quite sure what the word means exactly except that it’s not a good thing to be.

Dom and Bernie grin at each other, standing face to face. He has her pinned by both wrists, her arms bent and hands up by her shoulders. She can’t slip out of his grip. She’s tall and sturdy but no match for him after his summer of labouring with Dad. She hasn’t noticed her boob’s half popped out of her bikini top. I’m so embarrassed for her, I nearly die. I wish Dom hadn’t turned up to ruin everything. Dom suddenly notices too, because he drops his hands real quick.

‘Oi, Flasher,’ you say, and gesture at Bernie to put her boob away.

‘Shit,’ says Bernie, going all red and shoving herself back into her bikini. Dom turns away like he’s been caught in the girls’ toilets by accident.

They separate and come towards us, lifting their legs through the water.

‘Flasher!’ you chant. I join in, ‘Flasher, Flasher, Flasher.’

‘Shut up,’ says Bernie, joining us on the board as if nothing’s happened.

Dom stands over us with the sun behind him. I squint up at him, hoping he’ll say something to make everything feel less weird.

‘You still in the shit with mum?’ he says to you.

‘Always,’ you say with a sigh.

You’ve woken me up more than once this summer to let you in the back door after you’ve snuck out. Mum’s onto you. She waited until you were at your holiday job then went full-on detective mode and found that shoe box stashed under your bed. She read everything. I know what’s in it because I’ve found it myself and gone through some of it too – your notebooks and poems, old letters from your Bay City Roller pen friend, the photo booth pictures of you and Bernie. And a picture of Scott Campbell taken two summers ago by the local newspaper when he won the Under 16 Schoolboys surfing competition. Mum read every word and then burned the lot in the back yard. You got home just after the flames took hold and chucked a total mental. There were bits of letter and ash flying everywhere. I was sent inside, like that made a difference – the whole neighbourhood could hear you both. You called her a bitch and she called you a common little slut. Now you’re grounded except for work. And you’re not allowed to the beach unless you take me too.

You’re moving ahead and away from me so fast that sometimes I feel I will never catch up.

‘What you doing here with us anyway,’ you say to Dom. ‘Shouldn’t you be with all your little poofy mates in the surf club?’

He starts going on about giving Thomo and the boys a wide berth for a bit. Saving his money for Europe and all that. It’s all he talks about.

‘Shove over,’ says Dom.

Without a word between us, you and I shuffle Bernie off the board with a splash. She’s still browned off about the bikini business and swims off in a huff for a shower. We make room for Dom and for a moment we are the three Devlins: Dom, Cara and Cate. We all watch Bernie storm up the stairs and disappear into the change rooms and then for no reason we start to laugh our heads off until we don’t even know what we’re laughing at anymore.

You can find a PDF of this story here:

Kellie Jackson was born and grew up in Australia. She settled in London in 1990, and has also lived in Hong Kong and New York. Her short stories have aired on BBC Radio 4. She has a BA in English Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from Goldsmith’s College. In 2016 she set up Words Away, a popular series of monthly salons and workshops bringing writers together to explore the writing process. She’s currently working on a novel set in the UK and Australia.

wordsaway.info        @WordsawayUK

Off the Voortrekker Road by Barbara Bleiman

Barbara Bleiman’s novel, Off the Voortrekker Road, is set in South Africa in the 1930s and 1940s, a period that saw the rise of apartheid. This fiction draws heavily on stories told to her about her father’s early life in Cape Town, the child of Lithuanian and Russian Jewish refugees.  Her father became staunchly anti-racist and, as a barrister, defended many black and ‘coloured’ people (a term used then), who fell victim to a range of discriminatory laws.

The family moved to London when Bleiman herself was five years old. Though she was ‘altogether elsewhere’ in the UK, through her parents’ story-telling she felt steeped in that past and faraway world.

The two chapters that follow show the childhood of Little Jackie, the novel’s protagonist.  Chapter 2 sets the scene of his father’s hardware store where, through the eyes of a child, we see a society in which the fine gradations of race were an everyday reality.

Chapter 15 recounts a powerful experience for Little Jackie, a moment in his childhood that has a lasting impact on him.

Chapter 2

1939

Pa’s hardware store stood in Parow, at the far end of Main Road, the long thoroughfare stretching east to west across Cape Town that eventually came to be renamed Voortrekker Road, after the rugged, tough-minded Afrikaners who had settled the Cape. Parow, in those days, was quite a distance from the city centre, out beyond Woodstock, Maitland and Goodwood. Property was cheap and rentals easy to come by, so Malays and Jews, Afrikaners and English had started to crowd in, and the suburb was growing by the day.

On one side of the store was Irene’s, the women’s outfitters. It sold corsets and brassieres, blouses, suits and bright cotton frocks, the most glamorous of which appeared on two smiling, painted mannequins in the window. On the other side stood Krapotkin’s butcher’s shop, its large plate-glass window filled with pallid sausages, mounds of worm-like minced beef and lean joints of lamb hanging from silver hooks. A sticky yellow paper in the front of the shop was always black and buzzing with flies. Krapotkin was a large, pink-faced man, with hands as red and raw as the meat he handled and a voice loud enough to wake the cockerel himself. He was in the shop, from early morning till late at night, heaving dripping carcasses and slapping bloody joints of meat onto wooden boards, slicing, chopping, grinding, sawing through flesh and bone, all the while singing, laughing and swearing so loudly that my mother said that Krapotkin and his butcher’s shop would be the death of her.

