New Wine in Old Bottles – Writing Fiction for Young Adults

Coming up with a new idea for a book is always exciting. My latest adventure in fiction, though, is quite different to anything I’ve done before. You see, although I write fiction,  I also work for a teachers’ development centre for English teachers. While most of my time is spent working with teachers rather than students, and most of my writing is classroom resources about texts by other writers, I recently decided to have a serious, full-throttle go at writing fiction for students. I’ve written a few short stories for a YA audience in the past, one or two of which have found their way into anthologies but this time it’s a much more serious enterprise – writing a whole collection.

 Where did the idea come from? I’ve been working recently on publications in a series called Cultural Conversations, the idea being to show students how texts talk to each other over time; how they’re part of long traditions, rather than standing in isolation. The resources bring together texts that are considered to be iconic and culturally significant with others that have been inspired by them, drawing on their themes, characters, narratives, archetypes and conventions. So, as an example, Homer’s Odyssey is brought together with the many contemporary re-envisionings by writers like Derek Walcott, Simon Armitage, Margaret Atwood or Madeleine Miller. And Amanda Gorman’s poem for the inauguration of Joe Biden is read alongside Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ that inspired her work, and in relation to the other iconic American texts that she paid homage to.

The most recent publication in the series, yet to be published, is on Antigone. Supported by a grant from the Classical Association, we commissioned four writers to produce new work based on Sophocles’ play. Poets Valerie Bloom and Inua Ellams, fiction writer Phoebe Roy and playwright Sarah Hehir have all written texts for 11-14 year olds inspired by the Greek play. While liaising with the writers and discussing their work, I thought I’d try my hand at a short story myself and ended up writing ‘Being Antigone’, a story about a contemporary school girl whose own life has some echoes of the original. I then wondered whether I might try doing some other ‘versions’, talking back to the famous texts that school students often find themselves studying.

Antigone – painting by Sébastien Norblin

I was instantly captured by the idea, in part because it tied in closely with something that’s been preoccupying me for quite some time . When Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Education, his mission was to radically alter the curriculum, especially at GCSE.  Gone were American authors such as Arthur Miller or John Steinbeck. All students were required to study a pre-twentieth century novel. Some kinds of writing were proscribed, others were side lined, and in the supposed cause of ‘driving up standards’, ‘challenge’ and giving students ‘cultural capital’, lots of texts that enthused students and gave them a love of literature were ruthlessly excised. Ensuring a rich mix of diverse writers of different cultures and genders was not high up the minister’s agenda.

So, students are currently reading a diet of mainly canonical texts, which are not always suitable, not always accessible, often seriously hard work rather than pleasurable for all students in that age group. The majority of the texts are by dead white men.

My ‘versions’ idea suddenly sprang to life. What if I could write lots of different angles, re-tellings and interpretations of these texts , to open up new ideas and ways of reading them? My stories could act as fresh ways in; they could offer the viewpoint of a character left on the side lines, be prequels or sequels, pastiches or serious imitations, updated versions or adaptations. Equally, they could offer many different perspectives – for instance female views and voices alongside male ones, with characters and settings that are sometimes marginalised in those canonical texts, at least some of which reflect the realities of students’ lives.

I got started on the first stories soon before Christmas, sending them to colleagues for comment before committing to the whole project. Each time a story came back with a thumbs up, I was energised to have a shot at another, moving from Jekyll and Hyde and A Christmas Carol to The Tempest, from a Shakespeare sonnet to a poem by Thomas Hardy, from An Inspector Calls to Oliver Twist. It’s been a lot of fun writing them and the scope for writing in different genres – ones I’d never tried before – has been exhilarating, taking me out of my fiction-writing comfort zone. An Inspector Calls has become An Inspector Called, where a class, reading and studying Priestley’s play, suddenly find themselves, like the characters in the play, experiencing a spookily disturbing moral wake-up call. Oliver Twist is seen through the eyes of the Artful Dodger and for Macbeth, the story of the teenage Fleance, who only speaks a few words in Shakespeare’s play, is filled out. I thought that young people might be interested in the kind of dangerous world that a boy of their own age would have had to navigate to stay alive.

The Artful Dodger and Oliver

I have looked for angles that might be enjoyable for a young adult audience but not all the stories have a teenage perspective or protagonist. Hardy’s ‘Neutral Tones’, for instance, imagines the loss of love at the end of an adult relationship, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is given a narrative of her own, and one story is told by an ex-teacher, now a writer. In each case, I’ve been juggling lots of different elements –  how to use the source text itself and do justice to it, the teenage audience (alongside the teacher audience who will read it in the first instance and then share it with their students) and my own aesthetic judgements about what might make a good story and how I want to write it. Not easy holding all these things in mind, all at once, but it’s been immensely enjoyable to have a go at it.

The idea of intertextuality is at the heart of all literary creative endeavour. It’s also at the heart of all literary study – we appreciate Shakespeare for what he’s done with source material, for how he uses and adapts existing genres, for how his representations of race or gender compare with that of his contemporaries, for how his work has been interpreted, re-fashioned, drawn on for inspiration across the centuries. Likewise, all writers are constantly re-inventing traditions of writing, ‘putting new wine into old bottles’, as Angela Carter described it. In this project, I’ve been putting some new wine – hopefully rich-bodied and tasty rather than unpalatable and vinegary –  into a crate of bottles by a range of different writers and, along the way, offering new young readers an inviting way of tasting some old vintages.

Barbara Bleiman

26th April 2022

Poem: How to describe any of it

“Throughout this war, I tend to read more than to watch ….. you’re more capable

of thinking and of analysing, rather than just being shocked.”

Slate interview with the Ukranian filmmaker Loznitsa

*

The fawn is wrapped in bracken

covered

almost dead

the doe scratches at the ferns to describe this

senseless

impossible to keep at this level

it is not possible

*

take the clay bowl

paint a blue and white willow pattern

this time add figures

a couple who flee

looping a toddler between them

but the man must stay on this side of the bridge

the side with the furious father

the angry emperor

*

in the darkened room soaked with body-smell

wet clothes, melting snow

a small girl watches adults chat, their low voices

suddenly outside explosions

she flutters her fingers flutter she is off her chair so fast

she turns here there yells keep away from the windows

pushes past rushes to the cellar shaking not fluttering

looks back at us trembles cries out

you must keep away from the windows

*

the children have packed their air-raid bags

they are porcelain

*

scepticism

when uttered out loud

catches the throat

unsettles certainties

it was never fair

who said it was fair

they kept checking

who is the baddie here will someone tell us

*

a cellar full of people, mostly quiet

two boys – aged about seven – sitting side-on at a table

one silently examines his fingers, the other watches him, copies,

tries to seem calm – No, he must be a couple of years younger –

at each explosion he jumps, quickly checks the older one:

No response. After each explosion – his own alarmed reaction –

he looks at his companion. No hint of movement.

Our boy can’t stop jumping, can’t stop trying not to.

________________________________________________________________________________________

How to describe any of it

Why try to write a poem about the war in Ukraine? As Chamberlain said after Munich in 1938, Ukraine like the former Czechoslovakia is ‘a far away country’; it’s someone else’s tragedy.

