Off the Voortrekker Road by Barbara Bleiman

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

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

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

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

Chapter 2

1939

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yessir.’

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

‘Yessir.’

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

‘Yessir.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘My ma? She’s so-so,’ Ada said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 15

1944

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

‘Ask,’ he said. ‘Please mama, ask.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terence and I shared a conspiratorial smile.

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

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

Mrs Mostert gave Ma a quick squeeze on the arm.

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

*****

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

Pack up all my cares and woe

Here I go, singin’ low

Bye, bye, blackbird.

Where somebody waits for me

Sugar’s sweet, so is she

Bye, bye, blackbird.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

‘Was it fun?’

I nodded.

‘Did you swim a lot?’

I nodded.

‘Did you eat a nice picnic?’

‘Yes.’

‘Did Mrs Mostert drive you there?’

‘No.’

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

‘Walter.’

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

I shrugged.

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

I said nothing.

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

I nodded. Was that the right thing to do?

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

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

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

I shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

There was a little pause.

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

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

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

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

You can find a PDF of these extracts here:

Steve Roberts on Decolonising Creative Writing

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

1 Flag of Dominica

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

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

2 Map of Dominica

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

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

References

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

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

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

Ole Man River by Steve Roberts

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

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

1 River in Dominica – Photo by ISAW Company on Unsplash

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

2 Steve Roberts as a young man

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

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

3 Flag of Dominica

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

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

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

4 Map of Dominica

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Biography

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

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


You can read a PDF of the story here:

Turin and Pavese by Mary Woodward

Mary Woodward finds the connection between place and poetry astonishing, as in Turin’s streets and squares she hears echoes of the poet, Cesare Pavese

All is the same
time has gone by –
some day you came
some day you’ll die

Last Blues Cesare Pavese

I’ve never met anybody who’s been to Turin, though I meet plenty of people who have never heard of it. ‘Where’s that? ’they say. Even Italians look blank. Or disapproving. Why go there? Northern, industrial. Why not Florence, Rome, Siena if you’re going to bother to go to Italy at all in winter.

I persuade myself with the prospect of shimmering Alps encircling a shadowy, elegant city of Baroque streets. City of book shops, and Vivaldi manuscripts, and Camparis at seven o’clock on the way home. Pavese and Primo Levi’s city, the home Levi walked back to from Auschwitz. I buy two maps, one laminated to withstand the rain I guess will be falling on the colonnaded street corners, and a real O.S. map, vast, on thin white paper, as easy to fold as dealing with the canvas on a yacht in the wind.

In the evenings before going, I spend hours looking at the neighbouring valleys and hills with a magnifying glass, scrutinising the city, giving names to streets and piazzas. The clocks go back. My life becomes two thirds night and one third the steel half-light of November days. This is a good time, the year’s eleventh hour, to visit a city which is reputed to be magic, one of a white (or black, depending on who you read) magic triangle with London and San Francisco, Prague & Lyons.

My brain concocts an atmosphere of its own for this unmet place, Roman military nerve centre, the eyrie of the Dukes of Savoy, the place where Italy itself was plotted and planned in the great coffee houses. I imagine Pavese, heir to all this, sitting in the Cafés Elena, and Torino, and San Carlo, and Flora. ‘Turin…City of fantasy…city of decorum…city of passion…city of irony,’ he says in his diaries.

As the plane eases into its long sweep down over the autumn slopes of the Alps, I start to feel I am cheating, that I have taken a shortcut instead of what should have been a test of my determination, that I should have walked and struggled to reach here. That’s what people did, isn’t it, for millennia? Everybody once, not just Levi. Walked through these valleys, or rode horses. Stayed at small pensiones and set off for the next day’s cold journeying. It is not meant to be this easy. But when I arrive I am absorbed into the evening rush hour crowds as if being welcomed. It is warm. The trees which line every street and square are copper and sepia as if it were still September.