The hardware store had a sign painted on the front with, “Neuberger’s Handyhouse”, in a clear, unfussy style. It stood a little apart from its neighbours, its whitewashed walls yellowed with age, its sloping tiled roof in some need of repair. On one side of the door stood rolls of carpet, stepladders and brooms. On the other were baskets filled with dishcloths and dusters, bars of waxy household soap and boxes of washing suds. A notice in the window said, “Everything you need, from soap and rice to chicken feed!” and “10% off for bulk bargain buys!” A faded red-and-white striped awning was pulled down every morning to provide shade from the hot midday sun and wound back up every evening when the store was closed.

My father, Sam, had bought the store six years earlier, just before his marriage to my mother and I was born a year later. He worked all hours, either out the front or in the back yard, cutting wood or linoleum, measuring string, counting nails and screws, cutting strips of biltong or weighing biscuits from the big jars that lined the counter. The hired girl, Ada, helped out while my mother moved between the kitchen, the back yard and the shop front, cleaning and cooking, talking to customers, and keeping an occasional eye on me.

 Where could I be found, on a typical day in 1939, four-and-a half years of age and living in the Handyhouse with my ma and pa? Occupying myself with toys? Splashing about in a tin tub of water to keep me cool in the blistering heat of the day? Playing a game of five stones with a little friend, or sharing a tasty slice of homemade melktert? No. I would be sitting in the corner of the store, on my sack of beans. The sack was high enough up for me not to attempt to climb down but not so high that I would do myself serious damage if I did. Little Jackie, aged four, knock-kneed, wide-eyed, dressed in shabby grey shorts and a grubby cotton shirt, stick legs swinging against the rough hessian of the bulging sack, sitting watching and saying nothing.

Ma would tell me stories at bedtime. Sometimes they were fairytales, sometimes family stories but often the two were mixed together, a blend of fact and fiction, magic and mundane, then and now; the biblical, the superstitious, the humorous and the sad, all woven together into a strange and complex fabric.

 ‘Once upon a time, long ago and far away, ’ my mother said, ‘there lived a man named Solomon, who was a cobbler. He was born into a Jewish family in a shtetl far away in Russia, a poor peasant, but clever and practical and full of hopes and dreams, a storyteller, a joker, the centre of attention at every wedding, barmitzvah, festival day or village party. He built a small wooden house for himself, he married a decent Jewish girl, he fought for the Czar, he saw his house burned and his synogogue razed to the ground, he felt hunger and he felt fear, and, finally he took his destiny into his hands and fled with his lovely wife across the wide seas, the swelling oceans to Cape Town, where he settled and had a family, a gaggle of girls, who, one by one married and left home themselves. One of his daughters was called Sarah. That’s me, Jackie, your own mother, your ma. Solomon is Oupa, your very own grandfather. ’ She kissed me on the head and then she carried on.

 ‘And then it came to pass that Sarah married Samuel. And they lived in a store and they called it the Handyhouse. And soon they had a child of their own, a little boy with many names: Jacob, Jack, Jankele, Little Jackie, son of Samuel and Sarah, grandson of Solomon, the shtetl cobbler, the man with a stout heart, a steel will and a voice that told an endless river of tales.

Your curly black hair comes from your grandfather, Jackie, your skin as dark as an Eastern prince’s, your black, black eyes, like the ‘ten a tickie’ buttons your father sells in the shop. Your looks you got from Oupa, that’s for sure. Maybe you got his cleverness too, with your serious eyes that always seem lost in your thoughts. But what happened to your voice, Jankele? Where oh where has it gone? Who knows? Perhaps it’s been locked up by an ogre, in a great big iron box in his castle? Maybe, like a little bird, it’s flown away over the seas to find its way home to its nest in Russia? It’s waiting there, collecting up all its stories, getting itself ready to fly back again to Parow, and tell them, when the right moment comes?

Four-and-a-half years old; too young to start school, too old to be carried around on Ma’s hip or wrap my legs round her waist and hang my arms from her neck, too big to sit in the highchair in the back room, sucking on rusks and pieces of salty biltong, while Ma, Pa and Ada bustled around me. So all day long, I sat on my sack of beans in the store, the Handyhouse, or in the sawdust on the floor, where someone could keep an eye on me. I watched the customers coming in and out, the bell tinkling as they stepped on the mat, carrying their parcels of dried peas or biscuits, candles or string.

 Here was Mr van der Merwe, with his flat nose and sunburnt face, his strong, hairy legs spread wide. He had patches of damp sweat under his armpits and down the back of his khaki shirt. He scratched himself inside his trousers, like Ma told me not to. ‘It’s rude in public,’ she said.

‘Ooh yirrah! That sun’s a bugger today.’ His Afrikaner voice was hard like gravelly stones and each word seems to trip up his tongue on its sounds.

‘I’ve brought you something,’ he said to Pa, dropping his voice down low, till it was almost a whisper. He handed over a small brown paper envelope. ‘It’s not the whole lot. But it’s the best we can do.’

Pa stared at him, stony-faced. ‘We’ve been waiting for well over two weeks now. Your wife promised to pay up days ago.’

‘Times are hard,’ said Mr van der Merwe, shaking his head. ‘It’s not easy.’

‘For us too,’ said Pa. ‘I’ll expect the rest next week.’

He turned abruptly to Millicent, the Shapiro family’s maid, to serve her. Mr van der Merwe cleared his throat, raised his hand awkwardly in a half-hearted farewell and left the shop.

With her yellow-brown skin, her hair plaited and knotted in tight rows on her head, Millicent was usually the last to be served, even when Mrs Shapiro had asked her to fetch back the family’s groceries in a hurry. I was dark-skinned, like Millicent, taking after my mother’s peasant father, as she had so often told me; not pale like Pa, or peachy-pink like some of the little English girls who came into the store, or red in the face like Mr Krapotkin, the butcher, not black-black like the boys who swept the road outside the store, or the labourers who climbed out of the truck every morning to work on the new shop across the road.

