LINDA M. DEANE
It took long to get here. Not just time, not just distance…
Selvon’s lot had nothing on us. Not one thing. Not in that flat in South West London.
We used that place like it was just somewhere to crash. Remember? I’d be at work; you’d be out with friends. I’d come in, cook, fry up some onions and ground beef, dry, gravy-less — the way you like it — with a blinding white rice, each grain separated, and salad. Or lamb chops. Sometimes a good ol’ Bajan soup. Maybe I’d bring in chicken and chips or some Jamaican patties. Leave yours covered over, sometimes catch you on the stairs as you were coming in and I was headed out for the night — or vice versa. Scribbled notes and phone messages for each other propped next to the mirror on the mantelpiece, along with the mail and loose change, coins for the gas meter.
— Lin, de food did taste good!
— Your sister Olga called from New York.
— Spoke wid Olga. She say you sound too sweet!
— Staying with Roz in Shepherd’s Bush. See you tomorrow.
The parties we threw. We were like college roomies! You with your crew, me with mine, all crammed in that front room. Playing the latest Crop Over music imported, braggingly, from Home, and dancing. Laughter. Oceans and islands and continents of laughter. Loud talk, wuffless, some of it. Food, and food debates: who could stir the mellowest cou-cou; a dumplin wid no sugar en no dumplin at-all, at-all. Rum, and rum debates: Mount Gay versus Cockspur. People traipsing up and down the stairs, floorboards creaking past two in the morning.
— It’s a wonder we never got chucked out!
— How yuh mean! Dem two fellas in de flat below wuz alright, never mind dey wuz a couple uh bull —
You do know you can’t use words like that anymore, right? But yes, Peter and Tony were cool landlords and very good to us. Especially when that thing happened.
— Wha’ ting?
— The Thing. But I’m not getting into that now. I’m talking about the flat. That flat had life!
Not like this place. Wasn’t sure I had the right address. Guy at the gate was real vague about where you’d be, getting on like he didn’t want to help me at all but — look, I found you! I’m here. That’s the important thing.
It took long to get here. Not just time + distance. Not the voyage by sea or the passage by plane…
I brought you these. Saw them outside the tube station and couldn’t resist. I remember how much you like them — the colour! They got a bit crushed on the way over. Had a bit of a detour — got on the wrong bus, then had to catch a taxi, and still had to hike it in the end. But, they’re in one piece. Got some stares walking up your road. People must’ve thought I was a bag lady or something. It’s all these gifts and things from Judy to take back with me tomorrow — yes, tomorrow. I’m going back that soon.
You know how Judy is, reckons you en nuh true Bajan unless you got the plane brekkin down with foodstuff! Remember the flying fish I’d bring back whenever I went home on holiday — frozen and fried? Man, you’d have them fried ones out and eating before I could set my suitcases down good! And don’t get me started on the Cockspur. Or the Mount Gay!
Where to put these, though? I don’t…see…a vase…
Used to buy fresh flowers all the time. They were cheap, too, not like in Buhbayduss where you need a month’s salary! Used to get these and roses and tulips too, remember? Or a mixed bunch. But these were our favourite. So Englishy, so Wordsworth, I know! But they brightened up that place on a dull day. And fruit. Always some kind of fruit on the table. Oranges. Grapefruit. Pineapples. Bananas. Especially bananas. All bought down Brixton market. That place — it was like a slab of Caribbean just slapped itself down in South London! Maybe I should have brought bananas. Then again, who would eat them all?
It took long to get here. Not the voyages by sea or plane. Not the train-ride. Not the bus that carried me away, the taxis and tubes that brought me back…
Christmas ’86. My first away from home. I’d just moved in with you. Spent a wretched fortnight in that rented room in Stratford. Hell getting to Brixton every morning for work — a long-ass bus ride and two tubes.
— Man, an’ I tell you to move in here. No rent, closer to work. Can’t onderstan’ what you doin’ all de way in East London to begin wid!
— I remember you said that! Made sense to move, so I did.
And for a while it was fine. But then you had to go in for that operation. Got out of St. Thomas minutes to Christmas Eve and you were like the absence of sun itself. Post-operative depression. You sure as hell passed it onto me —
no tree, no lights, no ornament just naked lightbulb in the hallway, dull no footfall on the landing or stairs no laughter no party-hearty no jokes, no brawling Bajan-London voices calling “Wow, how tings?” “Ernie, how yuh doin’?” “Hey, Mister Double-yuh. How yuh?” Floorboard not even squeak, carpet thin, damp walls, ceiling, rooms all silent save for yuletide carols sung by a choir, tinny on the tiny transistor radio losing all meaning and cheer in the cold comfort kitchen where cupboards, fridge, stove still, somehow, cough up a ham, some turkey, roast potatoes, stuffing, rice n’ peas / peas n’ rice — very nice you whisper. Tank yuh, Lin, but I en able…
the careful tray,
untouched but for a bite or two,
abandoned on the sickbed table
a winter wasteland decorating
inside the window frames —
Oh, it was cold. And it wasn’t just the weather. I had no one else to call on. Not for that and not then. I ain’t lying — Selvon’s Londoners had nothing on us that December.