Turin

That first night I go to the opera, an English company doing Billy Budd. The Via Roma is lit across from column to column for Christmas; further along a Jenny Holzer poem is moving in ten-foot-high white letters up and over the Palazzo Madama in the Piazza Castello. Time is short, just enough to get into my black dress, a half hour to eat pizza, and drink prosecco, in the cafe next to the Teatro Regio. The opera house is like a shoot in Italian Vogue, dark red walls and carpets, a cloud of glass chandeliers and sweeping low aero-curved staircases; Carlo Mollino’s risen from the ashes of World War Two theatre, Mollino the mysterious magic-obsessed Torinese architect who flew Spitfires and designed a racing car which won at Le Mans. All the fur-coated women dangle Hermes or Chanel handbags. I already know the Hermes shop in the Via Roma is the only one in the world to use plain carrier bags – a benchmark of Torinese discretion. You can be rich here, but only with simplicity a la Carla Bruni. Anything else would be bad manners.

Afterwards in the Cafe Mokita I have a negroni so fragrant with orange peel that the vermouth and campari and gin fade to innocence in the hefty crystal tumbler. Hungover, I wake the next morning to a cold sunny civic utopia of eighteenth-century streets. I try to read La Stampa, which I’ve bought at the newsstand by the triumphal arch at the end of the Piazza San Carlo, over macchiato and brioches in a small, darkly-panelled room in the Torino. I bite into a fat dome of pastry, into thickly sweet preserve of some kind. I cannot identify it. Not apricot, not fig. Almost pure honey. My hangover recedes.

The chessboard precision of the grid of central streets is still undisturbed by traffic. To the western end of each long Baroque vista the Alps rise up, peaks just touched with snow, cinematic, hallucinatory, while to the east the city drops back down towards the river Po. Now and then, as people start to crowd the streets on their way to offices, galleries and cafés, I half see a dark-eyed man in a sand-coloured raincoat, walking fast away from me, an almost-smoked cigarette held between the fingers of his left hand. He is working on another poem for his poems about the workers of Turin, the people he had grown up with in the Langhe Hills, now workers in factories – Pavese knows only too well their sense of loss –

On the street no one

Ever reveals the pain that gnaws at their life

Poetics

Then, in the shadows of the porticoes, he is gone.

Each evening before falling asleep I read the poems; of course they make more sense here. From the flats behind the hotel, through the silver grey five o’clocks of all the mornings, comes a burst of an Italian song, of that passionate, heroic kind which shows an unlikely connection between opera and rock, at a volume which can only be described as majestic. It wakes me every time, and I lie there wondering if I really want a pee or not. The fact I am even thinking this makes me put on my raincoat to pad down the broad hallway to the bathroom.

The hotel is the fourth floor of a seventeenth-century town palazzo and the graciousness of its dimensions gives the dawns a still seriousness undermined only by the bubbling sound from the huge fish tank in the foyer. When I come in and out during the day I greet the big goldfish living there with a finger touch on his glass; he pushes his orange O-mouth towards it and circles his pretty pleated fins with excitement or anger or curiosity. I remember, Pavese says Turin can be a prison.

Brilliant sun, icy azure air, the cinnamon gilded trees in the town squares… the dry whisper of leaves shifts backwards and forwards under my feet. Down by the great silent river the boat sheds are locked up (Pavese loved rowing on this stretch of river), the tennis courts empty, the hills opposite streaked with tawny shadows. Everywhere dark yellow, snub-nosed trams thrum like cats as they corner or speed up. I wander from bookshop to cafés to bookshop. In the Café Elena I sit in the window, watching these trams pass up and down the Piazza Vittorio Veneto; Pavese must have done exactly this on autumn mornings, the kind of morning he describes in ‘Indian Summer’:

The piazzas and streets

give off the same scent of warm sun

as these trees. You can go back to your town.

But Turin is the most beautiful of all towns.

Maybe here he met Constance Dowling, the Hollywood starlet who finally broke his heart – looked up from his espresso one day and there she was, proof that the war was over, that a new world of movies and sandals and dark red nail varnish had arrived. But his relationships with women were always doomed, crippled as he was by a cold childhood and the misogyny of his time and place.

