National Geographic continues to fail

Nat Geo cover 1

April 2018 cover – “Black and White: These twin sisters make us rethink everything we know about race”  – the National Geographic (Nat Geo) says it’s covering and addressing its past racist coverage, yet in the article associated with the cover photo of the April 2018 issue, Patricia Edmonds continues the form of reporting that Nat Geo says it’s moving away from.

The fraternal twin girls shown on the cover, Millie and Marcia Biggs, are described thus: “From a young age the girls had similar features but very different color schemes. Marcia had light brown hair and fair skin like her English-born mother. Millie had black hair and brown skin like her father, who’s of Jamaican descent.” Therein lies the continuing problem of discriminatory reporting.

“English-born mother … and … father, who’s of Jamaican descent.”

As an English-born person who is of Jamaican descent this description is problematic for me because Edmonds’ article insinuates, in standard Nat Geo racist tones, that the white mother equates to the English-born descriptor and the Jamaican descent father is the black hair and brown skin ‘other’ in the equation.

Nat Geo is still reinforcing the idea that to be English-born you are automatically viewed as white, whilst Jamaicans are generalised as black; this diametric opposition is what was the root of Nat Geo’s historical reporting, and this issue, as well meaning as it is supposed to be, has failed to reposition itself away from stereotypical statements, photographs and phrases like ‘very different color schemes’.

Some of the questions that arose for me when reading this article were: from what nationality does the English-born mother, Amanda Wanklin, descend? Where was the black hair and brown skin father, Michael Biggs, born? If it is important to describe the birth place of one parent and the descent of the other parent, then in an effort to reduce racial stereotypes and promote equality surely the same conditions should be applied to both parents?

Isn’t the tone of this article reinforcing the same stereotypes ingrained in white American culture that the editor-in-chief, Susan Goldberg, suggests that this issue is supposed to be pushing its readers beyond? To me, this article resets the tone as one of continued racial divisions based on both birth location and heritage.

Or have I completely missed the point?

In the Nat Geo “Black and White” essay Alicia Martin, a statistical geneticist is referenced as stating that the traits of fraternal twins that emerge in each child depends on numerous variables, including “where the parents’ ancestors are from and complex pigment genetics.” As this article does not directly address where the twins’ maternal ancestors are from, the reader of the article is left with the assumption that ‘English-born’ relates to an unending line of similarly born ancestors who will be categorised as white and therefore quintessentially British.

Afua Hirsch has an essay in the same issue that continues the analysis on what it means to be British – Hirsch investigated this concept in her recent book: Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging. Hirsch notes that, “Britishness, as an identity, is in crisis. It is still linked in the imagination of people of all races to the concept of whiteness.”

Nat Geo may have had good intentions, but from my reading of this issue they have faltered and failed on the first steps to explore race and diversity in America. I know that many people have lauded the publication of this issue as a wonderful event, yet I still see it as a P.R. exercise to excuse a back catalogue of discriminatory reporting, and to feed the American white supremacist’s and far-right’s angst about them again becoming a minority in the country they invaded: “In two years, for the first time in U.S. history, less than half the children in the nation will be white.” (From the editorial by Susan Goldberg).

National Geographic, you cannot correct past mistakes by perpetuating them.

Maybe Marcia and Millie should be left to define themselves in line with the Nat Geo’s hashtag: #IDefineMe

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018

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Travelling while Black

Travelling while Black N'shire

I do this every day, I walk the local streets, I drive and often take taxis, buses, trains and airplanes to destinations all around the world – I travel while Black.

I chose not to notice it at first, wishing that it was an aberration of my mind, but it’s not: I have an (in)visible label stuck to me that identifies me as different – my skin. But it’s not only my skin, it is also my hair – especially when I had dreadlocks.

Driving around the UK as me (I cannot change myself, you see) is problematic for others, especially the police. Here is a typical example – sadly non-fiction – that occurred more than once, imagine me (late 90s) dressed in my Burberry coat, with my Samsonite briefcase next to me on the passenger seat, driving my brand new VW Golf GTi. I am on my way home from the local train station, after working in London for the day as a computer consultant. As I near my home I am pulled over by the police for … for nothing, it transpires, apart from driving while Black.

“Can I help you, officer?”
I am tired of the stops but used to them. The weariness is evident in my voice.