And here was Millicent, saying ‘Yessir’ to Pa and waiting to be served, as usual.

‘Tell your madam that I don’t have the crystallised fruit. I’m expecting an order.’

‘Yessir.’

‘And tell her the snoek is fresh from the smokery. Best quality fish. That’s why it’s a bit more pricy than usual.’

‘Yessir.’

‘And make sure you don’t throw away the bill by mistake when you unpack. It’s tucked inside the big paper bag.’

‘Yessir.’

‘At least you can rely on the Shapiro family to pay up,’ Pa said when Millicent had left and the shop had gone quiet. ‘A good Yiddishe family.’

‘Times are hard,’ Ma said. ‘With all this talk of Smuts taking us into the war, people are nervous – they don’t want to spend money.’

‘Times are hard, times are hard. That’s all I hear.’ Pa sighed. ‘Of course they’re nervous. Aren’t we all? But I’ve got a living to make,’ and he went out the back to the yard, slamming the door behind him.

Ada was cleaning the counter, slopping soapy water onto a cloth and wiping it vigorously, her thin arms stretching as far as she could reach, in great sweeping movements. She paused to wipe her forehead.

‘How’s your mother, Ada?’ Ma asked. ‘Any better?’

I felt sorry for Ada. My mother always said, ‘Poor whites are almost worse off than Cape coloureds. They have nothing.’ I liked Ada. She patted my head and kissed me on the cheek. She made me bread and butter when Ma was upstairs lying on her bed with her door shut. She told me silly jokes and sometimes, if the coast was clear and there was no risk of Pa appearing, she came up close and dropped a little chewy caramel into my hand. It was a shame if Ada had nothing.

‘My ma? She’s so-so,’ Ada said.

‘Would you like a little bit of time off to go and see her?’

‘Ag yes, missus. That’d be nice, lekker. But if you need me here, with it coming so soon and everything, then I’ll stay. My friend Maisie’s visiting Ma for me sometimes. I’m paying her a few tickies to go by the hospital and check on her. But it’s not the same as me going myself. It’s not long now, the doctors say. Her time’s coming.’

‘You’re a good girl, Ada, and you don’t usually ask for these things. And you’re a hard worker as well. Even Sam thinks so. I’ll talk to him and maybe you can go early this evening and come back on Thursday. Give you time to see your Ma.’

‘Thank you missus. You’re good to me.’

Ma went over and patted her on the shoulder. ‘And now I think I’ll go find Sam and speak to him.‘

Ada came and picked me up from the floor. She brushed the sawdust from my shorts and kissed me heartily on the cheek.

‘You don’t know what’s coming little man!’ she said. ‘You don’t know what’s gonna hit you, when your ma’s time comes.’ She laughed heartily, but I didn’t know what was so funny. Ada’s mother’s time was coming; Ma’s time was coming. Ma’s time kept coming and coming but it never seemed to arrive. And when it did, I couldn’t think what it was going to bring.

Chapter 15

1944

One day, a good few months after our return from Bloubergstrand, Mrs Mostert came into the shop with Terence. He was smiling at me and tugging at his mother’s arm.

‘Ask,’ he said. ‘Please mama, ask.’

He flapped his arms up and down wildly. Mrs Mostert laughed. ‘You look like you’ve just eaten a hot babotie Terence! Calm yourself down.’

She turned to Ma. ‘Would Jackie like to come for a day out at the beach, at Hout Bay?’ she said. ‘It’ll be a long day, but he can sleep over at the garage so we don’t disturb you coming back late. It’ll be a chance for you to have a bit of a rest. It’d do you good, I’m sure – you must be in need of a break, with the baby on the way.’ She paused. Sauly was looking up at her with big open eyes. ‘ And Saul can come too if you like.’

Ma placed one hand on her growing belly. She smiled.

‘Both boys off my hands for a day… and no Sauly waking me up first thing in the morning. Boy, that’d be something!’

But then she saw my crestfallen face. Sauly was a nuisance; he cried and whined and wanted to join in all my games. If I refused, he went running to Ma to complain. If I let him play, he invariably spoiled things by ignoring the rules. It always ended up in arguments and tears and Pa or Ma would step in, crossly reminding me of my duties as an older brother and the expectation of greater maturity that rested on my shoulders. In one way or another, Sauly always managed to make trouble. And what’s more, he was clearly becoming Pa’s favourite, usurping the position that I had once held and now lost, seemingly forever. Sauly was quick with his fingers, keen to help when Pa constructed paper aeroplanes or little balsa wood boats. He loved weighing and measuring, playing with all the little implements that Pa had made for me when I was small and in which I had failed to show any real interest. Sauly was not my favourite person.

Ma looked at me hard, then sighed. ‘ Let Jackie go on his own. It’ll be a nice outing for him. He deserves something good for a change.’

Terence and I shared a conspiratorial smile.

Ma packed up a small little bag with a towel and my grey woollen swimming trunks, a pair of pyjamas and a toothbrush, Sauly all the while howling in the background, ‘ Me toooooo, me toooooooo.’ I suddenly felt sorry for him and a bit ashamed at the delight I felt at leaving him behind. Should I tell Ma that I wouldn’t mind if he came along? No. It was too good an opportunity to be free of him and the rest of my family as well. I didn’t say anything.