But TV has put the invasion into our homes and the territory of war is difficult to ignore. It’s full of high-pitched language, opinions and propaganda, journalists and cameras. Or it was until the routine of brutality and death slipped from the front pages and other issues like an appalling UK government and new prime minister took over. Even so, the script while in London had been clear, we knew who was responsible.

Or not quite. It has become even more confusing. This might be because I’m now living in Prague and nearer the front line so there are more refugees. People are anxious about their own futures. Bread is more expensive, energy bills are soaring, the schools are full and can’t take Ukranian children. It is also that the script of the war seems almost as much domestic politics: duplicity, gas, NATO and the EU/Europe.

However, two Storyville documentaries about children in besieged towns that I watched while in London have stuck with me; I couldn’t shake off two fragments and once back in Prague made notes as I’d remembered these. The observations are highly selective; I can’t get Iplayer so might easily have re-scripted the events but I wouldn’t want to check anyway. My recollection expresses the persistence and intensity of my anxiety for these particular children. This might also be influenced by having to leave behind in London the two grandchildren I’d been living with, a six-year-old girl, and four-year-old boy. In particular my complicated feelings watching the boy becoming a boy.

When I first read the quote from Loznitsa that starts this blog I wondered if he was right, and in what way can words on a page be more effective than video, and always that ancient question can poetry be at all powerful? I took my fragments and looked at other ways of describing the horror.

Jane Kirwan 28th July 2022

BBC Iplayer:

Storyville: The Distant Barking of Dogs

Storyville: The Earth is Blue as an Orange

Why on earth would you share that?

I recently heard a well-known author mention a newspaper article in which she and others were accused of monetising their tragedies and demons by writing books and giving talks on challenges such as alcoholism, infertility and divorce.

Somehow, I doubt making money is typically the main driver behind exposing the stickier parts of one’s life, even for the small minority who actually can make some serious cash from it. Being vulnerable takes courage and is uncomfortable, as I know only too well. There’s also immense value in doing so.

Not so long ago, it was the norm to keep experiences such as miscarriage, cancer or a mental illness almost entirely to yourself. Today, what was once shrouded in secrecy and even shame is far more likely to be openly discussed. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have no doubt helped normalise sharing intimate details of our lives. Even so, sometimes after I’ve written something personal on Instagram, such as how it felt to have a double mastectomy, or to conceive by IVF, I recoil and think, do I really want people to know that?  

Writing was something I did only for myself at first. In 2002, before social media was even invented, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, at 31. Soon after, I began writing about it in the privacy of my journal. Its pages were a safe haven where I could offload the torrent of emotions I experienced after my shock transition from hard-working London architect longing to find a boyfriend to unemployed hairless cancer patient longing to live. I assumed my outpourings would remain forever hidden in my journal. After all, I’d barely even told anyone I had cancer.

But while I was sick, I voraciously read memoirs by people who’d been through cancer and other serious illnesses, especially at a young age. Surrounding myself with their stories helped me feel less alone. For in real life, I knew no-one going through anything similar. Those stories also gave me hope that surviving cancer was not the impossibility I’d initially assumed. That thriving again, one day, might even be possible. There was such power in knowing someone else had walked through a fire similar to my own and come out the other end.

After I finished treatment, I returned to my journals, now curious to explore whether I could sculpt their raw content into a story. Stories had been my steadfast companions through a tough time, and I had a longing to create something positive out of its wreckage. Plus, awful as cancer was, it wasn’t uninteresting: wearing a blue ice-cap as scarlet liquid, the colour of the spring tulips in the park, dripped into my body through a vein in my right hand, and I held an egg sandwich in my left. These surreal moments deserved to be documented.

The process of writing what was eventually published as a memoir had a degree of discomfort to it: in order to create something authentic and honest, I had to dive back into the emotions I’d experienced at the time. But the greater discomfort came when I shared my words. Did I really want  people – particularly the ones who know me on a superficial level – to know about how I’d puked twenty-five times after my first chemo session, or about the huge fight I had with my mum one day when, in frustration, I hurled a saucepan at her?


And when I was single and dating online, did I really want potential boyfriends googling my name and finding articles I’d published about having breast cancer – something I’d of course have shared had a relationship become serious, but not on the first or perhaps even the fifth date. When one guy I’d been seeing for a few weeks, and who I really liked, suddenly dumped me, I became paranoid he’d read an article I’d published in The Telegraph and didn’t want to date someone who’d had cancer. I even asked the newspaper to take the article off their website, so as not to deter any future suitors!

In spite of any discomfort I feel about having bared all, I know it was the right thing for me to do, both because the creative process of turning those journals into prose was an enriching one, and because, twenty years on, my story does appear to have turned out to be one of survival and thriving again in the wake of challenge. For those stuck in the trenches right now, stories such as this can offer a chink of light in the darkness.

Many of us will, at some point, have to bear something really hard. Many will choose not to speak publicly about it. But when those of us who do feel moved to speak offer our stories, what we are saying is, yes, you are heard, you are not alone. I too have been here. And that in itself can be powerful medicine.

How can I be the person I want to be? What literature teaches us about this crucial question

I have been reading about emotional intelligence (EQ) for the past twenty years, ever since I picked up Daniel Goleman’s book on the issue in the late 1990s. As a writer and teacher, I was drawn to the concept because it suggested that it’s not so much how much we know that defines our intelligence, but how we conduct our relationships. At the heart of the idea of emotional intelligence or emotional quotient (EQ) as it’s sometimes known, is the idea that we need to understand our feelings: how and why we respond to people and the world in the way we do.

In a certain sense, EQ suggests that there is a vital role for writers to play in helping us understand the world because it’s writers/storytellers/poets who explore the world of emotions. Until quite recently, scientists avoided the topic, and deliberately stripped their practice of ‘emotions’ – as many still do. Scientists are supposed to be ‘objective’ in their observations, and look at the world without ‘feeling’. Recently there’s been a backlash against this approach, with feminists most notably showing how scientific research has been riddled with unexplored patriarchal assumptions and biases, one of which is its mistaken belief that ‘feeling’ can be taken out of scientific experiments. A practice which has led to all sorts of unethical experiments and problems. The award-winning book, Invisible Women, by Caroline Criado Perez explores these issues, exposing the data bias in a world designed for men.

For the writer exploring emotions is at the heart of their practice. One way of looking at much storytelling is to consider the ways in which writers depict characters who struggle to be who they want to be, who grapple with trying to know who they really are. From Hamlet to Margaret Atwood’s Handmaids, it’s this internal struggle to truly understand oneself and achieve one’s desires which motors so many stories. The skill of the writer is to show the tragedy and comedy of this struggle in different contexts. It’s a struggle because constantly our literary protagonists are being put into conceptual boxes by other people. Hamlet is put into the box of having to avenge his father’s murder by his father’s ghost and many other ones by other characters; the Handmaids in Atwood’s two novels set in a fundamental Christian dystopia are constantly battling against the patriarchy suppressing their desires, their bodies, their thoughts. Atwood skilfully and scarily shows a world where no woman can be who she truly wants to be.

