Monday, 27 July 2020

Trailer The Bay Of Silence

This is the trailer of the film that will be released soon. It is based on my novel The Bay of Silence



Sunday, 3 May 2020

After 6 years of radio silence, I am back

Since I last wrote in this blog, so much has happened that it will take a lot more posts to fill the gap. But like much of the world, I am in a contemplative mood spiked by alarm and worry about Covid-19. Unlike so much of the rest of the world, though, Mozambique has been lucky (so far) with only 79 confirmed cases and, despite having very few tests, no evidence of infection from Coronavirus in its many health posts and hospitals.

Whether this is because it is so hot here, or because 80% of the population is under 25-years-old, or because we all get more vitamin D from all the sunlight, or because of genetic factors: at this early stage, who can say?

While brooding over these things and compulsively checking the situation elsewhere thanks to worldometer's Coronavirus live updates on my cell phone, I came up with the following short story: 'Boris Johnson is Sitting Up'

Boris Johnson is Sitting Up

The thing is, it wasn’t much good before the lockdown because Jim has his ways. Sometimes he likes to re-live the days of his youth when he was the welter-weight champion for South Devon. Then he comes home from the pub having had a few pints too many, and he likes to use me as his punch bag. Next day, though, it’s not like in the movies: there’s no ‘I’m sorry, but I love you’ or ‘Look what you made me do’. He just wolfs down his cornflakes with almond milk (that he makes me buy from Sainsbury’s and which we can never – ever - use, not even to taste. Then he grabs his sports bag and goes out to volunteer for a long-haul delivery. He always tries not to get back before the bruises and swelling have healed. It’s funny when you think about it: for an ex-boxer to be so squeamish about black eyes and split lips. This time, he told me to disguise the bruises and to stop ‘Going around like road kill warmed up.’

Mostly, though, it isn’t like that. Usually there’s just me and the kids. Harry and Jane Marie go to school, Jim works delivering bathroom appliances for a local firm and I work part time at Poundland. Jane Marie says that since I started the job our home is like those ones you see on the Telly where hoarders have to sleep sitting up in a chair and pick their way through lanes left between their piles of junk. It hasn’t got to be that bad here but I see her point. It’s just that it’s amazing what great stuff you can buy for a pound and what with my staff discount, I find some of the special offers irresistible.

The Prime Minister is in the ICU with Coronavirus and Mum’s got a friend with a friend who nurses at St. Thomas’ Hospital who says it’s bad. What will happen if Boris Johnson dies? What then? How can we fight Covid-19 without a leader?

It’s so worrying that I sort out my garden stuff again to calm my nerves. I’ve got a whole area under our bed full of flower pots (10 for £1), gardening tools, seeds, bulbs and compost. It’s what started the kids off, actually, because we don’t have a garden. There’s a tiny bit of balcony left over from Jim’s old exercise bike, weights, and the boxes of engine oil, brake fluid, and anti-freeze he filches from work. It is just enough room to squeeze in one small flower pot and a compact cork hanging basket (2 for only £1) which I stuff with hyacinths and then lobelias and geraniums. Last year I grew those trailing nasturtiums (2 packets for a £1) which looked lovely spread all over Jim’s junk like an orange trellis until he ripped them out and threw them down. A big clump of stalks and leaves fell right onto Mrs. Davies’ head and she was so cross she limped all the way up here with her sciatica to give him a piece of her mind.

Afterwards, Jim gave me this kink in my nose and the biggest of the stains in the carpet. There was blood everywhere and the kids were so frightened they hid in their room for hours. Later, I told them they had nothing to fear because Jim only has it in for me. He wouldn’t lay a finger on either of them. Jim’s always been good with the kids. He used to take them to the Common to

the swings and to gather conkers and to sail the little boats they made on the Plague Pond. But they’d never seen so much blood before and it scared them.

The football hasn’t started yet and Jim shouts out for the hundredth times the breaking news that he’s bored. I take a quick look at worldometers and see that there are already 2,870 new cases in the UK today and its only lunch time. How different this lockdown would be with a garden: the kids could play outside, Jim and I could sunbathe or just doze in deck chairs or do a crossword puzzle. And I’d grow salads and herbs and I’d grow runner beans up the fence like Granddad used to. And I could make pizzas in one of those outdoor ovens. Mozzarella and fresh-picked rocket. Mmm!

Thank god for day dreams! I don’t know how anyone gets through life without them. While here we are in our 2-bedrooms, living room, kitchenette and bathroom with me cooking up yet another delicious feast of baked beans on toast. While the others eat, I lock myself in the bathroom and have a whispered chat with my Mum. Whenever I can, I steal a few moments to call her and my sister and Carol from work. But Jim doesn’t let me stay in there for long. He’s got a bit of a sixth sense for it and I know if I don’t hang up he’ll break the door down.

Then I’m back in the living room locked down with Jim and the kids and all the clutter from Poundland. In the olden days, if you got the plague, the neighbours would mark your house with a big red cross and nail the door shut with everyone - the sick and the well – inside it: dooming them all to die. Funny to think that we live less than a mile away from a medieval plague pond while here we are in the grips of a new plague.

Last week, I made a snakes and ladders and a pretty good ludo board but the kids aren’t into board games anymore. It seems that if it isn’t digital it isn’t interesting, and Jim is too glued to the box to want to throw dice with me.

The News comes on again and Jim relays it all to me as I wash up as though I was deaf and couldn’t hear it and as though I don’t have woldometer Coronavirus live updates on my mobile phone.

“The official death toll for yesterday is 980. 980 and what is anyone doing about it? Nine hundred and bloody eighty and all they can do is close the bloody pubs!”

So as not to enrage him further, I refrain from bringing up the thousands of Frontline healthcare workers not to mention the entire country in lockdown.