But the good times, when they returned, were sweet, man! If Saturdays in your flat were like an Oistin’s fish fry or Baxter’s Road, Sundays were sunrise at Bathsheba. Just you and me, eh? You’d be curled up in front of Panorama or the matinée Western on the old black-an’-white, trying to figure out if dat baddie was de samebaddie in a different plaid shirt, or a different baddie in de same plaid shirt. I’d be scaring up a variation on Sunday lunch. We’d eat and afterwards go out for the papers, or to the off-licence for a bottle of something to cosy-up with. A bar of Jamaica Old Gold, a pack of ginger-nuts. Bananas. Always bananas. That’s how those Sundays were, unless, of course, there was a ring of the bell, voices on the landing, a fair-weather knock at the door — one of your lady friends, a drinking buddy, or a debating buddy.
Mr. Archer, remember him? Fancied himself foremost expert on all things Barbados past, present, and future. The way he talked ’bout Bim, you’d swear he was fresh off the plane or just returned from another visit home — but he hadn’t been back in 40 years!
I heard a story much later how, one time, his relatives were having trouble locating the family plot in Westbury Cemetery. Man, they called him long distance from Barbados and he directed them to the exact spot — over the phone, purely by memory of a funeral he’d attended in the 1930s! Mr. Archer, he never did go home again. And you? Only fleetingly for weddings, a funeral or two.
By God, you and he could argue — long, strong and wrong, too, sometimes. Admit it! And loud? Archer talked hard to begin with — sure he was half deaf! I would have to go in the bottom bedroom and shut the door to drown out the debate. You loved that, though. Exchange with anyone and everyone about anything and everything. Roped me in, too. Yes, I do remember our rap sessions, you asking, Yuh get de point? Yuh get de point?
after some forceful statement or other. And most times, I would.
What was it you used to proclaim about human existence? That we mortals were merely chess pieces or puppets with strings pulled by cruel and laughing gods who looked down on our busyness, our wars, our ordinary and extraordinary lives the same way we might regard ants. That when it came to love and relationships, men were turrble beings; disgusting, not to be trusted. Politicians? Rubbish people! And you would swipe the air grandly and disdainfully each time you said it.
The Rock? The Rock was Home. Sweetest place on Earth but you could never return.
Religion? Ahh — your pet subject. You were a student, not a follower. Raised Brethren, deserting Anglicanism the first chance you got, then blessing different faiths and branches of faiths, flirting with any ideology that caught your fancy. Knew a good bit about Judaism and Islam. But tell me, what was that fling with the Jehovah’s Witnesses? You know good enough you only step foot inside that Kingdom Hall because you liked that woman. The minute you figured out her passion did not extend beyond her evangelism, you dropped her and those Watchtowers like hot sweet potato! I’ve never known anyone to backslide in so many faiths. Yes, you knew your Bible, though; quoted scripture up, down and sideways.
— I was a Garveyite, too, y’know.
— I know. How could I forget?
You signed up to the Black Star Line as a young man. Sent in your subscriptions. Garvey was a hero, you said, though misunderstood. It was like a bit of black history brought to life right there in that front room whenever we talked about him.
Do you miss it? The flat, I mean. I know I do. I miss the road; the faded elegance of those three- and four-storied, bay-windowed houses. Brown brick. Georgian. Elm trees like sentinels, signaling the seasons’ change. Depending on its state, the street lamp would flood orange neon or flicker amber shadows through the front windows at night.
I was thankful we weren’t on a council estate, some god-awful high-rise. I know I used to complain about the cold, and there’s nothing that would make me leave the Caribbean for good now. But sometimes, I feel a longing for London. The romance of the place, how it is in the summertime. The way the whole city just opens up to you: parks, museums, galleries, craft markets, concerts, theatres, night clubs, restaurants — the way you could just pick up and go. South of the river, north; double-decker, in a car with friends. On foot. Exploring. Or my favourite, the tube — emerging from the depths each time into a different world as if stagehands had shifted sets of scenery while you were underground. There’s something magical about that, and the way the streets smelled in summer, the heat leaving the pavement just as the sun was setting. And sometimes that wasn’t ’til gone 9 p.m.
— En’ nuthin’ magical bout de dog poop on those streets, doh!
— That’s not what I’m talking about but, yes, you could smell that, too.
But there was something else, the transition from hot day to cool night. The promise of adventure. It was real. To you, too, I know.
Took long to get here. Not the passage by sea or by air or railroad track. Not the wheels that carried me away, or the tracks that brought me back. Not the endless streets or these stone-weighted bags. Not time + distance, but absence itself…
You know why I left. They transferred me. Midlands, remember? And after that, the job down South. I know, I know…my trips to London grew fewer and fewer, and then, The Thing happened.