Ma moved heavily over to the jars of biscuits on the counter. She unscrewed the lids and filled a big paper bag with a good mix of the best biscuits. ‘For the journey,’ she said. My eyes were focused on the door, watching in case Pa came back in at any moment and caught her at it and said something embarrassing in front of Terence and Mrs Mostert, or worse still, found some reason why I could not go to Hout Bay after all. But Ma managed to hurriedly scoop up some extra fig rolls and drop them quickly into the paper bag and collect everything together for my trip to the seaside before Pa had returned from his errands.

Mrs Mostert gave Ma a quick squeeze on the arm.

‘I’ll bring him back safe and sound, tomorrow evening,’ she said, ‘I promise you.’

*****

Walter is driving the Chevy. Mrs Mostert is sitting beside him. Walter is singing at the top of his voice, a jazzy tune that makes him sound like he’s laughing as he sings.

Pack up all my cares and woe

Here I go, singin’ low

Bye, bye, blackbird.

Where somebody waits for me

Sugar’s sweet, so is she

Bye, bye, blackbird.

From time to time, Mrs Mostert and Terence join in. I sing along, but only in my head, not out loud and the words I sing are a little different. Bye-bye, Cape Town. Bye-bye, the store. Bye-bye, Ada. Bye-bye Ma, Bye-bye Sauly. Bye-bye Pa.

On the back seat, we sit surrounded by bags, beach balls and striped towels. I look out the window as the houses of Parow and Cape Town flash by. Table Mountain looms up, a thin layer of cloud hanging low above it, like white marshmallow, and beneath it the gardens of Kirstenbosch lush and green, with the rhododendrons in full bloom. Soon the buildings and houses thin out and are replaced by countryside: fig and loquat trees; orange groves, grassland, rocky boulders; shacks with corrugated iron rooves and dusty yards with petrol cans, old tyres, goats and donkeys; clumps of thin pine trees; an open, empty road; a black man and woman, carrying cases on their heads, walking slowly from somewhere to somewhere, with the morning sun beating down on them; a single candyfloss cloud; the dust of an open-back lorry filled with African labourers, who smile and wave as they go by; a man sitting under a fig tree with a small pile of over-ripe mangoes for sale; a large bird swooping down to catch a lizard in its beak; the wild squawk of seagulls. And then at last – at last! Flashes of bleached white sand and foamy turquoise sea.

Walter parks the car and we carry everything out over the hot sand which burns my bare feet and makes me hop and skitter down towards the cooler wet sand near the sea. He sets up the big green umbrella, the towels, the picnic blanket and the hamper in a quiet spot, not too close to other bathers. There are coloured families sitting on the sand, making sandcastles and swimming in the sea, and there are white families, sitting in a different part, making sand castles, and swimming in the sea. We sit on our own, neither with the coloureds nor with the whites, in a strip of no-man’s-land dividing the two. Mrs Mostert splashes sun oil on Terence’s nose and shoulders but not on mine. ‘You don’t need it, Jackie, with your nice olive brown skin, like a little Arabian prince.’

 Terence and I fight our way out of our clothes, flinging them down any old where, forcing our legs into tight woollen swimming trunks, poking them in the wrong way, getting our toes stuck in our hurry to get down to the sea. We race out for our first swim of the day, plunging into the shallow waters and splashing wildly, as the waves crash in and suck noisily back out again.

At midday Walter takes our lunch out of the hamper, which has been packed with ice to keep the food cold, and puts the dripping containers down on the large picnic blanket. He lays the sandwiches out on the plates and, with a sharp knife, slices up a large watermelon. It splashes pink juice and pips onto the white linen cloth that the sandwiches have been wrapped in. He opens cold bottles of fizzy drink, which hiss as he pulls off the lids with his teeth. My drink tips up in the sand and it bubbles and trickles away before anyone can right it. The tears are coming but Walter only laughs and reaches into the hamper for another. Terence giggles. I smile shyly and take a big gulp of soda that explodes in my mouth, like the froth of a sugary sea.

Walter sits down on the big picnic blanket and opens a bottle of beer for himself. I watch him. He helps himself to sandwiches. He is in his swimming trunks, legs stretched out, toes in the sand. He is sturdy, though not especially tall. His arms are strong and muscular, his skin hairless and brown. The hair on his head is short. It is springy and black, with just a fleck of grey here and there. His mouth seems to take up most of his face, his teeth a little crooked but white against his dark skin.

I look at Mrs Mostert. She too is watching Walter, with a little thoughtful little smile on her face. She is plump and pale, soft and large as a cream bun, rolls of fat appearing at the top of her bright-blue swimming costume. Her hair is unpinned from its usual knot, and tangled from the salt and the wind. Without her usual dusting of face powder, her nose and cheeks are spattered with freckles. She’s not the same Mrs Mostert who collects me from the Handyhouse in her tidy skirts and dresses, or the business-like woman who serves customers at the garage. Everything about her has loosened, expanded, softened.

After lunch, Terence and I build sand castles and dig ditches, then run back into the sea, splashing in the shallows, while Walter and Mrs Mostert lie back on their towels and doze, close to each other, sheltered by the big green umbrella. The warm seawater rises up and washes over me. I wonder what Sauly is up to at home and am glad that he hasn’t come too. No Sauly, no Handyhouse, no Pa.

Terence finds a large piece of driftwood, gnarled and knotted and bleached white by the salt of the sea. He wants to show it to Walter, to ask if Walter can carve something out of it with his knife. We run back along the beach, scanning the umbrellas for the big green one that signals our place on the sand.

As we get close to the umbrella, I see that Walter and Mrs Mostert are not alone. They are both sitting up straight and two men, fully dressed in short-sleeved shirts and cotton trousers, are standing in front of them.

‘Stay in the sea,’ shouts Mrs Mostert but we are already out of the water and running up the beach to see what is going on.