I am worrying, as I knew I would, about why Pavese killed himself. I think again how I, and the rest of us, have been cheated. Done out of maybe another twenty or thirty years of poems and novels. Why do writers think they only belong to themselves? I want him to walk in, sit down and explain himself. The last poems are sad, yes, and haunting but not truly despairing. Failed love affairs are grist to the mill to a poet, surely, less of a death sentence than a happy marriage. But he’d probably just shrug. He would drink his coffee, of course, fast at the bar like all the locals, and then swing out into the piazza, raincoat almost catching in the doors. I can see him. I have a face and a voice for the poems. But it still doesn’t add up to an explanation.

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Cesare Pavese

One afternoon I catch a 35 from the Porta Nuova to look at the Lingotto, the 1914 Fiat plant converted into a mall and gallery. Before that I walk through the great train station and read the destination boards: Venice, Milan, Genoa, and the suburban train which sets off six times a day up into the mountains, up towards the snow and the skiing and the pines. I’d like to do that, just catch a train up into the Alps. Leave everything behind and disappear up there for the cut of the air and the light-headedness of being higher, and looking down on the city and its lights.

At the Lingotto I walk round the shops. I pace up and down the mile long boardwalk and try to imagine this place in its heyday as a factory in the twenties, producing millions of little cars which were to drive out all the horses, and fill the mountain valleys with their chugging engine noise and the smell of petrol; I imagine the men working here, dark men from the south with a different accent, or boys who’d grown up on farms round here but wanted a modern job, who’d abandoned the little fields and the vineyards for Fiat’s wages. The young men who walk the streets of Pavese’s Lavorare Stanca. A factory the size of an ocean liner, its workers on their way to another future.

On the Eastern side of the building the huge windows are filled with a frieze of Alpine peaks. I glance quickly… I think for a second what strange 1950’s wallpaper, and then my mind clicks: no, it’s real. It’s real. Real Alps. The sun is brushing the peaks with a glow which can only be described with the clichés of cosmetics advertising: blush, peach, rose, nude. Snow which is like warm skin. I buy a copy of Pavese’s Il Mestiere de Vivere in Italian, a beautiful Einaudi edition with a Francesco Menzio painting on the cover. I buy a bottle of mineral water in one of the little takeaway shops at the west end, and sit down near a children’s area. There are lots of wooden toys…horses and tiny ladders and chairs…but no children. Though it’s calm and silent my head starts to ache. I take a couple of Nurofen.

That evening I eat at the Café Kipling in the Piazza Bodoni. Earlier there had been music coming out of the open window of the Conservatorio Verdi – a trumpet, joyful and acclamatory. November – and yet warm enough for all the windows to be open. I wander back to the hotel though the tree-crowded squares of quiet eighteenth-century apartment blocks. The sky is black-ultramarine with a perfect half moon stitched lightly to it. A clear sky, the moon but no stars. Not one. I cannot work out how that could be.

In the square leading to the Piazza Cavour two ten-foot-high jets of water dance upwards. It is very, very cold without being frosty. Like the surface of another planet, one further from the sun. Pavese would have walked home fast on nights like this, wearing his leather jacket and his white evening scarf, slightly drunk sometimes though I imagine he could knock back Vermouth and gin, whatever, you name it, without ill effect. He would have become quieter as he drank, just quieter and even more thoughtful until he pushed back his chair, said goodnight, and headed off though these exquisite and silent piazzas. And then once home, the door shut, his jacket thrown on the back of a chair, he wrote.

On the last day I walk miles from the market in the north of the city down to the Gallery of Contemporary Art. I pass the Fontana Angelica, boarded up to be cleaned. The guidebook says this is a magic fountain, indeed the gateway itself to infinity. I am relieved it is inaccessible. Maybe another time. I pass beyond the Fontana down the Corso Re Umberto, the road where Primo Levi lived all his life apart from when he was a prisoner. I would like to look for his apartment block but I’m not sure how long it will take me to reach the gallery, and I have to be back by five. In the broad streets down here there are unused tram lines everywhere, an iron archaeology of the twentieth century. This must look just as it did when Levi walked along it when he returned from Auschwitz, the desired and longed for, most beloved road, the road home.

I have learnt to watch my step as I run across the cobbles, not to catch my foot in the gaps around the unused rails, which trace ghost runs for trams full of young men in pinstripe double-breasted suits, and their girls in print cotton frocks and turban headscarves and straw wedge platform shoes, these great corners where there is no traffic passing now, nothing now but the drifting leaves.