“I ask you! What a bunch of wankers!”

He finishes off his 3rd beer of the morning and rolls the empty bottle under the sofa. At this rate, his 6-pack lockdown ration won’t last him today so we’ll have to go shopping again. I back into the kitchen to find our list.

‘’Oh! Oh! Listen to this: Boris Johnson is sitting up.’’

“Hmm” I sort of hum, knowing that any actual reply will be a snake.

‘’I said, Boris Johnson is sitting up.” He shouts with menace.

‘’I heard you, That’s good because he seems to have had quite a close shave.”

Jim mimics my voice in falsetto:

“He seems to have had quite a close shave! La di bloody da! What would you know about it, you stupid cow! Why don’t you stop locking yourself in the bog and gossiping with your fat-arsed friends and make us some decent food for a change? How much longer do you think you can get away with your bloody baked beans?’’

I keep my head bowed and avoid eye contact. Always avoid eye contact. Anything I say will be wrong and anything I say will be a ladder for him to climb up to the next level; an excuse to end his lethargy and fill the room with his flailing fists.

The newscaster intones,

“All non-essential shops, bars, restaurants and pubs will remain closed until the end of April. … On a happier note, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson is …”

For Jim, the greatest outrage and the worst hardship is the closing of the pubs. He says they can’t do it; that it is illegal and the start of repression and a dictatorship. He says Lloyd George tried to regulate the opening hours back in 1914 under the Defence of the Realm Act. Jim’s mate, Evan, is a teacher and into such stuff, and Jim parrots his conspiracy theories, moaning about his missing pints as though Covid-19 was invented out of spite expressly to annoy him, his mates, and Boris Johnson.

You think of a lockdown being about your loss of freedom, the sense of constraint; about being forced to give up going out and seeing friends, window-shopping and watching other couples while you dream about really getting out. But you don’t get it until it happens that a lockdown forces you to live in the here and now rather than as an observer taking and posting endless photos and sending enough encrypted sms per day to qualify for your own MI5 desk at Bletchley Park.

Lockdown means being 24/7 with your partner, kids, parents, or whoever you room with; when before, when you only spent a few hours with them, it was hard enough to get along. And it’s the little things that get to you: those little niggly habits that drive you up the wall: drip-dripping like water on stone – wearing it down in a speeded up way so that a hundred years of drips compresses into a week.

We are not used to being caged in together and it is grating. I’m okay because I’ve got Dateline and American Justice on my cell phone. I switch on and tune out, getting through the days by watching the endless episodes of rape and murder, abuse and kidnapping; wondering all the while how many more careless housewives can feed their husbands anti-freeze? I bet a lot of people get away with murder in pandemics. The bodies pile up and there is no time or place left for any autopsies: so the bodies get hastily cremated. Every day, every 24 minutes there is another homicide in America. Whipping out my calculator, I see that makes 60 a day and 420 a week. And those are only the ones who slip up. Every time I switch on, I see that Dateline has millions of viewers: don’t any of those murderers watch it, or CSI? It seems inconceivable. Yet what is and what is not conceivable changes from day to day. Just a few weeks ago, the country was shocked because four people died of coronavirus in the UK. And yet, yesterday there were 980 deaths, which we all ticked off our cards as though we were doing the football pools and reading the results:

‘’New cases: The UK: 4390. Italy 5400. France: 4188, Spain: 5051.

New deaths: The UK: 980, Spain: 683”

And so on, fizzling into a belated geography lesson courtesy of worldometers with statistics for places I didn’t even know existed like Azebaijan, Burkina Faso and Krygzstan.

I can’t put the earphones in my bad ear, but the left one is okay. But I torture myself wondering how I’d survive if Jim boxes my other ear too. What then?

For now, I’ve got my mobile phone and the kids live glued to their tablets, and Jim sits and watches the Telly reaching for his beers that only make him miss going out even more. It’s hardest on him because he’s not the stay-at-home type. He goes to work five days a week, and he goes to the pub seven days a week, and he’s used to being out with his mates. One way or another, we never see much of him. Mum suspects he’s got a girlfriend out there. If he has, I don’t care. She’s welcome to him and his temper. And now he’s even started to smell.

The smell in here is almost as hard to bear as having Jim at home all day – almost! We are four frightened bodies cramped into a box. There’s the smell of cooking, and rubbish, stale beer, and the metallic smell of blood from the stains in the carpet that I can’t get out. We O.D.’d on air freshener in our first week and now we can’t buy any more, or disinfectant. We have soap and a bit of washing powder and that’s it. Jane Marie started her periods last week and the whole flat smelled musky. She was mortified. I used up all my perfume but the other lingered and I felt bad for her. And now Jim stinks of old sweat filled with frustration, rage and fear. He always used to shower at 6.15 sharp before he set off for the pub; but now they’re closed, he doesn’t bother.

I watch another abduction from somewhere in Ohio. The kidnapper has crossed a State Line, so the FBI are called in. I see shots of a small town and a high street with shops and cafes and a Chinese take away. I wish! When it comes to takeaways, though, Jim is a fish and chips sort of

man with an occasional exotic foray into the realm of curries. He scorns the late night Halal places: doesn’t trust them. But he sometimes graces the local Indian which stays open until 2 a.m. gathering the drunks at closing time and ballasting their beer with vindaloos. What Jim can’t stand, though, is anything Chinese. He has an aversion to the taste of sweet and sour and monosodium glutamate. Before the lockdown, he used to make a lot of snide remarks about the Chinese eating little furry creatures, snakes, new born rats and creepy crawlies. He could be quite witty sometimes. Then came a lot of ‘I told you so’; because somehow, he knows that when he’s away, me and the kids treat ourselves to a Chinese.