‘Stay away boys,’ calls Walter and then, more sternly, ‘Don’t come closer.’

Terence and I hold back. We stand where we are, watching, unable to go either backwards or forwards. Now Walter gets up from his towel and places himself in front of Mrs Mostert, standing between her and the men. There is shouting. There are bad words.

‘Pasop. Watch out you blerry kaffir-lover,’ one man is yelling at Mrs Mostert. ‘We’re gonna donner you and that coloured bastard of yours.’ This man is tall and thin, with an angular face and a long jaw. His face is red with fury.

The other man, smaller and fatter, with large sweat stains on his shirt, is yelling too. He’s holding a big stick that he is swinging towards Walter, only narrowly missing him each time, like he’s playing a game with him. Walter looks about to see if anyone will come and help them. On towels, stretched out, or under their umbrellas, people are reading their books or sunning themselves. Children are playing ball or digging in the sand. Everyone sitting close by has turned away, facing the sea, or looking towards the ice-cream kiosk and the café in the distance. No one acknowledges that anything is wrong.

Terence is trailing the large piece of driftwood behind him. I wonder if I should grab it and run and hit the men with it. I could bash them on the legs, whack them as hard as I can, hit them and hit them till they run away. But I don’t move. I just stand on the sand watching. The tears are coming and I can’t hold them back.

The man with the stick prods Walter, stabs at his feet, as if poking at a crab to make it close up tight inside its shell or scuttle away in fright. Walter stands his ground but makes no move to stop him. I don’t understand why. Why doesn’t he just grab the watermelon knife from where it’s lying on the cloth and use it to defend himself. The man grips the stick more firmly. He grunts as he takes a bigger, faster swing which arcs towards Walter, whipping his legs so that he flinches. And now the other one, the thin one who up until now has just stood and shouted, joins in, punching Walter in the face so that he falls back heavily onto the picnic blanket. He falls into the plates and left over sandwiches and overturns the hamper. Mrs Mostert screams. At the sound of her voice, the two men casually turn away and stroll off down the beach, as if enjoying the nice weather and a relaxing day at the seaside. One whistles as he walks. The other laughs.

Mrs Mostert is weeping and now faces from nearby are turned towards us, watching. But no one moves from their places under their umbrellas. They just sit and stare.

‘Don’t worry, May. It’s OK. I’m all right,’ says Walter, dabbing at his mouth, testing the damage. He spits out a single, bloody shard of broken tooth and holds it out on his hand. Mrs Mostert passes him the white linen cloth that the sandwiches have been wrapped in and he presses it to his face to stop the bleeding.

He looks anxiously towards Terence and me, to see if we’re OK.

‘Let’s pack up, boys. It’s time to go home.’

Slowly we collect everything together and put down the umbrella. Walter carries most of the bags but we help with the buckets and spades and beach ball, which we hand to Walter to put in the boot of the Chevrolet. He takes out the little plastic plug and squeezes the ball, allowing the air to slowly exhale, till the ball is a flat, flabby circle, hardly recognisable any more.

In the car, Mrs Mostert is sniffing into her handkerchief. Walter pats her knee gently.

‘We’re OK,’ he says. ‘No real harm done. We’ll be fine when we get back to Parow.’

Terence, who has been sitting quietly next to me, asks, ‘Who were those two men?’ and his mother says, ‘Just nasty men, silly men. Don’t worry, we won’t see them ever again.’

 ‘Your face is all puffed up,’ Mrs Mostert says to Walter. ‘Does it hurt a lot?’

‘It’s OK,’ Walter replies. ‘A pity all the ice melted. It would have been good as a little icepack to keep the swelling down.’

‘You want to go back home Jackie, instead of coming to stay the night with us?’ asks Mrs Mostert kindly, twisting in her seat to look at me. ‘You upset by what’s happened and want to be with your Ma?’

I shake my head. ‘I want to stay the night with Terence and you,’ I say.

‘Good boy,’ says Mrs Mostert. She turns back to face forwards again. There is a little pause. Her voice is light, breezy but I sense something important is being said. ‘Perhaps don’t tell your Ma and Pa about what happened, then, eh? No need to worry them with nonsense like that. Better for them not to know. We’re all fine aren’t we? All done with now. I’ll make a nice chicken pie for supper when we get back and it’ll all be forgotten.’

I nod my head. All will be forgotten. All will be forgotten. Nothing will be said.

*****

When I got back to the store the next morning, Ma asked me how the trip went.

‘Was it fun?’

I nodded.

‘Did you swim a lot?’

I nodded.

‘Did you eat a nice picnic?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did Mrs Mostert drive you there?’

‘No.’

‘Oh,’ said Ma, surprised. ‘So who drove you all that way out to Hout Bay? Not Mr. Mostert, I suppose. He’s still sick in the sanatorium with tuberculosis from what I’ve heard. Been there for months now.’

‘Walter.’

‘Walter?’ said Ma. Her face flushed red. ‘I didn’t know Walter was going with you to Hout Bay.’ There was a moment of hesitation and then, ‘Does Walter often go on trips like this with May Mostert?’

I shrugged.

‘Is he around with you a lot, when you go to visit Terence at the garage?’

I said nothing.

‘Does he sit and eat with you at the table, for instance.’

I nodded. Was that the right thing to do?

‘And come and go in the house as he pleases?’

I looked at her and said nothing. Why did this matter? Why was Ma asking all these questions?

‘How friendly is he with her? With Terence?’

I shrugged.

‘What on earth is going on between May Mostert and Walter?’ Ma said under her breath.