Back on the pavement, under the colonnade there’s the air of an imperial thoroughfare where the Corso Vittorio Emanuele runs up from the Porta Nuova, the momentary appearance of nineteenth-century Italy, of urban space and monuments and unachieved majestic ambition. There are mahogany and gilt cafes, and chocolate shops of gold-lettered opulence. I walk faster. The bustle of the centre fades behind me. The gallery is on the south side of this great street, and is of much more recent date, disconcertingly like the Hayward. I am led to it by neon letters six feet high along the edge of the roof which declare ‘All art was contemporary once.’ Yes, in English. At the steps up to the doors there is a big, light brown cat waving his tail and being stroked by visitors. I hurry up so I can meet him too, but when I am almost close enough he has disappeared under the steps and away.

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Piazza San Carlo

Tra fiori e davanzali

I gatti lo sapranno

The Cats will Know

The first and only gatto I have spotted in Pavese’s city of all-knowing poetic cats and he has gone. Entry to the gallery itself is almost as elusive. The staff don’t speak English. I cause consternation by trying to go in without checking in my bag. Eventually, bagless, I am let loose in the empty spaces.

I have come here to look for work by the Turin Six, painters working between the wars. I like them, these landscapes and summer afternoons and interiors, lying about a calm and peace which did not exist. There is a small painting of three windows opening inwards. Hills in the distance. Empty chairs. No people. Jessie Boswell. Born Leeds 1881-1943. How on earth did Jessie Boswell get here from Leeds, why has she fetched up here with the Turin Six? And did she ever sit in the Flora or the Elena or the San Carlo with Pavese? The gallery does not believe in overdoing information. Only the paintings speak for their makers’ lives and they’re not saying a lot. More opinionated siblings may well be gathering dust in the basement. And while these were being painted Pavese was exiled in Brancaleone, watching the summers of Fascism pass, bored and longing to be back in Turin.

I walk back toward the Porta Nuova to check the times of buses for the airport – unmissable, these buses – bright blue in a world of yellow public transport. One is at the stop. The last suitcases are stowed in the side and then it pulls out, signals and turns with an air of finality back down the opposite carriageway away from the heart of the city towards the airport. The sight lowers my spirits. I do not want to leave.

I cross over to the Piazza Carlo Felice and walk up through the porticoes towards the Saturday clamour of the Via Roma. The stately dark wood and gold entrance of the Hotel Roma is open on my left. These are the doors Pavese entered… it must have been hot, a late August day in 1950. Easy to imagine how both brilliant and dusty Turin is in the summer, the stone everywhere broiling with the heat. I have more questions. Why did he choose this hotel? The most central? The most anonymous? Or the shrine of particular memories, memories he wanted to wrap round him as the barbiturates took effect? He never left that evening, lighting a cigarette, as he must have done on other days maybe after a long afternoon in a darkened bedroom. With a lucky woman who knew his voice and the way he talked and what he worried about. ‘Don’t gossip too much,’ he says in his final note. Some hope. We have gossiped about him ever since.

I feel again that irrational fury about losing a poet too young. There’s a long list of them. But with Pavese it’s worse than the others. More intimate, for it is also his personal glamour, his watchful, clever, distanced temperament, his difficult presence which fascinate me. And what would he have had to say about Europe in the following decades, Pavese, the poet of workers and struggle and the cruelty of the emerging modern world, who as a boy playing football in the suburbs heard the gunfire of the Turin massacre of trade unionists in1927. It would have been worth reading.

On the last morning it is still nerve-cleansing Alpine weather. I am laden with bags of hazelnut amaretti and porcini bought from a market smallholder who has a trestle table laden with open sacks, smelling of black earth and bark. As the plane takes off and then banks up over the mountains, the sky to the West is crimson-scarlet like the walls of the Teatro Reggio. A horizon like an opera. The city falls back away from us into its safe place overshadowed by the peaks. ‘Turin, my favourite subject,’ Pavese says in his diary for February 1936, Pavese who never left it voluntarily, for whom it was home and workplace and theatre. Now I have seen it I am closer to those poems I love. Poems can belong to a city, are the voice of its streets and squares. Sometimes you just have to get up and go there. The connection between place and poetry is astonishing. Of course, poems can exist elsewhere but they can use their own energy more fully in their own place.