Well, there’s no trace left of his sense of humour now. He’s just bored and angry and he paces our living room like a caged beast. Three steps one way, squeezing between the chairs, and four the other if you step over the magazine basket (3 for £1) and the mini nest of tables with abalone inlay.

New cases: USA: 26,641, Spain: 3,268, Italy 3,153 and the UK now in 7th place with 4,342. I know that other people have it worse than us, but we are starting to fall apart: unravelling. It is as though there is a giant rat inside us trying to get out.

Our one diversion is shopping. Masked and gloved and armed with a list, we queue up and wait to tailor our wants to what there is. I look mysterious with my shades and headscarf. Outside the supermarket, I see socially-distanced shoppers staring at me, wondering if I’m someone famous incognito. Am I a TV star? They want to find out who I am until they see my swollen and discolored cheek and then they know who I am – another battered wife. They give me disapproving looks before turning away; glaring to let me know that they think it is in bad taste to indulge in marital strife when the rest of the country, even the rest of the world, is being beaten up by the Coronavirus. They look at me and judge me as selfish; as though I had hoarded food or soap or hidden a ventilator under my bed.

The shopping is heavy but we are not allowed back to our local supermarket, so we take a bus to Tescos and then another to the Co-op. We have to make three separate trips. There is a corner shop nearer, but it’s too pricey. We used to get a lot of our groceries from Poundland: big packs of bacon, sausages and five tins of beans to a pound. Harry does his best carrying, but he’s only nine, bless him – and what with Jim’s 42 beers and his cartons of almond milk and all the tins, it is really heavy.

Jim’s latest is refusing to come shopping. It started last week, and yesterday he tried to keep Jane Marie back. He said it was to look after him because he has a cold. But we need her to help carry, so I won that particular duel. When he said it, I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck like I do when he’s going to hit me.

The neighbours eyeball us suspiciously as we traipse in and out in our masks and gloves. They can’t miss us because Harry’s got a cardboard box on his head with eye cutouts like Ned Kelly. Luckily Mrs. Davies is out for the count with her sciatica or she would denounce us in a heartbeat for breaking the lockdown.

It’s changing us: this lockdown. On the Telly there’s a lot of talk about how we’ll never be the same afterwards and how it is bringing out the spiritual side of us. But that’s not what I’m seeing. Even Harry, who is a nice boy with a gentle way about him is acting out of character. He sometimes argues with his big sister – mostly over who can get to charge what on the one socket in their bedroom – but he never hits her. And yet, today he punched her in the stomach really hard and she’s crying. And Jim, who never hurts the kids, has knocked Harry to the ground and has his foot raised to kick him, but then thinks better of it and leaves our son bleeding into the carpet.

I pull him up and take him over to the kitchen sink and clean and suture the cut over his eye the way Granddad taught me with a bit of plaster cut like a butterfly. Then I push Harry into the kids’ room and he curls up on his bunk sobbing silently.

When I return to comfort Jane Marie, Jim has got there before me and he is holding and comforting our daughter as a father should. But he is also holding and comforting her as a father shouldn’t. Jane Marie has stopped crying and she tries to wriggle off his lap but her Dad is holding her too tightly. He looks over her shoulder and smiles at me triumphantly. He knows I know. He sees I see. I realize that I will pay for this knowledge later, but I am not afraid anymore. He is not the only one who has changed; and the game has begun.

I slump into the other armchair of our 3-piece suite and switch Dateline on. I slot an earphone into my good ear and half-watch an episode and half-watch my little girl with her father: our little girl with my husband.

Later, we eat sausages and mash on our laps as we watch Eastenders. That would usually be the highlight of the day but I’m only half-watching it because I see that Jim is watching Jane Marie more than he is the TV. When Eastenders is over, we watch some more Coronavirus updates. Jim’s cold is thickening and he complains that he has a fever.

“UK: 5,320, USA: 13,900, Spain: 5,560 …’’

Time has expanded, but eventually it gets late enough for the kids to go to bed. I tuck them in but they won’t settle.

‘’What if Dad’s got it?’’ Harry asks. ‘’He has a cold and a fever and those are the symptoms. What if he needs a ventilator?’’

“Shouldn’t we call the doctor or the help line?’’ Jane Marie chips is.

‘’They are so over-worked right now with the really bad cases, and you know over 90% of people who get it survive. Even Boris Johnson is recovering; so we have to try and deal with it ourselves. I’ll make him a hot toddy and see how it goes. If it’s any worse by tomorrow night then we’ll call it in, okay?

‘’Thanks, Mum. That’s really nice. I know how hard it must be for you having Dad around all the time and me and Harry off school. It says on the internet that there’s this neuro chemical called Tackykinin which triggers stress and it looks like the virus increases it until it kills you. But there is another thing called oxy-something-or-other that suppresses Tackykinin and it is activated by gratitude and service to others.’’

‘’Are you saying that helping you all will keep me healthy?’’

‘’Yeah’’

‘’Cool” Harry says sleepily and then mumbles, ‘’I’m sorry I punched you, Janey.’’

‘’That’s okay. Good night.’’

‘’Good night, and don’t worry,’’ I tell her, ‘’I’ll look after you.’’

She snuggles under her Barbie duvet and smiles up at me shyly, ‘’Mum …”

‘’Yes?’’

‘’Please can I lock our door tonight?’’

I swallow hard and try not to show any reaction, ‘’Of course you can, now sleep tight, darling.‘’

Jim was too unwell to really whack me hard that night and I was ready for him; knowing it would come and able to take evasive action. So I have a red cheek but not much of a snake slide. And it wasn’t much of a ladder for Jim either. When he went for a dump, I got a bottle of anti-freeze out of his stash on the balcony.

Granddad’s recipe for a hot toddy is: lemon juice, honey, and a tot of rum in a glass of hot water. My recipe was: some concentrated lime drink, honey, a tot of rum and a tot of anti-freeze in a glass of hot water.