You know, the time I came back from one of my trips Home. You met me at the airport and insisted, insisted,on carrying my suitcase. Up and down escalators. Off and on trains, across platforms, the walk home from Stockwell tube station. Like you had every time before. We got back to the flat, had a light lunch. I’d gone in the kitchen, and when I came back to get your plate, you were staring at the ceiling. So, at first, I looked up too, trying to see what had your attention, but I couldn’t because whatever you were seeing was happening somewhere else altogether, inside you. You coiled up, curled like a baby, backwards onto the sofa bed, a creaking, crying sound coming from your throat like you were fighting whatever was going on inside you. Convulsions swept through your body. Panic swept through mine. I called out your name over and over, trying to wake you. I remember stroking your head. Your hair. Like cotton wool. Lamb’s wool. Grey lamb’s wool. I dialed 999. Peter and Tony, pale imitations of my mother who was an ocean away, murmuring reassurances on the doorstep. Me, homesick as the ambulance pulled away with you in it.
It wasn’t a stroke, they said in the hospital.
— You haven’t had a stroke, Mr. Worrell. You’ve had a fit. A fit. Do…you…understand?
They punctuated it in that shouty way medical staff do sometimes to old folks and those they regard as non-nationals. And that was it. Epilepsy. Brought on by too much living. You’d waited until your eightieth year to do it.
When you came home, things changed. Medication. No more booze. No more smokes. Giving up tobacco wasn’t so tough. You’d done it before (that Christmas of ’86, for one) and for quite long periods. But you missed your rum and the socialising and the parties and the swanning about South London. You missed the women half your age.
— Lin, that ting had me feeling rubbish. Like I was a nothing-man.
— I know, I know.
It hit us both real sudden that you were no longer that fun guy in his eighties who looked sixty, acted forty, still saw himself as twenty. Proud West Indian who’d breezed to England kinda late — a last-wave Windrusher — but who was vital, full of dreams, optimism, and the odd, dodgy scheme. Back home, you’d served in the Royal Barbados Police Force; mounted division, on a fine black horse named Sultan that had a turned-in hoof. You’d been torn between your duty of quelling protesters and siding with them during the 1937 Riots. You were a swimmer, a strong one; played water polo for the police team. An athletic man, a virile ladies’ man: tall, broad-shouldered; ruddy, brick-brown complected; square-jawed; high, freckled cheekbones; aquiline nose. A man with cotton-wool afro and silk-smooth hands even after years sorting parcels for London’s G.P.O. — working as deliveryman, doorman, taxicab operator, chauffeur, boat repairman. Lawman. A free, migratory bird who lived other lives in St. Lucia, Curaçao, New York. Had the failed relationships, scattered offspring, stories and scars to show for it — a remote parent, an engaged grandparent. And although your children made better lives for themselves (some made it to England before you), you felt that you failed them, had nothing to show for your years away, and therefore could never return Home.
Time caught up with you, finally. Stranded you in a cold climate. And when your London life began to ebb, so did you.
It took long to get here. Not the routes that carry us away; or bring us back. Not time + distance= absence, but a feeling more weighted than a Barbados suitcase. And now we’re in this new time and place. And you’ve been waiting…
Look at us, all this long talk. Just like the old days. I feel to stretch out on this bench and shoot the breeze with you forever. Speaking of which, wind’s whipped up. Chill to it, too. Strange. Been so calm ’til now. Like it trying to shoo me out of here. You right, I shouldn’t linger. Not in my condition. Wait! Not in my condition? How you know? But, of course…you know. Is a girl too, right? And is going to stay this time, not like the last one…
You right, though. That’s a story for next time. Alright, alright, I going!
But looka me still holding these. Given up trying to arrange them. Doesn’t make much sense in this place. What if I just leave them on the ground by this bench? Oh, the guy at the front gate waving. Pointing at his watch.
— What’s that? Yes, I found the plot, thanks. It was No. 832W…yes…just a few minutes more.
— Man, forget he. Leh we sort these flowers.
Wait…do what? Throw them in the air? You mean like so? Hmm, messy. Beautiful, though. And the colour! I guess that’s how things were. How we were.
— Yes, I get de point.
Anchor image: Heather Gallimore
Linda M. Deane is a Barbadian literary activist also known as The Summer Storyteller. She is one half of publishing and cultural forum ArtsEtc (artsetcbarbados.com) and co-editor with Robert Edison Sandiford of Shouts from the Outfield: The ArtsEtc Cricket Anthology. She is a recent winner of the Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award and a past recipient of Barbados’ Governor-General’s Award for Literary Excellence. Her poetry and essays appear in BIM: Arts for the 21st Century; Moko; Interviewing the Caribbean; and The Cordite Poetry Review.
Linda also writes for children and earns a precarious living as a creative writing instructor.
Love, love, love this!
Dis story sweet. Ms. Deane does make it kind and replete with knowings of a time and place. It stirs the echoes of rememberance in a Windrush chile. “Selvon’s lot had nothing on us.” Dreams and aspirations within the familiar circle of friends as it became smaller with returns, moves and those who abandoned all hope of return.
Young blood spread across the former Empire’s headquarters, in the National Health Service, the post office, and British Rail, congealing till the hair does turn grey. Ms Deane does catch it up. Nice.