“I stopped you …”

“Yes?”

“I stopped you to see what you are doing in this area?”

“Pardon?” Although I am well used to this type of enquiry I have no desire to make things easy for people who approach me with discrimination plans clearly shining from their foreheads.

“What are you doing in this area?”

This has to be one of my favourite questions from police officers, especially as this is a public road, and as far as I am aware apartheid pass laws have not been implemented in Oxfordshire, or any other part of the UK.  I really can’t wait to see where this scenario will lead.

“I’m going home.”

“Where do you live?”

“Why do you want to know that?

“I’m trying to ascertain what you are doing in this area?”

“Is there something wrong?”

“I’m not sure, I’m asking the questions.”

“Are you stopping all vehicles or just me?” I say this as other cars, my neighbours in fact, drive pass without hinderance.

“Please confirm where you live.”

“For what reason? Why have you stopped me and why do you want to know where I live?”

“Just answer the questions!” The irritation level is spiking in the police officer because I do not roll over and show my belly.

I exhale a deep sigh and say, “I live just around the corner … do you want to come and see?”

“Whose vehicle is this?

“Mine.”

“Oh. Do you have the papers?”

“Of course.”

“Alright then. Carry on.”

“So what did you stop me for?”

“You can go now.”

Long days sandwiched by ignorance do not make a tasty mental snack.

First the skin: this is a passport to discrimination from ignorant beings. The negativities encountered when in one’s own private vehicle are contrasted when in public. Having black skin proves useful when on crowded buses to trains because the seat next to me, or opposite me is always the last one to be occupied, gingerly, by some desperate passenger who has scoured the whole of the transport for an alternative. Some people choose to stand for the entire journey rather than sit next to me. I still point out the vacant seat, and sometimes they respond saying, “Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not going far.” They may still be standing when I leave the seat and alight at my destination, or they suddenly change their mind about sitting when another seat, elsewhere in the carriage, becomes free.

I’ll replace my bag on the chair and carry on. Comfortable with space around me. Uncomfortable with the ignorance or hatred around me – from people who do not know me at all.

However, it does feel like I have a communicable disease when there is a quarantine-like space around me. I am not contagious, but they think they can get something undesirable from coming in close contact with me. It saddens me more than it amuses me.

I am a signifier to people – they appear to have applied value to my blackness and my cultural appearance. To them my dreadlocks mean I am a drug-dealer and always in possession of vast quantities of marijuana or, at the very least knowledge of where to readily get some if my ‘personal supply’ has run out. This is pure ignorance as I have never smoked or taken drugs in my life. My dreadlocks are the best way of maintaining my hair as well as a connection to the culture of my fore-bearers. This became a regular occurrence, so much so that I had to start making a joke out of it because my frustration at the frequency of the inquiries was mounting as much as my hair grew.

If a conversation was started, it usually contained the ubiquitous question, “Where are you from?” in the dialogue. 

“I live in Abingdon, Oxfordshire”

“No, I mean where are you from.”

“Oh, Wiltshire.”

“No, I mean where are you from.”

“Trowbridge, Wiltshire in the West Country.”

“No, that’s not what I mean.”

“What do you mean?”

“Where do you come from.”

“I told you. The only other detail I can give you is graphic – my mother’s vag…..”

“You don’t get me … “

(I understand them completely but I’m not entertaining this vague question again.)

“What precisely do you want to know?”

“What nationality are you?”

“English.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am. I was born in Wiltshire. I’m English.”

“Can’t you just answer the question …”

“If you ask the question you really want the answer to, then I will answer it, if I can. What do you want to know?”

“What are your parents?”

“British.”

“This is silly.”

“Yes, you’re right. It is silly.”

“You can’t be British. You’re Black!”

“I am British, in fact I’m English. The same way a person born in Wales is Welsh, and a person born in Scotland is Scottish, and a person born in Ireland is Irish. I’m English, but like so many people I sometimes say I’m British. My parents are British, too.”

“How can your parents be British? They’re black too, right?”

“Yes, they are British citizens.”

“But where are they from? They’re not from here, are they?”

“No, they’re not from Oxfordshire, our family home is in Wiltshire. That’s where we’re from. But I see the question you want to ask is what’s our family heritage. Is that right?”

“Yes, where are you from?”