Next day, Jim isn’t well at all. I daydream of a cottage with a garden while Jane Marie makes lunch. It is baked beans on toast with little bits of crispy bacon and a tomato salad. Jim is too ill to eat his, so I put it on the bedside table beside a photo of the two of us in happier times. Then I call the help line. I tell the operator that my husband has a cold and he’s bunged up and he isn’t breathing right. The operator asks me if I think he has Coronavirus. I say I don’t know. She tells me that there is only medical help for absolute emergencies so I have to home-treat him and if he can’t breathe I can call again.

So I give him another toddy – my recipe – and he wheezes himself back to sleep. I had to sort of tip it down his throat and some spilled, so I changed the sheets and washed them and the glass (unlike the Dumbos on Dateline and CSI), Jim gasps awake in the mid-afternoon. He can’t breathe so I call for an ambulance. The operator warns me there is quite a queue.

The kids are upset so we watch Groundhog Day together, with me popping back and forth to the bedroom to check on the patient.

By the time the ambulance arrives, Bill Murray has become a virtuoso Jazz pianist, ice sculptor and Renaissance Man, and Jim is unconscious.

Did Jim have a cold or was it the Coronavirus? And did he die of it? I don’t know. Would he have recovered like most of the infected victims? Or would he be part of the 3.6% who die of it? Or would he have sat up and recovered like Boris Johnson? Well. I don’t know that either, but Granddad used to say that the best way to get through life with your trousers on is by using a belt and braces.

Mossuril

12th April 2020

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Monday, 19 November 2012

Seeing old friends

In Venezuela, people used to say that if you got to 50 and you could count your true friends on the fingers of one hand, then you were a lucky person. And so I am, even though the Grim Reaper has claimed so many in the past two years.


I have just watched Casa de Areia (The House of  Sand, directed by Andrucha Waddington) and now I can't sleep for all the recurring images of longing and dunes.

So back to  the biography of Raymond Carver that I'm reading. And maybe a bit of Breaking Bad and then it will be time for breakfast. In Holland that tends to revolve around coffee and gingerbread and brown bread and butter with chocolate specks.

A new ambulance for the little village where I live finally arrived on Saturday. I see its photo outside Mossuril Hospital and it feels strange not to be there; and stranger still not to have been there when its Mercedes engine swept uphill to the blue and white building where I have been so many times. The new chariot is a gift from the Meander Medical Centre in Holland and it was really needed.

My next project will be to restart Teran Foundation's internet cafe (after the computers burned out some months ago on a super-surge of electrical current). And next after that we will be kick-starting a chain of fish farms. It feels bizarre to be sitting high up in a stately old house in northern Europe working out the logistics of just how deep to dig the fish ponds, and just how much powdered lime to scatter in them to keep the leeches away. I am wondering which fingerlings will do best behind the beach so far away in northern Mozambique. And I'm remembering a sort of horror documentary about fish-farming in Tanzania. And I'm glad that the new fish farms will be dug out of the existing shallow lagoons that the local salt-producers use to water their salt pans and they will be like extensions of the sea and not the home of lurking monsters!



Saturday, 17 November 2012

It is extremely cold today: so cold I am longing to head back to Africa.

Here is another gem from my guiding light, F. Kafka,

"From a certain point onward there is no longer any turning back. that is the point that must be reached."

Monday, 12 November 2012

Is splitting a humming bird in two, Playing with Fire?



I never thought that publishing something of my own on the internet would give me food for thought, but it does and it has. So I have divided this Humming Bird story, splitting it in half at what seems to be a natural break. I notice a lot of readers see this blog, so if anyone has an opinion about this, I'd be interested to know it. The second half is now called 'Playing with Fire'. 

As opposed to playing with fire, here, at least, I have ceased to live on the edge. I walked a bit around Amsterdam today, ignoring the chill wind and heavy sky. I like wandering around the city centre because it is the only city centre in the world that  I don't get lost in. I could say that I don't have any sense of direction, but that isn't quite true. I often feel convinced that I know the way to wherever even though I hardly ever do. But then, some years ago, on doctor's orders, I had to take some exercise. That was a very scary thought for someone whose only sport is Shove Ha'penny - which requires nothing more energetic than the measured movement of one finger tip. Urged on by my partner (who believes that running is the cure for practically every disease under the sun) I compromised and took to walking. And I walked up and down beside and around the canals of Amsterdam. Some of these are so long that pedestrians should get prizes for touching either end. And some are so pretty they don't seem real. And some are so littered that I think the moorhens who nest on municipal rafts on them must be genetically modified to feast on pollution.

Back when I started patrolling this city, I think I walked further than my doctor could have possibly envisaged because I got very very lost. Sometimes, in some parts of Amsterdam, a person can wait for three hours for a taxi to  pass by, I know because I am that person. Long ago, in the days before mobile phones were an integral part of mankind, one could get stranded in places. I am very used to being stranded. When I was a little child, my sister Lali and I used to play a game called 'Let's Get Lost'. This consisted of riding our bikes around London until we had absolutely no idea where we were and then having to find our way back home. Maybe, the reason why I quite like being lost is because it reminds me of Lali. Or maybe it feels like doing something naughty as the first step of running away. 

I liked running away too, more as an adult than a child, Well, to return to my subject: Amsterdam became familiar to me in a way no other city has. I recognise more than trees and shrubs here. I recognise buildings, doorways, churches, certain balconies, certain squares, bridges, alleways, shops, fire stations, police stations and much more. it surprises and pleases me that so late in my life I have finally found signposts in an urban setting. Everywhere else, I can only ever find my way around by memorizing plants. In London, paris, New York, madrid and everywhere else, I follow trees and bushes, hedges and flower beds, window boxes and tubs. In Amsterdam, I used to find my way from vine to vine and creeper to creeper, notching up hollyhocks along the way. Now, when I stroll around, I notice the trees that I used to rely on to get around but I don't need them. I know my way now from the Dam to the Leidseplein, and from the Museumplein to the Albertcuyp Market and out to the Central Station and back via any choice of streets. I can find my way home from anywhere on the central grid. I hadn't realised it until this particular visit: but I am no longer the topographically-challenged person I used to be. 