In the oeuvre of Blue Door Press, this issue comes up again and again. In Pamela Johnson’s Taking in Water, the main hero Lydia can never be who she wants to be because of the terrible secret she has had to keep about a horrific flood she experienced as a child. Jane Kirwan’s Don’t Mention Her explores how the death of a young child in a family affects the child’s mother, Connie. The tragedy unleashes a new side to Connie, a thirst to pursue what she wants in her life, to escape the confines of a dead marriage. Connie’s example and the tragedy have knock-on effects with other characters too, one of whom emigrates to Nigeria to be with the person she thinks she loves. Annabel’s Chown’s Hidden – A Memoir is a searing account of one young woman’s quest for meaning, love and good health, after a devastating cancer diagnosis. Again, the theme of finding the person you want to be comes up because the cancer eats away at Annabel’s hope, her sense of identity as well as her physical health. Barbara Bleiman’s Kreminology of Kisses is an eclectic series of short stories which all explore in differing ways the problems of desire in its manifold incarnations: the desire of a woman, who is having her portrait being painted, to escape the confines of the suffocating Renaissance world she lives in; the desire of the bureaucrat in Soviet Russia to find meaning in a stultifying surveillance state; the desires of lovers, children, parents to express themselves fully.

It should come as no surprise then that my own novels, The Last Day of Term, Who Do You Love, and Snow on the Danube all are peopled by characters who are seeking to be different people, yearning for escape, release, for reciprocal love and attempting to seek it.

If you are interested in this theme then, there’s no better place to start than with Blue Door Press’s work!

New Wine in Old Bottles – Writing Fiction for Young Adults

In this blog Barbara Bleiman talks about the idea of ‘cultural conversations’ and how this has informed her new writing project, creating a collection of short stories for Young Adults that are in close conversation with classic texts.

Coming up with a new idea for a book is always exciting. My latest adventure in fiction, though, is quite different to anything I’ve done before. You see, although I write fiction,  I also work for a teachers’ development centre for English teachers. While most of my time is spent working with teachers rather than students, and most of my writing is classroom resources about texts by other writers, I recently decided to have a serious, full-throttle go at writing fiction for students. I’ve written a few short stories for a YA audience in the past, one or two of which have found their way into anthologies but this time it’s a much more serious enterprise – writing a whole collection.

 Where did the idea come from? I’ve been working recently on publications in a series called Cultural Conversations, the idea being to show students how texts talk to each other over time; how they’re part of long traditions, rather than standing in isolation. The resources bring together texts that are considered to be iconic and culturally significant with others that have been inspired by them, drawing on their themes, characters, narratives, archetypes and conventions. So, as an example, Homer’s Oedipus is brought together with the many contemporary re-envisionings by writers like Derek Walcott, Simon Armitage, Margaret Atwood or Madeleine Miller. And Amanda Gorman’s poem for the inauguration of Joe Biden is read alongside Maya Angelou’s ‘Still I Rise’ that inspired her work, and in relation to the other iconic American texts that she paid homage to.

Amanda Gorman’s Performance at Joe Biden’s Inauguration

The most recent publication in the series, yet to be published, is on Antigone. Supported by a grant from the Classical Association, we commissioned four writers to produce new work based on Sophocles’ play. Poets Valerie Bloom and Inua Ellams, fiction writer Phoebe Roy and playwright Sarah Hehir have all written texts for 11-14 year olds inspired by the Greek play. While liaising with the writers and discussing their work, I thought I’d try my hand at a short story myself and ended up writing ‘Being Antigone’, a story about a contemporary school girl whose own life has some echoes of the original. I then wondered whether I might try doing some other ‘versions’, talking back to the famous texts that school students often find themselves studying.

Antigone – painting by Sébastien Norblin

I was instantly captured by the idea, in part because it tied in closely with something that’s been preoccupying me for quite some time . When Michael Gove was Secretary of State for Education, his mission was to radically alter the curriculum, especially at GCSE.  Gone were American authors such as Arthur Miller or John Steinbeck. All students were required to study a pre-twentieth century novel. Some kinds of writing were proscribed, others were side lined, and in the supposed cause of ‘driving up standards’, ‘challenge’ and giving students ‘cultural capital’, lots of texts that enthused students and gave them a love of literature were ruthlessly excised. Ensuring a rich mix of diverse writers of different cultures and genders was not high up the minister’s agenda.

So, students are currently reading a diet of mainly canonical texts, which are not always suitable, not always accessible, often seriously hard work rather than pleasurable for all students in that age group. The majority of the texts are by dead white men.

My ‘versions’ idea suddenly sprang to life. What if I could write lots of different angles, re-tellings and interpretations of these texts , to open up new ideas and ways of reading them? My stories could act as fresh ways in; they could offer the viewpoint of a character left on the side lines, be prequels or sequels, pastiches or serious imitations, updated versions or adaptations. Equally, they could offer many different perspectives – for instance female views and voices alongside male ones, with characters and settings that are sometimes marginalised in those canonical texts, at least some of which reflect the realities of students’ lives.

I got started on the first stories soon before Christmas, sending them to colleagues for comment before committing to the whole project. Each time a story came back with a thumbs up, I was energised to have a shot at another, moving from Jekyll and Hyde and A Christmas Carol to The Tempest, from a Shakespeare sonnet to a poem by Thomas Hardy, from An Inspector Calls to Oliver Twist. It’s been a lot of fun writing them and the scope for writing in different genres – ones I’d never tried before – has been exhilarating, taking me out of my fiction-writing comfort zone. An Inspector Calls has become An Inspector Called, where a class, reading and studying Priestley’s play, suddenly find themselves, like the characters in the play, experiencing a spookily disturbing moral wake-up call. Oliver Twist is seen through the eyes of the Artful Dodger and for Macbeth, the story of the teenage Fleance, who only speaks a few words in Shakespeare’s play, is filled out. I thought that young people might be interested in the kind of dangerous world that a boy of their own age would have had to navigate to stay alive.

The Artful Dodger and Oliver

I have looked for angles that might be enjoyable for a young adult audience but not all the stories have a teenage perspective or protagonist. Hardy’s ‘Neutral Tones’, for instance, imagines the loss of love at the end of an adult relationship, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet is given a narrative of her own, and one story is told by an ex-teacher, now a writer. In each case, I’ve been juggling lots of different elements –  how to use the source text itself and do justice to it, the teenage audience (alongside the teacher audience who will read it in the first instance and then share it with their students) and my own aesthetic judgements about what might make a good story and how I want to write it. Not easy holding all these things in mind, all at once, but it’s been immensely enjoyable to have a go at it.

The idea of intertextuality is at the heart of all literary creative endeavour. It’s also at the heart of all literary study – we appreciate Shakespeare for what he’s done with source material, for how he uses and adapts existing genres, for how his representations of race or gender compare with that of his contemporaries, for how his work has been interpreted, re-fashioned, drawn on for inspiration across the centuries. Likewise, all writers are constantly re-inventing traditions of writing, ‘putting new wine into old bottles’, as Angela Carter described it. In this project, I’ve been putting some new wine – hopefully rich-bodied and tasty rather than unpalatable and vinegary –  into a crate of bottles by a range of different writers and, along the way, offering new young readers an inviting way of tasting some old vintages.

Barbara Bleiman

28th April 2022

What’s Your Story?

Pamela Johnson reviews an essential guide to life writing …

‘Do it anyway.’ That’s the mantra Cathy Rentzenbrink, author of the bestselling memoir The Last Act of Love, uses to quell all writing doubts. Rentzenbrink is full of plain-talking writing wisdom which she has generously shared in her latest book, Write it All Down: how to put your life on the page.

