PART OF THE Shelter ISSUE
‘We were shy of each other, but my brothers and I trailed her through her garden.’
‘State of Emergency’ by Sara Collins, taken from Pursuit: The Balvenie Stories Collection
Edited by Alex Preston
Published by Canongate
We loaded the car and drove into the hills. We packed the radio, because we needed it; and nappies, because we needed them, too. We took fifty US dollars per head, which the law allowed us, but not much else, because this is the story of the things we didn’t carry and, since it was Jamaica in 1977, we didn’t carry much. By this time the State of Emergency was already seven months old; there had been an outbreak of political violence in the lead up to the elections – the beginning of a long national nightmare – and my parents decided we had to leave.
The prime minister, Michael Manley, had promised to smash capitalism ‘brick by brick’, and I guess you could say we were getting hit by all those flying bricks. We drove all night, until below us the place we’d come from was nothing but a black shadow sinking into the sea, caught in the first glaze of sunrise, and, even though we loved that old landscape and all its green undulations, we didn’t look back. We were ironing ourselves out of it, getting the hell away.
I want to tell you how, after you’ve left a place this way, you may find yourself needing to write about it, keeping in your rearview a litany of things you don’t remember, with as much choice in these things as you might have about falling in love. How when you start writing, you’ll find yourself coming full circle to the same emergency. The same words leaping around you eager as dogs: curfew-gunman-garrison-gun. How I read books because those words were caught in my head like a line from a song.
We flew to Grand Cayman: my parents, my three brothers and I. We got ourselves a room of our own. Two beds, two crocheted bedspreads, one bassinet. My Caymanian grandmother, whose house it was, had a habit of jabbing at my skin like it was something she forgot in the oven. ‘You caught the sun,’ she’d say, as we both surprised ourselves with the discovery that she’d have loved me better pale. My mother worked night shifts. During the day my brothers and I tried to prise her eyelids open while she slept. I stared at myself in the mirror with her nurse’s badge pinned to my T-shirt and her white cap perched on my afro, imagining what it would be like to be a woman who worked. One of our neighbours, a man named McDoom, who ran a bar called Club Inferno in a place called Hell, brought us gifts of food. Baskets of yams. Green bananas.
Finally we could afford the rent on one half of a shared duplex, where one night we built a bonfire in our backyard and my brothers and I raced each other around it, thin and barefoot, singing: Run from Michael Manley! Run from Michael Manley! We were finding our feet (limping, yes, but standing), my father working again as a barrister, picking up the threads of his old life, so we could afford to fill an old barrel every couple of months. Packs of Jacob’s cream crackers scuttled like crabs under lace-edged underwear (the ‘good’ kind that wouldn’t shame you before the eyes of ambulance-drivers), Johnson & Johnson talc, bags of cornmeal, tins and tins of sardines. The barrel would stand in a corner of the kitchen filling up slowly until the lid sat snug on the final item – perhaps a navy-blue tin of Danish butter cookies – and then it would be dispatched to my Jamaican grandmother, who was one of the things we’d had to leave behind.
You could spend too much time trying to understand what led to those hardscrabble years, but it boils down to the same story everywhere, doesn’t it? The machinations of men. I understood nothing at the time about what we were doing or why we were doing it. I was a child and these were not childish matters. The PNP and the JLP were at war and it turned out there wasn’t enough country for the both of them. It turned out there’s no such thing as an easy passage.
In April 1978, there was a concert in Kingston – the One Love Peace Concert – an attempt to stitch the two sides together, would-be murderers with would-be murderees: Bob Marley on stage, joining the hands of the two reluctant leaders, the two pale kings – Manley and Seaga – buckra men in a country that had taught itself those were the best kind of men to be. Bob telling the people to come together. And maybe for a moment they all believed him, they believed in the possibility of peace, they left behind the light poles and dirt patches and bullet-wounded walls of the old garrisons. There was a frenzy of dancing; they seemed happy as cult members. Bob telling them that things would be all right. You could almost believe it, too, if you went and watched it now, if you didn’t already know the future, if you didn’t know that sometimes it seems the State of Emergency was the only thing that lasted. By the date of the peace concert, I was already gone, already watching the unfurling of a country that would never belong to me.
Jamaica was the place that had caused all this. It was seven years before we could go back to visit. Summer. A break from school. All six of us in the rented car. Twisting this way and that for a backseat view of the things we had abandoned, noticing everywhere these quick currents of memory I couldn’t quite grasp. There were so many things around me I didn’t know that I’d forgotten. The car pushing inch by inch through street vendors, who cried out and waved bags of just-roasted peanuts, peppered shrimp, fried fish and bammies. Their hands slipped like fishes past the glass. I had never seen this kind of urgency to sell something before, this way of pushing the thing at you, so you had to take it or be hit with it.
We started going uphill: urgent noises from the clutch and engine. After a time there seemed to be a bar or church every hundred yards; then women, straddling the roadside with children on their hips, who, when they heard the car, stopped and shifted to the side, without looking around. But sometimes there was no one for miles. Only the orange groves, or the small, ramshackle, apparently deserted buildings. Wood, zinc, sturdier houses sitting proudly beside concrete cisterns. Corner shops. Burglar grilles. Chain-link fence after chain-link fence.