The Dutch Police are pretty mean about giving lifts or even proper directions to  stranded tourists. I tried a few police stations during my city learning curve. Once, I practically collapsed over their counter but there was still no way they were going to help. Most of my encounters with the police worldwide have been when officers from this or that Force have kindly escorted me back home or helped me find whatever hotel I'd booked into and then lost. Most policemen, even in rough countries, have been pretty nice about it. If you check into, let us say, Hotel A, leaving your passport at reception and your luggage in your room, it is not easy to then check into Hotel B without said passport or any luggage. Up until now, I think I've made more friends on the street tracking down those elusive hotels when I was lost than I have at parties. So it feels strange now to go shopping and just shop and return; or to go for a short walk and get back within the hour. 

Now I don't know if it is old age or introspection but my not getting lost is as intentional now as getting lost used to be back in the good old days. I am not ready to put this to the test yet in London or anywhere else, but maybe next year I will.

Meanwhile, here is the segmented humming bird open for comment. The 2nd title is printed in a bold font so for those who wish to scroll down: you can find the break without needing to re-read the text.


He Came to me Like a Humming Bird


Whenever I escaped from the village, I liked pretending to be an islander; wandering around raising white dust as I visited the almost empty markets and the yellow arcade by the Government Residence. I used to explore the fortress, the ruined palaces where entire colonies of refugees were living, and the ladies section of the Green Mosque. I criss-crossed the cluttered, shady alleyways that traversed from shore to shore, stepping over women and children, cooking pots, bundles of ragged laundry, and piles of scavenged firewood. When the tide was out, the beaches were teeming with waders gathering shellfish and crabs.

From the crenulated parapet, I could see the fringe of mangroves of our village. That ancient platform studded with rusty canons pointing out to sea was the only deserted part of the Stone City. The rest was crawling with islanders and refugees alike. Mothers carried babies strapped to their backs with cotton wraps; but other people also carried what was left of grown men and women strapped to their backs like giant babies. My Cousin Sergio said they were the remains of people who had stepped on landmines, but when I asked him what a landmine was, he shrugged and said,

            “We don’t talk about that.’’

There never seemed to be enough reasons for me to keep sailing to Ilha. Sometimes I’d spoil things at home and then blame it on the rats just so Ma would have to replace whatever it was, or get it mended, and she’d ask me if I could bear to sail over again to buy a new one or get the old one repaired. That way (and once even burning my hand so I could go to the hospital) I managed to get away quite a lot.

The only problem was that I found Cousin Sergio annoying on the ferry crossings. He had always teased me a bit as part of the fun we had together, but after I became a woman, I stopped liking it. I felt rushes of anger whenever he pinched my arms or ogled my breasts. He kept inventing opportunities to touch me. He’d hold onto me as I got on and off the dhow; and he’d brush his hand against my head scarf - accidentally on purpose - every time he lowered the sail to punt our dhow to the beach. His touch made me feel queasy and I began to like the idea of marrying him less and less. But I didn’t actually decide not to until I met the stranger I was destined to marry: that is, until I met Evan Garcia.


The day I met him, I was on Ilha sitting under a banyan tree by the empty petrol pump by the new bridge to the mainland. It was where the taxis had arrived and departed before the War. And then it was where the convoys of trucks arrived from Out There. Because soldiers and bandits alike robbed and hi-jacked solitary cars and harassed the convoys, sometimes, no trucks arrived. Then I could only sit and imagine their arrival with nothing to distract me from my fantasy except for the black and white crows that scoured the beaches.  

But sometimes a convoy did come in when I was there and then I liked to sit and watch the flow of passengers with all their bundles and sacks and animals and suitcases and bags because they seemed to have such an exciting life compared to mine.

There would be soldiers coming home on leave and refugees with sunken eyes and spindly legs. I imagined they came from all the places I had learned about at school: places such as Nampula and Monapo, Beira and Nacala, Pemba and Quelimane. They were always covered in dust from head to toe, but to my young eyes that dust was just powdered glamour. Although they were dark and light-skinned, Indian, Macua, Chinese, and Akunha; the one thing they all had in common was their relief at having arrived safely. If any of them happened to greet me, then I felt almost as though I too had travelled from afar, or that I was on the brink of an adventure. Ma and Father didn’t know that I spent my time hanging around the old taxi stop. Instinctively, I knew that neither of them would approve, so I didn’t tell them.

Luckily, I was free to wander on my own on my visits to Ilha. Cousin Sergio, my betrothed, would have certainly accompanied me if he could have. But, thank God, he had to stay on board to look after the family ferry. On arrival, after securing the boat and leaving Cousins Sergio and Talady with a heap of instructions, Father and Uncle Felis always went straight into the Green Mosque. After that, they always went to the house of their friend, Senhor Abdul Kassan, to drink home-made gin, and pick over the latest events and scandals in the Province. Ma called those meetings ‘Parliamentary Sessions’ because Father and his cronies acted as though Ilha was still the country’s capital and as though they were the Government’s Ministers solving all the problems from the trades unions’ disputes to the shortages, Health and Education. One subject they never discussed was the War. Like mentioning Uncle Felis’ son who ran away, the subject was taboo.