            Do you carry a story around in your head that you’d like to put down – an aspect of your family history or an unusual experience? If new to writing you may think your story is insignificant but if it’s significant to you then it could be worth the effort of telling it. Rentzenbrink’s philosophy is that everyone’s life would be improved by picking up a pen. She speaks from experience. It took her several attempts and a couple of decades before she finally wrote the story of her brother’s short life.  Her new book shares all that she learned about writing in her struggle to get that story down, followed by two other books and a novel.  

            The book is in four parts with plenty of exercises to keep your fingers clicking on the keyboard or pen gliding across the page. It opens with a warm introduction, ‘Dear writer, I am so pleased to meet you. Welcome.’ The warmth of that voice permeates every section.

            In part two, ‘Excavation’ she guides you through many ways to access memories, noting, ‘…it is the act of writing itself that dislodges memory and engenders meaning.’ You might need to write to find out what matters most. She is also very clear on a little-understood aspect of writing:

            ‘… the single biggest thing that trips up inexperienced writers is underestimating how much work, both on and off the page, goes into any project, and  how much of that work doesn’t end up being reader-facing but is essential to the process.’ 

            There’s a section on crafting and editing and another on forming good writing habits that work around daily life. The final section is what she calls ‘An Inspiring Addendum’, which consists of paragraphs of wisdom from other published writers of memoir. Here you will find Kate Mosse, Maggie O’Farrell, Lemn Sissay, Kit de Waal, Terry Waite and many more.

I asked Blue Door Press author, Annabel Chown, if all of this rang true to her writing experience. Aged 31 and working as an architect, she found herself with a cancer diagnosis. ‘I first started writing “morning pages.”  It was awful but interesting. Alongside the therapeutic aspect, I had a desire to capture this surreal world I was now in, get it down on paper.’ Only several years later did material in the morning pages become something she could work with to produce her memoir, Hidden, now read by many others. 

If you have a first-person story that niggles away and demands to be written, whether book length memoir, personal essay or article, and you find yourself hesitating Write It All Down might just be the place to start.

Pamela Johnson, March 2022

Joelle Taylor

In January 2022 Joelle Taylor won the T.S.Eliot prize for her collection C+nto and Othered Poems. This prize, £25000, is considered the most prestigious award in UK poetry.

In this interview Taylor describes her winning collection: it’s the story of the butch counter-culture, mainly in London, in the late eighties, early nineties. There is passion and heartbreak on every page; hearing her perform focuses the intensity of the poetry. It is extraordinary, words imprinted by way of her body, both through her and through the listeners/readers:

“ … there are girls who have nothing to eat but themselves

their small spines flagpoles stuck into soft mattresses in Brixton bedsits all of our mothers are warnings.”

(the Unbelong mother C+nto)

Taylor is from a working class Lancastrian family. She has her roots in ‘physical theatre’, in drama, and through this she has become an educator, writer, performer.

In 2000 she became UK slam champion, founding the UK’s youth slam championships, SLAMbassadors, for the Poetry Society in 2001. When, five years ago, she interviewed Sabrina Mahfouz (for the Poetry Society), they compared notes and Taylor described her own first experiences as a poet. There were two camps: Slam Poetry was seen as dumbed down page poetry and she was one of these “illiterati” in the performance world. Sabrina and Joelle described an hierarchy, obsessed with ordering difference, allowing only the “top couple to have critical importance”. Spoken word was working class and page poetry was “for real clever people”.

But things changed and eventually they were performing “at the ICA not the back of the Betsy Trotwood1.” Now poetry venues are mixing page poets with performance poets, mixing different ways of reading. Taylor says of her performances, they act as

“……a ‘quite primal’ function of poetry: coming together in a space, and seeing how the poem inhabits the body….”.

Here Taylor reads from C+nto, describing this, the second chapter, as the origin of her winning collection. It is memoir, personal history, loss of friends: “written for all those wrong-walking women.”

“& now thirteen a man pulls you over the back seat of a bus

and stubs his kiss out on your cheek”

(Round three the body as trespass C+anto)

In her collection, Songs My Enemy Taught Me (Outspoken Press) Taylor describes her own story of surviving sexual abuse, and how using that experience she set up workshops with vulnerable women across the UK.

“some girls fall from sunlight skies straight down into flat-pack floral dresses grab their smiles from a hook behind the door rescue their faces from the rip-tides of mirrors

some girls are always falling” (C+anto)

The title linking the collection is taken from the Latin verb cuntare (to narrate, tell, or recount a story) an allusion that, apart from the obvious, points to Dante and then cantos by Ezra Pound, cantos being the sections of one long incomplete poem much as Taylor has done here. In the preface to the collection, she says

“This book is a walk through a maze of vitrines, one consistent narrative told in different parts.”

Taylor starts the preface with “This is a book of silences ….there is no part of a butch lesbian that is welcome in the world…we have regressed as a community.”

“We all walk around with legions of ghosts within us,” she says. “And sometimes they force their way through your mouth, your pen.” (C+anto)

These ghosts force their way through with imaginative and precise and playful language:

“we are untamed a wilderness of women we are waste ground nothing grows on us … snake boy come now, heretic healer where are the maths that solve us? How do we fit into your algebra your binary code?”

(Round Two the body as protest C+anto)

This story of the butch counter-culture – mainly in London, in the late eighties, early nineties – is told through four women, Duduzile, Angel, Valentine, and Jack Catch, composites of women Taylor knew. Those were the times “when we were handsome”. (C+anto)

“I’ll be in the back bar of heaven Cass will be getting a round in releasing that laugh a flock of wild birds

escaping her mouth and none of this will matter I’ll

be riding the ghost roads with Valentine bare back knee clench on her Harley I’ll be stretching skins with Jack

Catch or scuffing the city with Dudizile men will

stare like open shaft mines I’ll be walking white lines

with Angel tight mouth antelope heart.”

(from C+nto – Round Seven the body as uprising)

This collection is not just describing the ghosts of people but ghosts of places. O, Maryville follows the story of one night in a dyke bar (Maryville) that’s a recreated version of lesbian clubs and bars that have disappeared. It has stage directions, scenes, light, sound; these four butch lesbians, Duduzile, Angel, Valentine, and Jack Catch, protect the space:

“o, Maryville / let us walk alone at night / & let the night not follow us/…o Maryville / keep us alive this death/ keep us from prayer/ deliver us from ego/ for thine are the body / the birthing and the burning / forever and ever/ are you a man?”

(Scene One Psalm C+anto)

Taylor says that those lost clubs celebrated unity while “the internet celebrates difference”. She believes “The whole ethic of the live poet is to create poetry for people who don’t like ‘poetry’; it’s to bring people into an understanding of what they already know.”

men are broken things breaking things”

(Round three the body as trespass C+anto)

In a Radio 4 programme2 looking at aspects of butch, Joelle describes it as an armour, walking out in the world and attempting to “avoid male attention, conceal vulnerability”.

“in the morning I dress in the reflection of the class

ceiling careful colours the shade of the UnBelong I

am my mother in my father’s suit still the girl with the

face of a man still wrong walking.”