‘Ma, is Walter Mrs Mostert’s other husband?’ I asked. It was a question I had often wanted to ask and it didn’t seem to me to be a dangerous one. I didn’t think Ma would mind and since I couldn’t ask May or Walter or Terence, Ma seemed like my best bet. She would know.

Ma frowned. ‘What sort of question is that?’

I went on, undeterred. ‘Is Walter Terence’s pa?’

‘Of course not, silly boy. What put that into your head? Walter’s coloured. He’s the paid boy at the garage. How could he be Terence’s father? Terence is white and Walter’s a kaffir. And anyway it’s none of your business. That’s something for you to think about when you’re a big boy, not now.’

There was a little pause.

‘Was everything nice at the beach Jackie? No problems or anything?’

I nodded vigorously in response to her first question and shook my head firmly to her second.

Mrs Mostert had told me not to say a word. I had followed her instructions. Whatever trouble she wanted me to deny, whatever revelations she was concerned to prevent, I felt sure that I had succeeded in doing as she said. I’d not given anything away. As far as I was concerned, Ma was none the wiser and I had done my job of staying silent. Ma’s frowns and questions didn’t worry me too much. May Mostert had asked me to keep a secret and I was pleased that I had managed to achieve that.

Barbara Bleiman is an education consultant and writer at the English and Media Centre (EMC). Off the Voortrekker Road is her first novel, published in 2015. It was followed by Accidents of Love in 2017 and a collection of short stories, Kremlinology of Kisses, which was published by Blue Door Press in October 2012. She has also written a book about English in secondary education, What Matters in English Teaching, (April 2021). She blogs and writes for EMC and on her own website http://www.barbarableiman.com.

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Steve Roberts on Decolonising Creative Writing

To me, Decolonising Creative Writing is about writing in my speaking style, rhythm and syntax. It is also about giving due validity to BAME and immigrant voices and culture using Creative Writing to explore and promote history, culture as well as knowledge of self. In a study of immigrant students and classroom teaching, Nykiel-Herbert (2010) noted, “One of the major reasons why minority students in general, and immigrant newcomers in particular, perform poorly in schools is that their home cultures, while being ‘celebrated’, are not sufficiently utilised as a resource for their own learning” (p 2).

1 Flag of Dominica

I chose to write Ole Man River as a short story where the river welcomes back a man who left the island when he was younger and takes him on an oral journey through the social, political and cultural events that have impacted on island life in his absent years. During my childhood in Marigot village in Dominica, we had no electricity or television and on moonlight nights or at wakes the children would gather under a tree and share stories with the elders. In Dominica these stories are called Kont or Cric-Crac, they maintained the oral tradition of Africa, that would educate us about culture and history whilst entertaining and sometimes scaring us.

I wanted Ole Man River to be a base from which learners, particularly young people in London with family ties in Dominica, explore history in relation to themselves and their families, social issues such as environmental preservation or conservation and the impact natural disasters can have on small nation states. It could also introduce the music, arts and culture of Dominica and by extension the Caribbean, or wherever their families relate to as home.

2 Map of Dominica

On Sunday 3rd November 1493, Christopher Columbus anchored off the island and called it Dominica – it was Sunday. The Kalinago inhabitants called it Waitukubuli – Tall is her Body. Dominica’s Kweyol arts and culture reflect the influences of the Kalinago people, European colonisers, enslaved Africans and Maroons – Africans who revolted against enslavement. 

In this age of the world wide web, the influences are many. In striving to decolonise our art and culture we have to use our voices and technology, not to replace the former colonisers with American, Chinese or other colonisers, but to promote our art and culture beyond our physical borders and the Dominican diaspora to the global village. To decolonise Creative Writing we must elevate our expression of our experiences and value our art, artists and cultural economy.

References

Naipaul V. S. (1959). Miguel Street, Vintage, New York

Nykiel-Herbert, B. (2010). Iraqi refugee students: From a collection of aliens to a

community of learners. Multicultural Education, 17(30), 2-14.

Ole Man River by Steve Roberts

Steve Roberts’ story, ‘Ole Man River’,  is written in the dialect spoken in Dominica, an island in the West Indies. In the story, a young man in search of hope returns to a river of his youth, which speaks to him about himself, his past and the history of Dominica.

The man climbed gingerly down the riverbank, his new trainers seeking the least muddy path to the river. The afternoon sun glistened on the water flowing downstream against a backdrop of birdsong. He felt a sense of calm, as he jumped from rock to rock to nestle on the biggest rock in the middle of the river. The river seemed much narrower now, than back in the day, and the gushing current also felt less powerful.  The roaring bass in the river’s voice, was as strong as ever though.

1 River in Dominica – Photo by ISAW Company on Unsplash

Is way u woz boy? Long time self i doh see you. U look like u was in forin doh. I sense u crossin de bridge over the years, sometimes regular, regular, an den dere would be a gap.  I suppose de gaps is wen u out dere in your new world. Ah remember wen u woz a likkle boy, an u use to come wid your Aunty Dolly an dem, an all u would sometime have a run in wid de stingin nettle on my bank. You know dat Gabo mention your Aunty Dolly, in one of his stories in his book call Rain on a Tin Roof. Yes, she use to run de clock shop by de ole market, in de middle of Roseau. A slim but tuff woman wid a very kind heart. Den wen u woz older u use to come by here regular, wid Nattii Mervin an dem Canefield posse – is posse allu use to call it, yes? Is a long time since a lot of dem fellas visit, so it make it even more special to have you. I feel well good dat u remember me, an come to spen some time wid me.