Meanwhile, on arrival, I would hurry away to meander up and down the island’s three avenues, always gravitating towards the old taxi stop. So there I was sitting alone in a crowd, feeling bored and restless on that morning of October 1986, until, at eight forty-five, a new convoy pulled up in a cloud of dust.

I had heard it coming for the past ten minutes. Even before the trucks began to rattle single file across the bridge, there were shouts and hurrahs from the beaches of both Jambezi and Ilha to herald their arrival. A new convoy meant new supplies of everything from Malawian sugar to penicillin, cigarettes, bread-flour, petrol, bicycle tyres, potatoes, nails, candles, fishing line, and even tins of things like sardines and tomato paste which our Cuban and Russian allies sold on the side.      

There was a light breeze blowing across from the rocky beach towards the bridge but the sun was already scorching. A young gull was drifting on a current of air. I stopped to watch it, envying its ability to glide. The air was fragrant with jasmine from the garden of the little mosque on the rocks and frangipani from the cemetery behind me. The new convoy was relatively small. It was headed by a battered military lorry full of civilians. There were only seven trucks in all, each laden with goods and topped with dozens of passengers clinging to the tarpaulin ropes as thickly as flies on a plate of pudding.  

All around me, women and girls converged to sell cups of water, donuts, coconut buns, bananas, guavas, little grilled fish on sticks, and quarter-litre gin bottles filled with gritty maheu. From all three roads that sliced up the island, people were running towards the incoming trucks. There were parents hoping to see their children, and children hoping to see their parents. The Indian shopkeepers and their assistants were running as though it was Sports Day at school to get to the goods that would be for sale before anyone else. And the black marketers, (who were both Indian and Macua) were running too; and because they were mostly younger and fitter, they reached the trucks before the shopkeepers; so there was a lot of pushing and shouting.  

I was sitting on a big rock set back a little way from the road. It was opposite where the third truck in the convoy was churning up an extra cloud of dust. Watching it was better than any newsreel: as though by magic, the usually quiet island was a dissected termite hill. Passengers literally spilled off the trucks, jumping on top of each other, falling in a heap in their haste, and then running in every direction. Somewhere a child was crying. Car horns were blaring, and drivers and sellers were shouting their wares.

“Sugar! Sugar! Sugar!’’

“Gasoline! Gas-o-leen!’’

“You want it, we’ve got it!’’

“First come first serve!’’

“Get your money out: cash only’’

In unison, three boys with unruly hair jumped off the side of the third truck beside me. They were dressed very smartly and had high-soled running shoes that they never sell on the central market because only Akunhas have such shoes. With amazing efficiency, they gathered together a pile of boxes which they divided up, loading them so high they could not see where they were walking and despite that, they trotted off into the crowd managing all the while not to fall over. Once they were out of sight, I concentrated on a chocolate blancmange mother and her skinny daughter.

The mother got stuck climbing down and yelled, wobbling, until she was helped off the ropes by a young man who seemed to be the conductor. She made a great to-do about unloading her two knobbly sacks which she handled as though they were as fragile as eggshells. Several Indian traders literally pulled her over to them, knocking her head-wrap askew in their haste. I wondered what she had brought in those bumpy sacks that could be of so much interest. Other passengers jumped and climbed down from all sides, blocking my view while kicking and elbowing each other and apologising all the while to no one and everyone.


And then, standing alone in the middle of the lumpy tarpaulin while all around below him a hundred fingers unpicked its ropes to release its load, I saw him. He had long smooth limbs and a shine on his skin as fine as the bowls of polished ebony that the itinerant sculptors make. And he was young, but, I reckoned, already eight or ten years older than me. His nose had been broken long since and mended crooked; and I wondered what misfortune had caused it. And he had gazelle-eyes with lashes so long they seemed hardly able to stay up above them, curling down and then rising again. His mouth was wide and his lips were full. I watched him gaze across the bound canvas tarpaulin as though searching for something he’d lost. Just watching him, every part of my body began to tingle. And just as suddenly, I ceased to feel restless because I knew that I’d found what I was looking for.

Like a humming bird, he darted downwards into a dip in the canvas so that he was momentarily gone from my sight. A tight knot formed in my chest, stealing my breath. I begged the Ancestors to intercede for me: I must not lose him.

They didn´t let me down: having found what he had been searching for, he surfaced above the edge of the load again, smiling happily and holding up the ten metical coin he must have dropped. He had long sensitive fingers with the flattened ends of a drummer. His face was high above the level of mine, his eyes shone; there was a small scar on the bridge of his nose. His teeth were like polished ivory with a gap on the right-hand side and one slightly crooked tooth beside it.

Then he saw me and grinned. I wanted to climb inside his mouth and be swallowed by him. I smiled back, happy that he had found his coin, happy to be near him, happy to have found him. He sprang over the side and bounced off the ropes with the agility of a monkey. Landing at my feet, he bowed to me and said,

              “Evan Garcia, born in Monapo, at your service’’

I lowered my eyes and bowed my head, and then I looked up and stared right under his curling lashes,

               “Nina Ussene, born in Cabaceira Grande’’

“Nina Ussene, as you see, I’m a rich man. I have this ten-
metical coin, won’t you make a wish and share it with  
me?’’

He held out his hand to help me up from the stone. As I gripped his proffered fingers, I found the answer to the questions that had been troubling me all year since I came of age. What does it mean to be in love? What does it feel like? How can I get it? Where can I find it? Love was the touch of his fingers on my palm. Love was to be near him, to share not just his proffered coin, but for the two of us to share our lives.


[The end

and maybe

a new start? ]




Playing with Fire


The Golden Anchor would set sail at 2 p.m., she always did. Father was very strict about it. During the four hours and thirteen minutes that Evan Garcia and I shared on island, we managed to fit in an entire courtship. We strolled through Ilha as though in a trance. I was vaguely aware of people staring at us, but I didn’t care. I knew that when I got home, news of my walking with a stranger would have arrived before me on the gossip tom-tom; yet I did nothing to stop it.