(the Unbelong mother C+nto)

Yet trying to avoid attention, as opposed to willing it, seems just as dangerous, neither will defeat the fear and hostility. The butch world can be scary and violent, display doesn’t defuse the aggression. And it is mainly violence against butch lesbians. Butch women are murdered. There is rising global homophobia.

‘I ask all who are still at liberty, to take this message seriously and flee the republic as soon as possible.’

Final social media post from a LGBT group in Chechyna, 2017

(Scene eleven December C+anto)

And Taylor incants an extraordinary poem, ‘Eulogy’, the names of dead strangers – murdered lesbians across the world. With her recitation she absorbs each woman and distills an acknowledment of intense grief.

“This town is teeming with invisible women

they are not there everywhere”

(December viii C+anto)

In an interview for The Guardian, Taylor says: “Five hours away from London they are pulling lesbians on to motorways and beating their skulls open. It’s happening in Chechnya, in Hungary, in Russia. It’s happening in Uganda, in Ghana. Three-quarters of Poland now is an LGBT-free zone.

All these little things are very important on an individual level” – a reference to the internet infighting – “but they are literally murdering us. So could we just get together?”

Meanwhile, as Taylor says in Scene Eleven C+nto

“& as the cigarette is lit the smoke that dances from its end becomes a glass bead curtain & through it you are sat, quietly, reading this book.”

Jane Kirwan

28 February 2022

1

2Butch – BBC Sounds

Footnotes – part two by Pamela Johnson

In this second excerpt from a longer work in progress, Pamela Johnson continues the story of her accident while on holiday in Cuba alongside reflections on why the pursuit of healthcare remains central to the island’s history

Sunday 6 December 2015

‘I’m okay,’ my voice tells David, though I’m not okay at all. ‘I’ll be fine now I’m in bed.’ My foot is elevated on pillows, with a pack of ice draped across it, as instructed. Thanks to Tricia and the image on her phone of her metal-reinforced ankle I am keenly aware how crucial ice and elevation is. If the ankle swells too much I will be in for a long stay in hospital.

‘I must make a start if we’re going to catch the flight tomorrow. And I need to see if we can keep the room. They say it’s booked – a party arriving today.’  He can’t sit still, agitated and eager to make something happen, shock propelling him into overdrive. He’s taken on the challenge to find how to make the six-hour journey to Havana with me unable to walk and in time to catch our flight to London tomorrow evening. 

‘Really. You go.’   Please stay.

He gives me the remote for the TV we’ve never watched in the four days here. I switch it on. Some satellite channel from Florida – adverts for triple-decker burgers, outsized pizzas, Hershey bars, dog grooming kits, cat treats.

I have this split-screen mental image: Oxford Street with Christmas shoppers anxiously buying alongside ration shops in Havana.[i]  I switch off the TV and doze.

ration shop, Havana

When I wake, David isn’t back. I need the loo. I tamp down panic by mentally planning a route to the bathroom. I wriggle off the bed onto my left leg. The tiled floor is potentially slippery and my recovering sprained foot too weak; hopping is out of the question. By hanging on to walls and furniture, I use the shiny floor to ease into a one-footed swivel action. I make it as far as the walk-in closet – half way – is it wise to carry on? Only a few feet to go but it feels like miles.

Though I make it to the bathroom and back, it’s exhausting and dangerous.

I need wheels.

When David returns he’s smiling.

‘Good news – we can stay another night. And, I’ve hired a wheelchair.’ Through the numbness, a ripple of relief.

‘It looks like we’ll be travelling to Havana first thing tomorrow.’ The medical emergency company, CEGA – part of our travel insurance – will arrange transport.

‘We’ll catch our flight?’

‘That’s the plan but there’s paperwork to do.’

If we stand any chance of boarding that plane, it seems, I’ll need a certificate of fitness to fly.

‘Here, hold this.’ He hands me my x-ray and gets out his phone. We try different angles until he snaps a decent close-up of the damage. He then shifts the ice pack for a shot of the cast. He’ll email these images to CEGA, so I might be assessed by medical staff in England.The time difference could work in our favour. They’ll have had more Monday than us by the time we wake tomorrow. Our fate could be decided by a GP in Chichester. 

Exhausted, David climbs into bed even though it’s not yet nine. We almost daren’t speak. There can be no giving in to doubt or fear. No panic allowed. All energy is to go towards getting on an aeroplane without further mishap. Sleep is what we need if we’re to be in a fit state for the taxi ride, which CEGA has confirmed will collect us at 11am Monday morning which is tomorrow. I need to remind myself what day it is. This Sunday seems to have gone on for a week.

Lying on my back is simplest though I prefer to sleep on my side but the best I can manage is a half turn before the bones click and shift even within the cast. Try not to mind, you’ll soon be on a flight to London. The phone rings on David’s side. Sleepily he reaches to answer it.

            ‘Okay. I see,’ he’s saying. His tone is downbeat. ‘The airline won’t carry you.’

            ‘What?’

            ‘It’s a rule, apparently. You can’t fly within 48 hours following a fracture.’

            ‘So we’ll miss our flight?’

‘The taxi will still take us to Havana,’ he explains and that, at least, feels like progress. ‘They’re trying to find a hotel near the airport where we can stay tomorrow night and have a Cuban doctor issue a certificate of fitness to fly.’

‘But what about the pictures you emailed to England?’

‘I don’t know.’ He sounds weary, deflated. ‘I get a different story each time I call, never speak to the same person.’

            There is so much pressure on flights in and out of Cuba but I daren’t ask how we’ll get another one.

Monday 7 December

Waking, I remember all over again the fall that didn’t happen, can’t be real. As I ease myself into sitting the clicking confirms what is real – managing the practicalities of a six-hour journey on the back seat of a taxi. That’s what’s real today. It could be okay if we can take the wheelchair.

            The phone rings.  David reaches a sleepy hand to the bedside table.

            ‘Yes. Yes. She’s here. When? Why? Okay.’ He gives them my mobile number and hangs up.

            ‘What?’

            ‘We’re not going today. There are no rooms available anywhere near the airport in Havana.’

            ‘Why my number?’

‘Someone from the medical team in England needs to interview you. They’ll call later to assess if you could manage a flight.’

            ‘But which flight? And will the hotel let us stay another night?’ Tourism is booming. December is high season. Hotels are full, flights overbooked.

I know this because yesterday, we spoke to a young tour guide, Mateo, about the pressures he was under, more so since President Obama’s recent visit. I told him of our surprise at seeing the Stars and Stripes raised on the US Embassy in Havana. European companies are vying to build hotels in Havana and on the Cayos. ‘But we will have to do it slowly,’ said Mateo, ‘it’s a risk. Tourism must develop on Cuban terms. Otherwise what were the last 50 years for?’ Mateo, late 20s, has a masters degree in medical psychology but now earns more in tourism. Though Obama’s visit raised hopes about removing the US blockade it continues to stifle trade. Because of this, a regular ‘export’ from the island since the 1960s has been healthcare. For example, in 2006, funded by Venezuelan oil, a programme of cataract operations was delivered throughout South America. It’s reported that in Bolivia, treatment by a Cuban doctor restored the sight of an elderly man who hadn’t been able to see for years. It emerged this former soldier had been on the firing squad that executed Ché in 1967.[ii]  Teams of Cuban medical professionals continue to be available for the World Health Organisation. During the 2014-15 Ebola crisis Cuban teams were among the first to respond, helping to lower mortality rates and initiate preventative measures against the spread of the disease.  Apparently, this work on Ebola had impressed Barak Obama[iii] who, on his historic visit to Havana in 2014, praised Cuba’s medical achievements, nationally and internationally, suggesting the two countries might find a way to co-exist, ‘There is no need to treat those who think differently as your enemy,’ he said. The next president had a different view. 