All the winter through I come back to a quiet, empty house. His raincoat is on the back of the door, and there’s the smell of a dark tobacco in the solitude of the evening air. I open his poems, the streets outside are no longer the known streets of home, but Turin, after the battles of WW2 have fallen silent, and the troops have gone, and the prisoners of war have been repatriated; a city where the cafés once again have enough cake and little satin-ribbon-tied bags of hazelnut chocolates to stack on the glass counters; a city where they are just starting to feel optimistic enough about the future to think of rebuilding the opera house.

Disaffections: Complete Poems 1930-1950 Cesare Pavese Carcanet 2004

This Business of Living Diaries 1935-1950 Cesare Pavese Transaction 2009

This was first published in Tears in the Fence No. 70 Autumn 2019

Mary Woodward describes herself more a writer of poems (one full collection The White Valentine, Worple Press 2014, one pamphlet Almost Like Talking Smith Doorstop 1993, poems in magazines including Poetry Ireland, The North, Southword) than of prose.

She has written for The Guardian newspaper (she won their fashion writing competition in 2003) and pieces for literary magazines (The North, Agenda, Tears in the Fence etc) and has published short fiction in anthologies and been shortlisted for short story competitions including the Asham Award and Fish.

“I made a visit to Turin a few years ago to see the place which had been the home of two writers I love, Pavese and Primo Levi. I was not disappointed – it is a wonderful city – and wrote this piece to try to keep a sense of it alive for myself. I hope it will also act as encouragement for others to read Pavese’s wonderful poetry. I am not a travel writer but, as some people say, places speak and I found Turin to be highly conversational…full of wisdom and thoughtfulness.”

A PDF can of the piece can be found here:

Learning to Breathe With Trees Sarah Salway

a place close to home becomes important as Sarah begins to recover from Covid-19

‘You have to breathe properly,’ Richy, the Filipino nurse, tells me on my first night in the COVID isolation ward, his visor misting up with his own breath. ‘You are too shallow. If you leave here, you need to put yourself out in the world more. Breathe. Breathe.’ 

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Covid isolation ward: patient’s eye view

While I’m deep breathing – slowly in through the nose, puffing out through the mouth, putting myself out there – I remember reading that every window in this hospital is supposed to look out at a tree. Somehow I manage to shuffle to the window but all I can see is a concrete courtyard and two people smoking by some bins. Determined to see some nature, I stand on tiptoes, squashing my head sideways against the glass. Ah, there it is, the top of something that looks like a … 

‘What are you are doing?’ Richy has come into my room without me hearing him. A feat indeed in full PPE. ‘You’ll exhaust yourself. Get back to bed.’ I remember his ‘if’ and not ‘when’ about going home, and go back to practising my breathing.

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‘All I can see is a concrete courtyard’

*

The Grove, a small park behind my house was given to Tunbridge Wells by the Duke of Buckingham in the seventeenth century. It was planted thickly and mostly with oaks as somewhere for visitors to promenade when they were tired of gambling. 

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After the 1987 hurricane destroyed many of the park’s trees, other varieties were planted. Before Covid, I had a plan to identify them all, and had bought an old hardback book, Trees in Britain by L J F Brimble from our local charity bookshop. 

It was only when I’d got home that a postcard fell out –  the original handwritten order from W H Smith & Son of Thames Street, Windsor, dated 22nd July 1948. I was intrigued to see it was addressed to D H Hardwick of the Military Wing of Harefield County Hospital in Uxbridge. That’s interesting, I thought, putting it aside to investigate when I had more time.

‘It was only when I’d got home that a postcard fell out – the original handwritten order from W H Smith & Son’

*

One of the common symptoms of the Corona Virus is a difficulty in breathing, but doctors are finding some patients have Silent Hypoxia, the medical term for when someone has dangerously low oxygen levels but is still able to function. This is the case with me. 