Nothing mattered anymore except to stay with Evan Garcia, born in Monapo. To which end, I released myself from my engagement to my Cousin Sergio, and distanced myself entirely from my family’s preparations for our wedding. Furthermore, I rejoiced that in the corner of Ma’s mud hut, beside my sleeping mat, the tartan suitcase with my trousseau was waiting so conveniently for me. Whatever new life awaited me would certainly be easier with my supplies.

Thus, while I wandered around Ilha entranced and in love, I was also plotting exactly how to elope together with my tartan suitcase. Actually sneaking away from our hut would be the easiest part, because girls didn’t elope from our village so no one would suspect me. Even if I dragged my trousseau down to the beach, Ma and my sisters would just be glad that I was finally taking a proper interest in it. No one would imagine that I’d be running away. With everything a girl could want, why would I want to leave?

And yet sleeping at home felt like lying under a heavy stone. Just being there made me feel crushed. I tried to explain this to Ma once, but she shushed me and made me a herbal tea that knocked me out completely. There was no room in our village for discontent; and thus, I felt, no place in it for me.

The siri siri plant creeps all over the mangrove’s floor and tiny pink flowers bloom between its fat stems. Every day, those flowers are drowned by the tide and yet they survive until one of us walks on them, bruising their pink petals to purple. Evan told me that I was as pretty as a siri siri flower. Soon after he said it, I thought: ‘my family are the fisherman’s feet treading on me and bruising my petals’.

Looking back, I think maybe I should have felt some remorse for the hurt and loss of face I was to cause to Sergio, my childhood sweetheart; and for the insult and loss of face to Uncle Felis and the rest of our family. But I blush to say that I felt none at all. What they would see as my jilting (and betraying) my cousin, and insulting our village; I saw differently. From spiralling down into a kind of madness, I had found an escape. Evan was the current of air upon which I could glide away. I toyed with the idea of declaring my change of heart, but I had to dismiss it: because my family could forgive many things, but no one in the village could forgive a suitor the almost unpardonable sin of hailing from beyond its boundaries.

Evan came from ‘Out There’, from Monapo, which is over one hundred kilometres away. His family was unknown to our family; his Ancestors were not buried within walking distance of our sacred baobab tree. So, just like talking about Uncle Felis’ son who ran away, and talking about the War: for me to marry Evan Garcia was also taboo.

Despite the indecent speed with which I began to plot my Cousin Sergio’s betrayal, shame was far from my thoughts. I was glad that the gods had smiled on me and allowed me to find this new man from among so many others. Meanwhile, the logistics of how to elope nagged and snagged but, as my Aunt Aziza used to say: the fruit of the baobab often falls far from the tree. Dozens of different plans sprung to mind but the only viable one seemed to be to leave my village that same night.

I’d ‘borrow’ Father’s canoe and paddle away because there could never be a wedding in the village for me and Evan Garcia; and within minutes of his jumping off that truck, I couldn’t contemplate my life without him. Thinking about my father, I wondered what would upset him most: my leaving, or my letting him down? My leaving, or my taking his boat?

On the flat roof of the fortress, on top of the world, my new love and I wove between the canons on the empty parapet. We gazed out towards my home beach. He told me about his job at the cotton factory in Monapo, his drums, and his hut with a tangle of night-scented jasmine that covered one side of it. He’d wanted us to stick to the town square to protect my reputation, but I told him not to worry. I told myself that I’d go home and face the accusations that had surely preceded me; and I’d pretend to be penitent so that I could smuggle my suitcase out of our hut. And I had to get the Eide pocket money I’d been saving up for years and years. Half of it had gone to the Sorceress to help her cast her spells, but the other half was hidden in a piece of plastic bag under my mat. I’d get my things and be gone before anyone suspected me of such folly.

Evan didn’t want me to do it. (Kiss me, my love, and then let your lips graze over me). He wanted to come to our village and ask Father for my hand. Well, I explained to Evan how unwelcome he’d be in my home because my hand had already been given to the son of my father’s best friend. Sitting high up the wall of the fortress with the breeze in our faces, despite my best efforts, Evan tried to persuade me to wait until we could have the blessing of my parents ‘because’ he said, ‘an unblessed marriage is a great burden to carry through life’.  

We stayed at loggerheads over it and then like two mules refusing to give way, we had our first argument just before we parted,

“Nina, dear Nina, it is wrong to run away. You don’t know me. Monapo is another world and I have only a tiny mud hut far from the town. You might not like it. You don’t know my family yet. You might not like them. We must wait. It is the only way.’’

“Evan, I will run away! And I do know Monapo: I went there long ago when my sister fell over the side of our boat and broke her arm. We went to Monapo for an X-ray and then we went up the hill to the town. So I have seen it and I like it.

I want to live in another world. I live in a huge mud hut that I hate; I will love your tiny hut because it is yours.

I’ll make it a fine home for us and our children. I’ll plant papaya trees and a mango tree and a coconut palm beside it. And I will bring seeds from home to make a vegetable garden with good things to eat. I will make your jasmine spread further to wrap us in its fragrance.

And I will not need to be near to a town because I will be near to you.’’

He shook his head and narrowed his huge, limpid eyes. He licked the corner of his lips (lick mine). Taking his fingers, I played with them, running my fingertips along the inside of his wrists as lightly as spiders. He gulped, swallowing back his words as I dived in again,

“I don’t know your family: but I will honour and respect them because they are your family. A girl must always leave home to marry. Of course I’d prefer a blessing; but I know that not having it is the price I will have to pay for marrying you.’’