David spends most of Monday morning in the hotel reception area where wifi is strongest and he can make international calls.  Back in the room I get washed and dressed which takes a good while. Then I sit in the wheelchair with my phone sending expensive 4G texts and emails – things I must cancel, reassurance to the family.

            The incoming call is from a nurse.

            ‘Where are you right now?’ Her voice pleasant, up-beat.

            ‘In the hotel room in a wheelchair.’

            ‘Can you stand?’

            ‘Yes, on my left leg but not for long and not without support.’ I don’t say I’m terrified of falling. I must pass this test.

            ‘Could you manage to get down the aisle of a plane?’

            ‘Yes,’ I say weakly then muster an eager voice. ‘Yes.’ I see myself, progressing by sheer will power along the length of a 747. ‘I could hold on to seats either side and hop on my left leg.’ This seems to satisfy her. I don’t mention the recovering ankle. That left ankle must buck up. It’s had enough pampering. It’s the only leg I’ve got to stand on.

Shortly after this David returns. He’s up-beat too.

            ‘Paris, Madrid or Amsterdam?’ he asks, excited as if offering a fantastic city break. There are no seats on direct flights to London until next week, by which time my ankle will be too swollen for surgery.

‘But what about the certificate?’

‘Here.’ He shows me an email with the certificate attached, sent by the Chichester GP. I’ve passed! 

            The Amsterdam option isn’t until Wednesday and Madrid seems too far from London, so we settle on Air France to Paris tomorrow night.

            ‘But how will we get to Havana?’

            ‘They’re trying to find an ambulance. If not it’ll be a taxi. Don’t worry. We’re getting there. Juan is on the case.’

‘Juan?’ David now has a direct line to Juan who is to be our dedicated contact, assigned to us until the dots from here to London join up.

I toy with watching TV but I’ve had enough Seinfeld.

Don’t worry. In an attempt not to, I make a list in my notebook.

            Ten reasons to be cheerful:

  1. It happened on the last day of the holiday
  2. Alex was so calm and wasted no time in getting help
  3. Belkis was on hand to translate
  4. The swift action and kindness of Dr Carlos
  5. There was an x-ray machine 7k away
  6. The kindness of Dr DIY willing to help on his day off
  7. We have credit cards and mobile phones
  8. I have a wheelchair
  9. We have robust travel insurance
  10. David is here to look after me, and keep in touch with CEGA and has bonded with Juan

By Monday afternoon new flights are booked. But there’s a glitch: the Air France connection to London leaves us with a long wait at Charles De Gaulle.

‘We won’t be home till late evening,’ says David. Home. What will that be like? It’s all stairs. David finds a better connection with British Airways and Juan changes the flight from Paris to London.

‘And the ambulance?’

‘Not looking good. It will have to be the taxi.’

Somehow the numbness of shock has kept panic at bay but the thought of a six hour ride in the back of a car made before 1959, however lovingly restored, has me on the brink of a major wobble with all of me feeling as fragile as my ankle.

taxi rank, Havana

I know what I’m doing in this room, have it all mapped out, I’m adept with the wheelchair.  Yes, yes, but you also want to get home. Break it down, a kind voice in my head whispers to the old cliché – a journey of a thousand miles etc etc

 A journey in seven stages[iv]

  1. getting out of the room down 2 lots of steps
  2. six hour road journey to Havana in a 1950s taxi – food? loos? wheelchair?
  3. Transfer to Havana-Paris flight
  4. 10 hour flight through the night – foot elevated above heart.
  5. Transfer to Paris-London flight
  6. flight to London with leg elevated – how on small plane?
  7. Heathrow to home? or A & E at The Whittington?

Think not of the taxi but simply the next stage on the list. Getting down steps is impossible. I will have to be carried. Who will do that? The taxi driver? David?

Move on to No 2. Can the hotel provide sandwiches? Could I somehow squat by the road? I look around the room. Two ice buckets, one large, one small. Would the smaller one be missed? Plus the 2 spare loo rolls from the bathroom.

We settle down for an early night. There’s a final call from Juan. 

            ‘That’s it. No ambulance,’ David reports as he hangs up. The taxi will be here at nine. Belkis will come to help. We’ll get a packed lunch.’ And, we can’t take the wheelchair, there’s no way it could be returned to Dr Carlos’s clinic, and wheelchairs are in short supply. We were lucky to get one.

            ‘I’ve been wondering, do you think it would be okay to take the ice bucket? I mean, six hours … ’ 

            I talk David through the mechanics of this.

            Ice bucket and loo rolls are squeezed into hand luggage.

Tuesday 8 December

Awake from 5.30 am, I won’t sleep again. Instead, I doze planning how to get out of this room to the taxi. I play various scenarios in my head; all end in further injury. The phone rings. It’s not yet six. I nudge David awake and he takes the call.

‘Juan,’ he mouths in reply to my questioning face.

At this time in the morning it can only mean bad news. No taxi? Flight cancelled? I don’t want to hear this and consider putting fingers in ears. Despite all the ice and elevation, how much longer will my ankle resist swelling beyond the possibility of surgery? What internal damage are those wayward bones doing?

            ‘Thanks, thanks so much. We’ll be ready,’ says David and hangs up. ‘They’ve found an ambulance. It’s on its way! Juan says to be ready by 8.30.’

            The next couple of hours are filled with purpose. David goes to find us some breakfast. I pull on a sleeveless linen shift and strap a sturdy walking sandal on my good foot.

            When Belkis arrives to tell us the ambulance is here, she and David line up the luggage. I sit in the wheelchair watching the activity and grip its blue metal frame, reluctant to let go of my security, my one bit of independence.

            Once the luggage is loaded a stocky man in shorts and white t-shirt appears. He is not tall but broad, a big man no more than forty, with a big smile. 

            ‘Martez,’ the man says and points to himself.

            ‘Hello, I’m Tamara,’ says the woman with him who is a nurse in uniform! Like Martez she too has a warm smile and a calm presence.

            ‘Ready?’ asks Belkis and she turns to speak rapidly in Spanish to Martez. Tamara encourages me to stand on my good leg. 

            ‘Okay?’ she asks as she steadies me.

            ‘Thanks, but what about the stairs?’

            Without another word, Martez scoops me into his arms, carries me down the three steps from the bedroom to the threshold of the room like a reverse honeymoon gesture, and then effortlessly down six steep steps to where a trolley waits. He shows no strain as if I were no more than the weight of a small bundle. Parked a few meters away is a very smart ambulance. Martez gently deposits me to sit on the trolley. 

            ‘Okay?’

            I’m so grateful I can hardly speak.

            ‘Relax’ says Tamara and encourages me to lie flat.