I’m hesitant about ringing 111 at first but once the paramedics arrive and test me, it takes just minutes before I’m in an ambulance. From my seat in the back, I hear fragments from urgent sounding telephone calls, ‘Red route,’ ‘Need to be quick’, and I wonder which poor person they are talking about. Then I realise it’s me. An hour later I’m in a hospital bed on oxygen, remaining there for six days. 

When I eventually come out, it is to a different world. The country’s in lockdown because to touch someone could be to kill them and we are only allowed out one hour a day. I’m still frail anyway, so it is enough for me to totter round The Grove barely noticing the trees. But doing the same route daily means I’m aware of how much stronger I am getting as the weeks creep by. Like many others, I also start to hunger more for nature.

‘Was this tree always this colour?’ a man asks me during one walk. He’s standing by a copper birch, its rich purple leaves showcased by the smooth grey bark. I tell him I can’t remember, but has he seen the Christmas tree blossoms on the horse chestnut? We agree that all the trees are particularly amazing this year. 

It seems the perfect time to go back to my plan of learning the trees in the park by name. I get out my old book, and the postcard falls out again. 

*

It’s easy to find out about Harefield Hospital, the address my book was originally sent to. It’s now one of the ‘lost hospitals of London’ but was once the home of an Australian family, the Billyard-Leakes. They’d offered it to the Australian government in wartime for the treatment of injured Australian and New Zealand soldiers, and by 1940 it had gained an international reputation for treating disease and injury to the lungs and oesophagus.

D H Hardwick, the man, takes longer to track down. Eventually I find out he was an officer of the Royal Air Force Voluntary Reserve, winning the Distinguished Flying Cross during the Battle of Arnhem. This was a brutal battle and out of nearly 9,000 men taking part from the 1st Airborne Regiment (which my D H Hardwick as Flight Officer belonged to) only 2,000 came home. So the man who first owned my tree book had officially been a survivor. 

*

And now I am one too. Apparently I have ‘battled’ through, I’m a ‘warrior’, and I’ve won the ultimate medal for 2020: ‘Covid Survivor’. But when I talk to others who have shared my experience of being admitted to hospital, we agree that we were never in a state to fight anything, and if there’s a metaphor that works better for us than war language, it’s the idea of a computer virus. Our bodies have been contaminated with unsafe messages rushing through our veins. So much of what we thought we knew – such as how to breathe – has to be wiped clean before we can function again. 

*

Stalking D H Hardwick online proves to be the perfect gentle distraction as I recover. From military websites, I’ve found out his first names were Dennis Henden and he was born in Auckland in 1917. In fact, he was one of many New Zealanders who joined the Royal Air Force, and his squadron was involved with the SOE, or Special Operations Executive. He was also described as a ‘surveyor’, which probably involved him staking out enemy territory. What I still find most interesting about him though was how, while he was recovering in a hospital so far from home and several years after the war had ended, he had ordered a book so he could learn more about English trees. 

It seems an almost heroic curiosity, and makes me ashamed of how I’ve always been too busy to bother learning my own landscape properly. There are so many things we take for granted until we nearly lose them. Every day now, my phone fills with photographs of flowers and skies from friends, and I study every one closely as if the natural world is a book I need to translate. Images of trees fill me with special delight.

*

My daily breathing exercises seem to be helping. Although it looks as if one of my lungs may have some permanent damage, my oxygen levels are nearly back to normal. However on a Whatsapp group imaginatively called, ‘Covid Survivors’, we talk openly about PTSD and panic attacks. It’s the sort of thing none of us can discuss easily with friends and family, because we’re aware of how much they want us to be back to ‘normal’. 

I think of my father who never talked about his war experiences, and I can understand better why this was now. His bad memories were a living reminder that trauma not only sticks around, but may even be contagious. We are luckier nowadays, and in my Whatsapp group, we share the names of our therapists, talking about how they help by letting us go over everything to someone who isn’t emotionally involved. We don’t want to upset our families, or as one member calls everyone who hasn’t had the virus, ‘the civilians’.