“Nina, it is wrong to run away. You must stop it. Don’t you see? You are headstrong and wild and we must wait’’

“I’ve been waiting for you, Evan Garcia. I am headstrong and wild: that is who I am; and my heart tells me to do this. I will come to you at dawn. The roads are not safe, as you know, so I will borrow Father’s dug-out canoe and paddle across the water to Jambezi.’’

“No and no! I don’t want you to run such dangers. Nina, I don’t want it’’

He is stronger than me, but I am the more stubborn. I repeated over and over again that I would meet him on the beach by such and such a tree. He closed his eyes and turned away from me, but I went on,

“We cannot meet on Ilha because I have too much family here; and the bridge will be closed at night; and I am underage; and the soldiers will stop us in the morning.’’ 

Wonder widened Evan’s eyes while he listened to me with a mixture of anger, fear, and desire. I had done my utmost to hypnotise him and caress him into submission, but he snatched his hands from mine and told me firmly,  

“Nina Ussene, such a plan is madness. How can you paddle so far in the dark? How can you disobey your parents and incur their wrath and the wrath of your Ancestors?   

It is not safe at Jambezi. You are safe from the War in your village, but there is no such safety in Monapo. We can only return with a convoy and there will be no convoy for days. That means we would have to sleep rough in the bush beyond Jambezi. What will we eat? How will we protect ourselves from the bandits who roam the beach? ’’

I tried to jump in again, but he had the talking stick and he held me back,   

“Nina Ussene, stop it! You are a rich girl now. With me, you will be poor. You don’t know what you are saying! It must stop and I must prove my worth to your father. So we must wait.’’

From the way he lowered his long lashes and stared at his feet, I knew that what he was saying was not what he really wanted. I found the chink between the two stances and rammed in my wedge,

“Evan Garcia, my husband-to be, I could paddle to Lung√° if need be to be with you. I must disobey my parents because they are blind to what is in my heart.’’  

What did I care about anything else? His touch could calm or excite me at just the right time.  I believed that the Ancestors were guiding me in that joint venture. Although I will leave the sphere of their graves, their spirits will stay with me wherever I go. I had heard that indeed it was not safe in Jambezi: so we´d have to be careful. I'd take some food with me and I already had a sharp knife in my trousseau with which my new partner would protect us from bandits. As to whether there would be enough food: we wouldn´t feel hunger for many days because we would feast on each other.

We didn´t touch then but I drove my future husband wild with lust. I made him writhe as though in pain. And that was only fair because the ache inside me was so great that it was all I could do to stop myself from pulling him to me, inside me; and holding him there forever.      

Once I had got him fit to burst, I explained how the very safety of my village was smothering me. Desire had tamped my voice to a hoarse whisper so he had to strain to hear me. He leaned forwards and I inhaled his breath. I wondered how it would feel to lick his eyelids. There were tiny white threads caught in his lashes, so he looked like a child who’d been playing under a kapok tree. And if he licked me, I wondered, what would his spit taste of?    

A vein was throbbing in his temple drumming from him to me as I told him that although I might seem rich to him, everything inside me was fighting against what I had: so I was poor. But he kept telling me how poor he was, as though I was deaf and hadn´t heard him properly the first time. Then we both skirted around our mutual arousal, each trying to douse the flames with paltry leaves. Every time we looked back into each other’s eyes, we fanned a forest fire and flames leapt out and burnt us. I remembered how once, on purpose, I’d scalded my hand with boiling water so as to wangle another trip to Ilha. I remembered how much it had hurt.  
 
As we argued, waves of heat rolled over us from the fires we had kindled and we scalded each other with words that hurt. (‘’Maybe you don’t love me’’. ‘’Maybe you don’t care.’’ ‘’If you are afraid....’’). Torn between desire, love and wanting to do what was right, Evan didn’t stand a chance. With nothing to lose, I kept scoring points, rattling off facts and figures to confuse him.

Below us and beyond, Cousin Sergio had raised the Golden Anchor’s mast. As I negotiated a narrow stairway past the old dungeons, I reminded my new fianc√© that The Elders always said that the greatest wealth is our children.

“So, Evan Garcia, give me as many babies as you can. ’’

(Do it now, my love, and never stop). At one point, I pushed him against a greenish wall, lost in frenzy. He pulled me along towards the gate. The more he resisted me, the more I loved him. I knew that I had to convince him in the few minutes left before our boat set sail. So I trotted beside him, pleading,    

 “Trust me, my darling, as I trust you: I know what I am saying. With this War, even though no one speaks of it here, it seems that no one knows what will happen.

Out There, the fighting never seems to end and it could come any day to our village. I will run away from my family but I will not run away from life. Chance only knocks once on our door, Evan Garcia. It is knocking now on mine.’’

Evan was still not convinced when I bid farewell and left him  

My grandfather used to say that sometimes what looks like the wrong thing is the right thing to do if your heart promises to you that it’s the truth. My heart has promised it as I promise now to you, Evan Garcia. So wait for me at dawn and I will come.’’

Without giving him time to reply, I ran to the beach, vaulted over the low wall and ran through the shallows to the Golden Anchor. As we set sail, Cousin Sergio was in an intuitive sulk. I chatted with him to camouflage my new love. During the entire voyage home, I talked to Sergio but my thoughts were all with Evan.

Evan Garcia and I had held hands but we had not kissed or touched each other in the places where lovers touch. I wished we had; why hadn’t we? I had known him for four hours and thirteen minutes only; and I did not know a single member of his family. Four hours: we could have made a baby in that time: we could have become each other’s blood family. I wished we had. Why hadn’t we?

If my family or any of my friends had known what I intended to do, they would have said that I was mad or possessed by a demon. They would have tied me to a tree to protect me because nobody in their right mind disobeyed or disrespected their family. Well, maybe I was mad, and even if I was possessed by a demon, it was a demon that gave me the gift of love: and what greater gift is there?