I’m wheeled to the rear of the vehicle where a ramp appears. In one smooth movement I’m on board. My trolley takes up one side of the space inside, along a window and I’m high enough to see out.

‘You want sit?’ asks Tamara and raises the back of the trolley so I can be upright – I might be on a sun lounger. 

To the side of my trolley are two seats, of the sort air hostesses sit on when the plane takes off. There is a third member of the crew.

‘This Peter,’ says Tamara. Peter yawns, and does not look happy. He does not smile. He takes up his seat and puts on his seat belt. I don’t think I’m imagining his hostility.

            Belkis explains that have come from near Varadero which is 2 hours from Havana on this side of the city. They’ve been on the road for hours already.

            ‘Hello,’ I say to Peter. He shrugs and scratches his arm and the back of his neck.

            ‘El zancudo,’ says Tamara.

            I look blank.

            ‘Zancudo, er er zancudo is …’ She mimes the trajectory of a mosquito.  It seems he has acquired the bites coming here to mangrove territory.

            Poor Peter, sleep deprived and suffering from bites.  He looks at me as if I might be just another mosquito. I don’t blame him for being pissed off. Added to his discomforts there doesn’t even seem to be a role for him and now he must sit for hours and repeat a journey he’s just done. Perhaps they are a team and need always to go where the ambulance goes. He wears a uniform – a paramedic? Well, Tamara and Martez outnumber him.

            David does a final check of the room and comes to see me.

            ‘This looks cosy,’ he jokes.

            He will travel up front with Martez who turns out to be the driver.

 Belkis makes sure I have my hand luggage within reach and gives me a carrier bag which contains a generous packed lunch then waves us off.

Well, that was easier than I could have imagined. I find my notebook, cross out No. 1 on my list. Here we go – No. 2.

We set off along the causeway that skims the sea towards the main island. I settle back on my medical sunbed and try to enjoy the view. Peter has closed his eyes. Silently, I wish him sleep the whole way to Havana. Without his eyes on me I feel somewhat better but still guilty on many levels:

  1. I could have returned the ice bucket to Belkis
  2. Three people have travelled from Varadero and now must do that journey in reverse plus the extra time to the airport
  3. Right now, there might be a Cuban in far worse plight than me who needs this team and this vehicle, a child, perhaps in a traffic accident.

Peter has every right to resent me. Medical equipment is scarce here as the ancient x- ray machine proved.  At least I can rationalise the ice bucket as I haven’t yet established the facilities on board. Thinking the word bedpan makes me want to pee. I send a message to my bladder: Not yet. We can’t wake Peter.

Soon we are off the causeway, passing though Caibarién. I look with fondness at the giant concrete crab that sits on the roundabout into the town. I wonder if Dr DIY settled back to his house repairs? How is his wife managing their disabled son today?

We’re on the A1, the main route through the island. And so we begin the reverse version of the journey we’d travelled over the last two weeks. It’s a road with variable surfacing and an array of traffic that includes: Chinese-built tour buses, ancient cadillacs, pony and trap, tractors.

We pass through Ramedios, a colourful town believed to be among the first Spanish settlements, known for its Christmas festivals and its drag queen community since Mariela Castro, Raul Castro’s daughter, campaigned for LGBT rights and gender assignment surgery through the health system. In Remedios only 6 days ago we’d celebrated David’s birthday at breakfast. I’d bought him a Cuban cigar, also one of the balasa wood boxes bearing the cigar-smoking image of Ché.

At college I did not display a poster of that other iconic image of Ché, seen throughout the world on t-shirts and banners. I wore a CND badge on my duffle coat, listened to early Bob Dylan and shared his rage at the Masters of War, but stopped short of manning the barricades. At 18 I understood Ché was a hero who had been brutally murdered, allegedly with CIA backing, but my memories of the missile crisis of ’62 – the terror my eleven-year-old self had felt alone in the girls toilets – still lingered around the idea of Cuba which seemed far away and somewhere to be wary of. Back then, I still felt an undertow of concern around this legendary figure. The child of deeply conservative parents, voting Labour in the general election had been transgressive enough.

If only I could have whispered to my teenage self: one day you will benefit from Ché’s legacy; one day you will learn the significance of that image.

In my student days I didn’t know that image of Ché had been taken in 1960. In March 1960, fearing another US invasion, Castro had ordered rifles and grenades from Belgium. A French ship, Le Coubre, delivering the consignment exploded in Havana harbour killing and injuring many. Castro believed it to be sabotage. As a trained doctor, Ché had administered to the injured and dying. It was at a memorial rally for the dead that the picture was taken by Alberto Korda. Castro addressed the crowds, flanked by Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, with Ché standing behind the group. For a moment, Ché stepped forward to survey the crowd and Korda, drawn to his pained expression, focused on him before he’d stepped back. But in newspaper reports the next day it was Korda’s picture of Castro and the French visitors that made the front page.

Korda printed and cropped a version of his Ché image, creating a portrait. He kept a copy pinned to his studio wall.  Following Ché’s execution in 1967, a huge blow-up of the picture was displayed on a banner draped over the façade of the Ministry of the Interior, as a backdrop to Castro, announcing Ché’s death.

A steel replica of the image remains in place.

Castro also agreed to an Italian publisher, which was issuing Ché’s diary of his time in Bolivia, using Korda’s photo on the cover. Posters of the image were printed to advertise the book.  These posters proliferated throughout Europe at student demonstrations protesting Ché’s murder. As Fidel had not recognised the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, no fee was received or even sought. Initially, Korda was happy to see the image used in support of the Cuban cause, but he drew the line when Smirnoff used it to advertise vodka. Korda proposed legal action and received a settlement of 50,000 US dollars, which he donated to the Cuban healthcare system. With copyright secured, might Ché, posthumously, have gone on funding healthcare?

When the road signs show we’re approaching Santa Clara, I’m reminded of Ché’s victory here that secured the Revolution’s success in 1959[v]. I flick through photos on my phone, find one I took, less than a week ago, of a crowbar that derailed the train full of arms sent by USA, destined to reinforce Baptista’s troops and so defeat Ché and the rebels.

Messages whispered along the railway line alerted the rebels to the train’s approach, saying which train and its arrival time. A crowbar loosened the points; a tractor raised the railway line, ensuring derailment; an example of communal co-operation, intelligence and ingenuity – a great deal done with very little. Cuban characteristics that, so far, I have been lucky to benefit from.

I take a photo of my legs on the trolley and text it to Jake, my son, and daughter, Izzy, on our way.

Was it the whoosh of the message being sent or the click of the camera function? Peter opens his eyes. Maybe he was only pretending to sleep.

            ‘In your country, how much is?’ he points to my iPhone. And shows me his not smart phone and tells me how much a month it costs. What can I tell him? I don’t honestly know right now without having to look it up. And if I did, how would that translate into Cuban currency?  He’d be appalled and, rightly, resent me even more. I fudge.  When I don’t give him a neat answer he shrugs, checks his bites and closes his eyes again.

            We’ve been on the road over two hours when I clear my throat and whisper to Tamara:

            ‘Bedpan?’

            She looks puzzled.

            ‘Bedpan – I need to pee …’ I say and point, feeling useless.