“My parents came to England from Jamaica in the Caribbean. But our family heritage goes back further. My name is Morgan, a Welsh name, my maternal name is Sutherland, a Scottish name, and my genetic roots are also from West Africa, and the Indian subcontinent. So, the answer to ‘Where am I from?’ is all over the world. I guess my family has roots everywhere, a bit like the Queen who has German ancestry: in 1917 they changed their family name from ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ to ‘Windsor’ to sound less German – especially as the country was at war with Germany. Did you know that Queen Victoria’s first language was German? But she also learnt to speak English? She married her German cousin, Albert and they both tried to assimilate into the country where they lived: England. In fact, Queen Victoria became more Scottish the longer she lived.”

“Oh. I didn’t know some of that.”

“Because I am constantly asked that question based on, I suppose, the colour of my skin, and the style of my hair, I like to share facts about where people are from. Especially people who are seen as quintessentially English as the British Royal Family, who are seen as being as English as fish and chips, or a cup of tea. So where are you from?”

“Here.”

“Where’s here? Where are your parents and grandparents from?”

“My parents are from here as well, I think. I don’t know about my grandparents.”

“Maybe you should have more answers before you ask so many questions.”

So, I continue to travel whilst Black armed with answers that people often do not expect and I wonder how long will it be until I can just travel and declare, “I’m English,”  to any enquiries about where I’m from; to have that accepted without being grilled about the ten generations that preceded me would be a lovely journey down the road, across town, on holiday or just across the back fence.

I’m English and I’m Black. It’s not unusual.

Marjorie H Morgan © 2018

Breaking the silence surrounding Black female infertility


Diagnosis - Infertility. Medical Concept. 3D Render.by Marjorie H Morgan © 2018

How often have you had a conversation about infertility amongst Black women? Not very often, I would suspect. Or never. There appears to be a silence surrounding Black female infertility, although white female infertility is frequently discussed and treated. Infertility is often viewed through a colour-coded prism.

Historically myths surrounding Black women, and the image of the Black female body, are associated with constant reproduction, so when a Black woman realises she is not able to conceive there are usually feelings of inadequacy and failure. In many cultures motherhood is associated with social status, therefore being childless can mean that a woman feels shame to be seen as barren.

Since the start of recorded time there has been infertility amongst women, it is not new. The Bible refers to Sarah and Rebekah who remained ‘childless’ for decades. Many contemporary Black women resort to religious behaviour when they believe they are cursed by God, and some women may implement acts of superstition, like sleeping with baby clothes under their pillows, to increase their chances of conception. The National Health Statistics Reports (2006-2010) show that Black women are 1.5 times more likely to experience infertility than their white counterparts. So, why the silence?

There are many health and genetic reasons for this higher level of infertility in Black women, including the prevalence of fibroids, dysfunctional ovaries, endometriosis, and PCOS. Premature ovarian failure is also a condition that affects the infertility of Black women: this is also known as primary ovarian insufficiency and it is a condition where ovulation times are uncertain because there is a loss of eggs associated with premature menopause. A woman’s ability to conceive naturally each month declines as she gets older.

According to the WHO (1993) the clinical definition of infertility is the absence of conception after 24 months of regular unprotected intercourse. For many women the realisation that they may be infertile is a shock that may lead to isolation and embarrassment.

In 2016 a study into the experiences of nine Black and minority ethnic women living in Wales was undertaken at Cardiff University; this study shares the views and experience of this group who had current or previous experiences of infertility. The women talked about the pressure they felt to become mothers, the negative impact of not being able to conceive, and their ongoing concerns and hope for the future.

When any woman who wants to reproduce finds that her personal biology has denied her the opportunity to do so, there are often feelings of failure because fertility is frequently equated to womanhood in pronatalist societies. Each time the conception cycle passes unfulfilled the potential mothers may enter into a pattern of grief for the loss of the unborn, unknown child they were preparing for, and grief for their own body’s inability to conceive; this is often repeated for months and years.

When personal reproduction proves impossible some Black women may choose to foster or adopt to experience motherhood. This can occur after the high costs and expenses of many rounds of IVF, artificial insemination, and possibly miscarriages and recurrent pregnancy loss (RPL).