*

Dennis Hardwick flew a Stirling IV. I know this because, during one of my internet searches, I find a photograph he is credited with taking of this plane. It looks like a bulky insect, and I imagine it buzzing through the trees, dropping spies into enemy territory like eggs. I read his citation for when he received the Distinguished Flying Cross. In 1944, he was flying to drop supplies to British ground forces in Holland when his aircraft was hit, killing one member of the crew and wounding another. The aircraft went out of control, diving steeply, but Dennis succeeded in levelling out. The citation says, ‘Although the damaged aircraft was difficult to control this resolute pilot flew it to base and made a safe landing. Flying Officer Hardwick displayed commendable skill and coolness in hazardous circumstances.’ Even though it’s ridiculous to be proud of someone with whom you have no connection, I can’t help stroking my/his book. Well done, I whisper to it.  

*

A few years ago I went to a workshop on Natural Navigation for a magazine article I was writing about getting lost. We were a diverse group, brought together only by a desire to learn how to find our way using clues from nature. In our introductions, one man announced he was a pilot. He could navigate anywhere in the sky, he said, but on land he was always getting lost. 

I think of Dennis Hardwick as rather like that pilot. Still in a Military Hospital in 1948, unlikely to fly again, he must have been navigating a way through his new landscape tree by tree by tree. 

Did he know then that the average tree produces enough oxygen in one year to keep a family of four breathing? Both Dennis and I found ourselves desperately in need of oxygen, but I think trees gave us more than simply being the world’s lungs when our own weren’t working. Through them, we learnt a different language, a better way of understanding the world that we had been given this second precious chance to walk in. Perhaps us both owning this book at our different times of need is a sign of how we refused to take that for granted. Learning to call the trees by their real names was the least we can do. I imagine both of us wheezing gently through the same pages of the book, taking it out to the same type of parks, staring at the same leaves. 

*

I still don’t know what happened to Dennis after he left the hospital, but every time I search for D H Hardwick, almost the first hit is for a logging company in New Hampshire. Part of me hopes this business wasn’t set up by my Dennis, and that his interest in trees wasn’t just so he could learn which to cut down. 

Now when I walk round the Grove, with Dennis’s book in my hand, I am able to identify the lime, horse chestnut, holly, birches (both copper and silver), yew, whitebeam, hornbeam, and also the two Scotch pines that have sprung up in the corner where we used to be allowed to dump our Christmas trees. 

It’s true that knowing the names of the trees changes my walks. Because I don’t just go ‘tree tree tree’ any more, it slows me down. It feels as if I’ve added another layer to my landscape, almost as if the dial on a telescope has been turned so everything is in focus. 

*

I’m looking at trees so closely that I develop favourites. Number one for me is the Turkish Oak at the entrance to the Grove. It was planted in the 1600s and is so huge that one of its limbs would be wider than most of the other trees in the park.

In fact, its size makes me nickname it the Tree Boss. Trees communicate with each other through their root systems and I like to imagine Tree Boss comforting the others, telling them that it will all be OK, that this too will pass. 

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‘Tree Boss’

There’s something so reassuring about this fantasy that one day I take a picture to use as a screensaver. Just as I’m putting my phone away, a stranger walks up to me. 

‘Sorry to interrupt,’ she says, ‘but I saw your story in the paper and I wanted to say how pleased I am that you survived.’ 

It’s not the first time this has happened, and I’ve learnt just to smile and say thanks. My therapist has suggested that I stand for something bigger than myself because I’m an example of how it is possible to come through a plague alive and smiling. Perhaps this is why Dennis has come to mean so much to me too. When I walk by ‘my’ tree now, as well as touching it – hello, old friend – I wonder just how many pandemics it has seen, from the Great Plague of London through Spanish Flu, smallpox, measles, polio and more. Because long after Covid, perhaps our Trees in Britain book will find its way to another person just when they need it, and because long after us both, long after me, this tree will still be standing.

Sarah Salway is a novelist, teacher, journalist and poet. She has given a TEDx talk in praise of everyday words (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_KVNGzoGfrA), and currently runs a reading group in Kent for the Royal Literary Fund. In March 2020, she was hospitalised for COVID pneumonia, but has now happily recovered. www.sarahsalway.co.uk

© Sarah Salway

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