Then, finally, Lambsriver. My grandmother’s tiny flat-roofed house: the walls blue-green inside and out; the floor that thumped underfoot; the yellowing crocheted curtains; the smell of wood. She came out onto her porch, plaits battened down under a head-tie, and watched at arm’s length as we poured ourselves out of the car. We were shy of each other, but my brothers and I trailed her through her garden. Breadfruit and mango and banana. More trees than flowers. We followed her to the outside kitchen, leaving all our questions hanging. A pot of goat meat ticked away on the stove. She’d baked toto, and as usual with anything that delicious we gave each other the eye, the starting signal for our usual backwards race to be last to finish, and, after we had, we peeled mangoes with our teeth and threw the skins into a pile under the tree, raising up a cloud of flies. We took our long, brainless pleasure in the food. I liked the way this grandmother looked at me. As if I was something you could be proud of. Then we heard our mother calling out urgently from the house: ‘What is all this? What is all this?’ And when we rushed inside we found her standing dumbstruck before Grandma’s wide-open wardrobe, pulling out bars of unused Ivory soap, tins and tins of talcum powder. Cotton nighties unfolding like white birds. My grandmother watched my mother from the doorway and, when her smile came it came slowly, like something that had been waiting a long time to be seen.
I want to tell you how lonely it must have been, to be the one left behind, curating the contents of those barrels, waiting to show us when we came.
How each person’s perseverance is only after all the simple matter of an accumulation of breaths.
How these small acts of perseverance hardly ever add up to something history cares two figs about.
How we left her that day, too, and drove back down to our hotel, and my brothers and I squeezed onto the concrete balcony and elbowed our way to the railing, so we could perch on the bottom rung and look out across the sand and whisper about the tourists, glossy with tanning spray, beating back against the currents of dark water swelling around their waists.
How that last image is a palimpsest. Faint beneath it are men on ships, and fainter still the traces of all the bad things that followed them.
How sometimes I hate the whole notion of endurance, mainly because it is the trick that hoodwinks us into staying in place.
How breath is the only tool with which we fight extinction.
For a long time I didn’t have the money or time to return, but, ten years afterwards, I travelled the Caribbean with a friend. Jamaica was on our list. We hitched a lift from Kingston to Montego Bay and waited in town for the Lambsriver bus. Shabba Ranks blared from a nearby sound system and I wandered over to a cart offering cigarettes for sale, negotiated a Benson & Hedges and a lit match from the woman tending it, standing to one side away from the crowd to smoke, wondering if anything would ever stop me feeling always and forever a visitor everywhere, but especially here.
A slight, dark, gap-toothed man slotted himself into the space between cart and wall and hugged the cigarette-seller from behind. She kissed her teeth. ‘What you troubling me fah? You nah see me working?’
But he spun around, addressing himself to the small crowd of us leaning against the wall. ‘You see this woman? Me love her bad, you see! Me love her bad!’
You couldn’t help but grin, and when I looked at the woman she was smiling too.
My friend and I, the people leaning against the wall, the music, the cigarette-seller’s lover, the way she laughed, leaning over the cart towards him, like she was peering into the bathroom mirror to paint her face. Here was a country. The place where, for me, desire had outlived memory. I felt my love for that whole place stir then; I felt love, like breath, conspiring with muscles and lungs and heart. I felt it as a thing harder to endure even than the history that had led to it.
My friend and I took the bus to Lambsriver. My grandmother had sprained her wrist, but she’d still been cooking all morning. I made her sit at the table and, as I tied a makeshift sling across her shoulder, she spread the fingers of her good hand wide across the wood and seemed happy. I would have known what to say to her had the country not snapped itself in two, leaving her on one side and me on the other. I had one of those cardboard disposable cameras with me and I took a picture of her before I left, a snapshot that could not yet reach across the space and time between that moment and the one when I would find myself, about ten years later, driving slowly through her village, knowing that she was dying, when my memory of her sprained wrist and her joy about the sling would rear up at the sight of her little house, and I’d sit beside her holding her hand and trying to conjure up some important thing to say, when the woman my mum was paying to look after her rattled the Dutch pot in the sink as if impatient to see the back of me and it would strike me that it was too late for the thing I wanted: Gran’s approval, or at the very least, her forgiveness. As if guilt was the only thing I had to show after going out into the world, and coming back.
Pursuit: The Balvenie Stories Collection edited by Alex Preston is published by Canongate, priced £12.99
Robert J. Harris was born in Dundee and now lives in St Andrews with his wife, sons and his dog. He is the author of many children’s books, including Will Shakespeare and the Pirate’s Fire, Leonardo and the Death Machine and zany Norse-god trilogy The …
Knight Errant Press is a queer, intersectional micropublisher. They saw a definite lack of distinctly queer publishing and decided to step up. We want to empower writers to write more openly and more queerly and to not shy away from drawing on and port …