            A smile of understanding breaks out on her lovely face. She lifts the lid of one of the many compartments and produces a female urinal.  From its wide, vulva-shaped throat I get the idea. She produces a blanket, covers me up and says I can use it lying down. I’m not convinced and neither is my bladder. I try. I really do try. I press the thing close, surely that’s enough of a seal but, no. It’s as if a steel gate has come down inside, a muscle spasm blocks the flow. It’s not happening. And now Peter is awake. I really don’t want to pee on their trolley. The sensation of needing to pee, coupled with the refusal of my body to comply is distressing but I keep smiling and suggest it would work if I could be upright. I swivel my feet off the trolley.

            ‘No, stop!’ Tamara looks alarmed. She signals to Martez to pull over.  Peter has to get out for the sake of my dignity. I stand with bottle in place and, after some deep breaths and much soothing encouragement from Tamara, fill the bottle.

            ‘I’m sorry, so sorry’ I keep saying, alternating with, ‘Thank you, thank you.’

Tamara smiles through it all and strokes my arm as she helps me back on the trolley. Peter returns to his seat and closes his eyes but not before, once again, he points to my phone and asks, ‘In your country, how much?’ Now, it’s my turn to shrug.

We pass the signs to Playa Giron, or as we know it, Bay of Pigs, where there is a Museo de la Intervención, commemorating the event that turned the revolution from green to red, and led to Soviet backing, which, in turn, tightened the US blockade ensuring further reliance on the USSR. I look at Tamara with her Russian name and wonder which of her parents came here.

We stop for lunch, the crew led by Martez heads off to a roadside café, but we call him back to share our provisions. Even though I’m hungry there is plenty for all of us: ham and cheese sandwiches, oranges, bananas and more bottles of water than either David or I could drink. This pleases Peter.

Tamara, Peter and myself tuck into the packed lunch

Close to Havana the weather becomes overcast – grey sky, some rain. I notice an increasing number of Cubans hitchhiking, attempting to get into or out of the city. And here am I riding in like lady muck. 

On arrival at José Martí airport, Martez makes his way to Terminal 3, weaving around a chaos of taxis and tour buses. The ambulance comes with a wheelchair.  Inside the terminal, Martez wheels me to an information point. The crowds and the busyness are overwhelming. We wouldn’t last long if left to our own devices.

Martez is arguing with a woman in uniform, airport staff. He is forceful. What emerges is this: the airport wheelchair service, secured by Juan at CEGA, claims to be unaware of my plight. The woman shrugs. It’s never clear if she is denying all knowledge of the arrangement with CEGA or if they don’t have a spare wheelchair. Martez will not budge. He stands with his arms folded.

‘We stay until they bring chair,’ Tamara is constantly reassuring.

David would like to wade in but doesn’t have the Spanish. Should he call Juan at CEGA? Better leave it to Martez. Peter looks resentful at further delay. He scratches his bites in what I think of, ungenerously, as a theatrical manner. And so the five of us stand the only still group in a fast-moving throng.

Eventually, a wheelchair arrives along with a person to accompany us to the departure lounge. As we say our goodbyes, it is hard to show the deep gratitude we feel for their kindness. Yes, they were medical professionals doing a good job but they were so kind. Peter may have been grumpy about his bites but he stuck with us.

Muchas gracias, muchas gracias. We thank them endlessly. I rummage in my bag – we have no currency and would it offend to offer? I find a sort of bracelet that is meant to repel mosquitos. White plastic, like a watchstrap, supposedly impregnated with slow release repellent. Peter is intrigued.

‘Please, take it.’ He puts it on his wrist, and smiles. I have more and fish them from my bag. ‘Here, taken them all.’

More rummaging through hand luggage reveals the ice bucket and toilet rolls. Tamara and Martez light on these, delighted to have them. We give them the remaining sandwiches, fruit and bottles of water from the packed lunch. Meagre gifts.

For the ten-hour flight I must keep my leg elevated if I am to avoid the kind of swelling that kept Tricia bedbound for 10 days before they could operate.  CEGA has arranged an upgrade to the front row of business class. I’m wheeled to the VIP lounge.

The Air France crew are reassuring and attentive. At the door of the plane I say goodbye to my airport wheelchair and I’m transferred to a sort of stool-on-wheels that fits perfectly in the plane’s aisle; none of the clinging to seat backs and hopping, as discussed with the CEGA nurse. Once in my seat, extra pillows and blankets form a tower on which to plonk my leg. It’s a night flight. David sleeps most of the way. I doze and half watch films. And cabin staff regularly rebuild my tower when it slumps.

Wednesday 9 December

8am. Paris, Charles De Gaulle Airport.  I’m still in a sleeveless dress, bare legs, as I hadn’t found a chance to change into the warmer clothes I’d put in hand luggage. The switch to the earlier BA flight might get us back home at a more reasonable hour but it means having to do baggage reclaim from one flight and check-in to the London one. This requires a change of terminal and a wait on a mini bus assigned to wheelchair uses. Through the bus’s open door, chilly air finds my bare limbs: 4C, apparently.

At Terminal 2A we are greeted by a member of ground staff who wheels me and guides us to the BA check-in. This young man exudes cheerfulness as he asks about my injury. Then, in perfect English with the most attractive French accent says: ‘Do not think – why me? It is has happened. I was laid up for 6 months with my knee. Don’t beat yourself up. There is no point. It will soon pass; you will be strong again. Relax.’ Words I would hold onto over the next few months.

CEGA had booked three seats on the short flight to London so that I could sit with my leg raised. It doesn’t go to plan. Soon two other people are demanding that I put my leg down, ‘those are our seats.’ The plane isn’t full so, thankfully, it’s sorted out and I can maintain the vital leg elevation.   

Wheelchair and baggage reclaim at Heathrow pass without incident. Shortly after, 1pm we are met by Juliana, the driver of a private ambulance arranged by CEGA. She loads up not just me but our luggage. We live near the Whittington hospital where I’m headed but she sees that having large suitcases in A & E is no good for anyone. She swings by our house. David off-loads the luggage while I, helped by Juliana, change into the jog bottoms and sweatshirt. At the hospital, she warns:

            ‘They’re going to wonder why you are coming in on a trolley, so be ready with your explanation. Have your x-ray to hand.’ And with that, the remarkable Juliana is off to rescue someone else.

            I’m soon ushered into a cubicle where I offer the x-ray to a senior nurse.

            ‘What’s this; where did you get it?’ She holds up this two-foot square piece of negative.  A nurse trained, working in the days of electronic imaging, she calls others to come and witness this antique. But this antique was delivered to me within two hours of having fallen and no one asked me to produce a credit card before they’d let me near the x-ray machine; it secured a cast within three hours of the accident that prevented my ankle from swelling; it secured me a flight within 48 hours of the accident.

It’s thanks to the ‘antique’ I’m first on the list for surgery in the morning.

You can download this pdf version of Footnotes, Part 2.

First publication 2021 by Blue Door Press in Altogether Elsewhere, an anthology of writing about place  © 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] ration shops provide basic foods at subsidized prices: rice, beans, sugar, milk

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/oct/02/cuba.international

[iii] see Chapter 6, We Are Cuba, Helen Yaffe, Yale University Press, 2020

 

 

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 was published on Thursday 31 December 2021 you can read it Here

You can download Footnotes, 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.

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