2 Steve Roberts as a young man

So way u be now? How forin treatin u nah? I hope u come n spen some good time wid me eh, it have so much for me to tell u boy. Is what year u leave us nuh? Mus have been bout 75 or 76, innit? Ah remember all u use to come down here from Roger an Canefield, an allu would cook pot full ah dumpling, beans an pig snout. Ah wonder if you still jamming on de pork? Allu would eat an bade an use Glory Cedar bush an locks allu head, tauntin de police n allu parents.  It woz a dangerous game to play doh. It was a tyme wen babylan police was chasin down Rasta, all ova de place. Ah even hear people seh dey use to kill dem Rasta in de hills, an bury dem dere self. Man an man was jus disappearin an dem family doh know wat happen to dem. Wen ah chill out in de hills wid dem other river, we doz talk about all dem Rasta babylon shoot down in de hills. Tings was dread in dem tymes what wid de Dread Act an all dat. Anyways Jah live, an de Nyabinghi live. It does be so nice wen Rasta come an free up in my fresh waters, praising His Imperial Majesty to de Most High. He did come to de Caribbean in 1966 you know, but he nevah reach us here in Dominica.

I remember how one Sunday, after allu leave me, allu walk down to Donkey beach, round by Domcan. Talkin about Domcan, u know is a airport dat dere now? Yes boy, de government close down de timber business, dat was usin de hard woods in de forest to make board an other tings. Dey seh Patrick John build dat airport to make it easier for him to slip outta de country, when he want to go an meet dem man he was plottin an scheming to sell de country to. Where I was nah? Oh yes, dat Sunday after allu finish badin, allu gone up de shortcut to go Roger, but Edward decide to go Massacre on his own, he had proper locks u know? So nex ting Sogofly an dem odder Babylon headin down town from Massacre. Dey pull up n grab Edward to take him down to police headquarters in town. Dey rough him up in de van, an wen dey reach headquarters dey chop off his dreads n chuck him in cubosse for de night. It was a really dreadful time eh boy.

3 Flag of Dominica

So way yu seh yu be? Englan? De moddalan eh? Wey papa, u in de heart ah de empiah! Well ah hope u keepin out ah trouble out dey. I hear so much whispas thru de waters about how Babylon ova dere partial to pullin blackman an ting so. So much story ah hear bout youtman dat die, afta a run in wid de police. Ah hope u nevah take part in dem riot an burn down yu own neighbahood eh? You know, like de one dat happen after dey shoot down dat Duggan guy, out dey in Tottinham back in 2011. Anyways, like I was sayin, down here de Dread Act stay on de books for a long time. Ah bwoy, politricks is a strange ting. Labour an Freedom couldn’t agree but dey come togedder to allow babylon to chant down, an abuse an kill Rasta. An we did have our riots too, yes man. Back in May 1979 when Patrick an dem decide to get all tough on de people dem, de people come out on de street to say enough is enough, an dey  demonstrate an cause plenty disturbance. Nex ting yu know Babylon was shootin at de people. Dis guy call Moses get his han shoot up. Ah hear he was from Marigot u know, de same place where u grow up, an he was your Granfada godson. It was a tuff time self. People was hardly comin an spen time wid me. 

Look now ah hear dem politriksian talking about legalisin de ganja for medical purpose, for de country to make money from it. De whole world dat was telling us to burn de weed plantation, legalising it, and will end up sellin de medicine back to us. Is a world order ting papa! Talking about world order, dey have to try different tings as the tourist trade could suffer.  I hear people getting more choosy about where they visit. They don’t want to come to a place where de community and de law doh accept same sex relationships, an people can be victimise because of dere sexual preference. De other day, dey refuse to let a cruise ship land, because de passengers was mainly same sex couple. De Church wouldn’t have none of it! Meself, I not throwing stones eh, but it have so much ah could tell you about some ah dem preachers. Dey chant down things from de pulpit on Sunday, and den get up to de same tings, on dese banks right here, under cover of darkness.

Anyways, after de upheaval tings quiet down, den dey form govanment of national unity. Yes papa, dem poltriksian dem come togedda an put Patrick in jail. In 79 dey had Oliver Seraphin as intarim prime minister, before Eugenia Charles, or Mamo as dey call her, win her firs election in 80. Mamo do three session as prime minister, before de pardner from Marigot, ahmm, Edison, yes Edison James take over. You know he was Mamo bes fren for a time, until dey fall out and he form he own party? UWP, United Workers Party. Well, he only las one term. He run an call election early 2000, tinkin he would win, but Rosie knock him out. So Labour end up in power again, an de Freedom party go down hill from de time Mamo lef.

4 Map of Dominica

Ah doh know what happen but all of a sudden dem Prime Minista start to drop like fly. Rosie las eight months before he dead. Pierot, Pierre Charles replace him, an was doin well well, before he too drap down an dead in 2004. Osborne Riviere was a stop gap, for two days before de man dat still dere now, Roosevelt Skerrit take over. Anyways, it soun like de politricks different now eh, de kinda tings I doz hear people talkin bout wen dey come an see me. Lennox Linton, de leader of UWP an Skerrit doh seein eye to eye at all, but somehow Skerrit still dere. Even wen hurricane mash up de island, dem man couldn’t come togedder and work for de good of de country. Because dey say if you wasn ‘red’ an votin for Labour, you wasn getting nuttin from aid dat come fram forin. Nowadays is blue dis an red dat while de sufferers continue to struggle.

Now allu have allu own problems wid political federation. Politriksians at work still. You know back in 1958 we had a West Indies Federation? That was like a Caribbean version of your European Union. Now dem countries couldn’t agree, so dat federation only las four years, although dey have Caricom now as a common market ting. Now allu British vote to come out of de European one. How allu call it again? Brexit, yea man Brexit.