Between the moment that a Black woman discovers she is infertile, and the time she chooses to either embrace the state of childlessness or to foster or adopt, there is the desert time when she is alone with her body. During these stages, women can undergo a wide rage of emotions directly related to the cycle of procreation; this may include self imposed isolation from family and friends because she may feel ostracised from the normality of their worlds, and periods where she may spend much time crying in silence behind closed doors. This  can be a time when some women may find themselves experiencing suicidal thoughts and episodes of mental illness because of the social stigma and the stress of repeated failures to conceive.

Infertility can remain undiscussed in the wider community unless there is more publicity around the issue. It has helped when people like Beyoncé, Tyra Banks and Chrissy Tiegen also raise the emotional aspect of the issue.

It is important to get more Black women to talk about infertility to demystify it and to break the silence and isolation of those who experience involuntary childlessness. 

Figures show that nearly 60% of people in America do not undertake fertility treatment because they are unaware of the options available. It is vital that Black women realise that infertility is a common problem experienced by 1 in 6 women between the ages of 15 and 44, in Britain these women should have full access to the NHS fertility treatment which, according to a 2006 survey, shows that there was unequal access to treatment and no clear criteria for who should receive this NHS-funded fertility treatment.

  

It’s time to talk.

Useful links:

https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Fertility/Pages/Fertilityhome.aspx

https://britishfertilitysociety.org.uk/

http://www.nfaw.org.uk/raising-awareness/

https://infertilityawareness.org/

WHO – World Health Organisation (Rowe et al., 1993)

http://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/36983

https://resolve.org/

https://www.bwhi.org/

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150604162636.htm

Jenny’s Journey

Empty cradle

“Jenny, where are you? Call me back, now! C’mon, Jenny. I’m getting worried now. Please. Call me.”

There was urgency in his voice. It was the twelfth message he’d left in the last hour. I already miss him. This morning he said goodbye as usual and after kissing my forehead he drove off to work. A regular Tuesday we both thought. But it wasn’t to be.

I want more than anything to go home to Paul, but I can’t. I know that he won’t understand. And, anyhow, I can’t now. It’s too late. There’s no turning back after this.

Paul has been the same since I can remember. He’s the best husband I could’ve asked for. He’s patient and supportive – but then we both are to each other, so that’s nothing spectacular between us, but he’s the bring-you-breakfast-in-bed type of man that you read about in stories, but he’s real. I was always the lazy-I-don’t-like-mornings person. And right now he’s pulling his hair out, well that’s just a phrase really because Paul has shaved his head for the last five years or so. It suits him, the bald head, the smoothness. He does still grow his beard though, which I love – it makes him even more good looking. Although he hasn’t really changed his image much since our wedding. And he can still fit in his wedding suit, because he’s always doing something – football, squash, weight training … I sometimes lose track of all the things he does. He says exercise gives him more energy. It’s never made sense to me, but it works for him.

He stays the same and I change more every day. I didn’t plan this, and I usually plan everything. But right now I feel like my mind has been invaded by alien thoughts that are controlling everything I think or do. I guess it’s just a matter of time before someone says that I’m having a mental breakdown. And they could be right, I’ll check with the overwhelming convictions residing in the core of my brain to find out. I mean I’ll check if I can be bothered.

Opposites attract they say, and where exercise is concerned I guess they are right with me and Paul, whoever they are that say all these things. You see, I lost my will power to exercise, to care about anything, in a packet of biscuits. Bourbons I think they were at the time. I stopped discriminating over packets ages ago – that was when days like Tuesday started and ended in familiar shapes. I eat anything now. Since I’ve got no chance of fitting into my wedding dress again it doesn’t matter. It’s not like we’ve any likelihood of renewing our vows. Paul’s never going to forgive me for this.

I started eating more after we’d lived in our new home for about three years. We were totally settled in, all the boxes were unpacked and the rooms decorated to our own style. We were feeling quite satisfied with ourselves. Even smug, yes, we were smug. I’ll admit to that now. We both had good jobs that we loved, a great circle of family and friends, our beautiful home, in fact back then we had all the things we wanted in our lives.

The people who lived in our house before us had bizarre tastes I think, but we saw the potential behind their decor. They were more1970s style hippies, we’re more clean lines, organised storage and high tech. When we bought that house we were ready to start the next chapter of our lives, but … nothing happened. So I ate more. That was something I got good at, because in every other area my body betrayed me.