So de moddalan goin and stand up strong again in de worl. But dem returnees dat down here dey worried, bekase now dey can run to Martinique or Guadeloupe wen dey sick. Wen dey feel like a likkle brek dey can go an buy a ferry ticket and go for a weekend or whatever. Now wen allu come out afta de Brexit, dey doh know where dey will stand because France might decide allu have to make queue, to get visa an ting so, jus to visit. An wen dey sick dey will have to fly back to Englan to get treatment. I know, wen allu was havin allu debate about Brexit, dem Returnees say nobody never pay dem no mind, an dey never consider how de Brexit goin an affect dem. Dat is assuming de Windrush trap doh ketch dem, and send them back to dere homeland, dat dey did leave since dey was likkle.

And de toing an froing giving dem Returnees plenty stress because dey doh know what de future hold for dem, while dem British politriksians takin dere time to decide how dey going to play. You should hear dem complain wen dey come for a little picnic on a Bank Holiday. Is not cricket at all, but doh get me on to de cricket, because West Indies doh have a cricket team no more. We use to rule the cricket world you know, we was de kings, now everybody beatin us, unless is dat twenty twenty bish bash ting dey playing. Well, we survive de break up of the Federation, so I suppose allu will survive de Brexit too, even though de ordinary people an dem might well continue to suffer.

Boy, as we talkin dere ah feelin me water risin. I hope it not rainin too hard in de mountains eh. But yu wasn here for David in 1979 man? Garson, dat was a hurricane oui! Wey papa! I seen plenty hurricane and storm but dat one was dreadful. Before dat I nevah carry so much tree trunk an big boulder in my life. Wen yu look at me now, you would nevah tink I reach over de bridge. David mash up de country bad bad but de country strong an it recover from dat. We was hoping not to get another hit like dat again, but in 2015 tropical storm Erica come, and although it didn’t have strong winds, de rain fall an fall like it was remakin de floods of Noah. Dere was water and more water, de more I carry water, de more it come from de mountain with some force I never see before that. As de rain fall de land slide all over de place mashin down houses, killing people an destroying roads and bridges, it even take out de whole village of Petit Savanne.

After that, us rivers was saying we shouldn’t have nuttin so bad for a long while, because de country need time to recover. Little did we know dat by 2017, Maria would become a most unwelcome guest. Hurricane Maria hit de islan full on at Category five! De tings that pass down here on de way to de sea, I doh even want to talk about dem. I hear de wind talk language I never hear before, you know, some ah de people dem say it was like demons from hell was havin a battle on de islan. Everybody still talkin about de noise, de different kinda noise dey hear dat night. By de time Maria leave most of the country was mash up, de houses, de forests, de bridges, de roads, everyting. It was jus a disaster. You lucky you wasn’t here to live thru dat boy, so much people dead. Things settlin down now, and de whole world try an help us recover, but if you look around, you will see it still have plenty work to do.

5 Mango Tree with a bit of Someone’s roof, 3 years later

Things coming back on a even keel again, de festival an carnival dis year was more like normal times. You can hear music in the air again. Although dese days I not hearin as much of de music as I used to, because now everybody comin and sit down wid dere earphones, keepin dere music to deyself. You must remember all dem good musicians we have all over de world. People does wonder how a little island like us have so much good musician. Dey playing not just our local music, but all kin of music in all corners of de world. De other day some of dem people from cultural division come for picnic an I hear dem talkin, about how dey want to support de music and de arts and culture to put de country centre of de world stage, and bring some foreign currency to de country. Dey see dey cannot jus rely on de tourism and de sellin of passport. So dey want to get dem young musician to think more about de business side of de music, an de culture.  I just hope dey not jus talking, and dey really do someting positive.

Boy I know you spen some time wid me, an you probly have to get back to you people an you friens an dem, befoe de sun go an hide behind de horizon. I well glad to see u eh, but listen nuh, as u going back out dere, bway lemme tell u, u have to look out fuh youself. You have to look afta yuself, an u love ones u know, u gonna have to take plenty care boy. Cause it have a rumor in de waters. De waters have a rumor, it have someting big coming, something big, big self.

Doh know what, doh know how. But wen it hit, de worl not goin an be de same again afta dat. Dem dark waters she, is plenty deat dat goin an follow dis big ting here, yu undastan? So look afta yuself boy. Dey sayin it goin to start in China somewhere an work it way roun, all roun de world, all roun de globe, an nobody not goin to be immune. Everybody goin an suffah. Is plenty plenty misary dat comin, an de world wont be de same afta. So bwayy, as you journey out dere, tek it easy. Ah doh know wen ah go see you again, but ah lookin forward. Ah hope ah go see you. Wateva it is, ah hope wen it come, you survive it.

As the man cupped some water in his hands, to wash his sweaty face, the river whispered to him lovingly – Gad bless you bway, an tek it easy nuh.

Biography

Steve Nii Kwashi Roberts was born and grew up in the Windward Island of Dominica. In summer 2020 he completed the MA in Creative Writing and Education at Goldsmiths. His work featured in the Goldsmith’s Issue 3 of Story Makers’ Dialogues. His poetry was first published in Rampart 1 & 2 – a collection he edited in the 1980’s for the Frontline Co-operative in Dominica. He performed at the Domfesta Poetry Against Violence Festival in Dominica in 2016.

Steve is still developing his debut choreo poem Black Reflections which he premiered at the Woodford Festival in October 2018. “Mama”, one of the poems from Black Reflections, is included in A River of Stories vol 4, Alice Curry’s compilation of tales and poems from across the Commonwealth, published Jan 2016: https://cdn.literacytrust.org.uk/media/documents/AROS-Vol4-Fire.pdf.


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