“Shall I renew your gym membership? The notification’s come through for both of us,” Paul’s voice was cautious and gentle that evening after we had eaten. We were sitting on the sofa as the TV watched us from the corner of the room.  For months I’d been like an angry bear around him. The energy emitting from me was toxic. I’d had too much time to think between hospital and doctor appointments. After I gave up work my days became saturated with charts, needles, hormones and timing. There was an optimum time for everything. The only problem was my body didn’t get the memo. It remained out of sync.

But Paul didn’t do anything wrong. All he wanted was a family, with me. Children who had his curly hair, and maybe his mother’s dimples, or someone who had my smile – when I used to smile a lot – or my eyes. It’s what we both wanted. Then we started trying. Trying, and repeatedly failing. So, no. I didn’t want to renew my gym membership. That was just something else to fail at. I cut my eyes at him and he turned away unsure what to do next. Then moments later he got up and walked out of the room. I was instantly sorry, but I didn’t apologise.

I lived on the edge of anger every day. At first I blamed it on the injections. I did the ones in my stomach, then Paul took over and did the ones in my butt. My skin doesn’t normally bruise, but repeatedly puncturing myself with hormones leaves dark purple bruises that look like squashed blueberries plastered under my skin. Yet in true Marquis de Sade fashion I continued with the ritual for over two years.

“Is it worth all this pain?” Paul asked one morning, after I burst into tears again. I hadn’t been sleeping as usual, so I snapped at him again, “Just stick it in, please!”

“But, you’re crying …”

“And?”

“Jen, can’t we … you know, stop this now?”

“Paul!”

“Jen, c’mon. We can do something else. We can try …”

“If you hadn’t noticed, Paul, this is me trying! I’m trying to have a baby, your baby, my baby. Just stick the damn needle in my ass, please!”

“Remember … remember all this,” he is hesitant with his words and his movements, he tries to hold me, I reject him again.

“All this,” he is pointing to the lines of medicine bottles and the needles that look suspiciously like an addict’s drug paraphernalia, “it’s no guarantee. They did tell us that.”

“Paul. Are you going to do it or not?” I scream at him. I’m desperate, I don’t recognise myself any more. The only thing I am familiar with every day is fear. The fear of more failure and my firework-style emotions.

In the middle of the experiment to alter the biology of my body I discover that my relationships are all crumbling around me. I don’t accept that I am the common denominator until … well, until I’m surrounded by piles of dust.

Mum, and the aunts give me the look all the time, but they don’t say anything anymore. It’s the same at every wedding, funeral or party. Just two words, “Any news?”

When I shake my head they return to sharing out the food again, or doing unnecessary tidying up. The pity in their eyes is mixed with the shame that gnaws at me from inside. I know that I’m a failure. I can’t make my body be different. They know it’s my fault. I know it’s my fault. You see, Paul had a child when he was younger, a previous relationship, so it’s me that’s not working properly, not him.

“I feel like a fraud.” I confide to my diary because people find it awkward to talk to me now. Or do I find it uncomfortable because I’m checking them checking me? Especially my female friends. Especially my female pregnant friends or any mother. Literally any woman with a child, I feel their eyes bore into my permanently vacant uterus. All the random people I see in the street. I’m looking at them and I feel them judging my because of my emptiness. I’m an outsider now because I can’t do it as easily as they did.

“My body feels hollow, like the bits that are supposed to be there are missing or not joined up properly, and I can’t see what’s going on or move any of it around. I wish I had something else to focus on apart from this. Paul is scared of me now, I see it in his eyes. I’m sorry, but I can’t stop, I have to fix my body. I’ll do anything it takes to be a mother. I never thought I’d have to ‘try’. I thought I’d just ‘be’ pregnant one day, like my sisters. It’s not fair. Why me? Why do I have to be the monster? Frankenstein?”

I was a visitor to the hospital that day. Tuesday it was. I went to see my sister who had another baby. I both wanted to and didn’t want to be there, but because it’s a family tradition and I’m not allowed to be the one who breaks the rules, I went. The babies popped out of Emma like she was shelling peas. Her and Stuart have four children now. Three boys and a girl. The boys came first, the twins Simon and Saul, then Patrick, and finally, well I think it’s finally, Chloe arrived. She’s perfect, and looks a bit like our mother. Beautiful ebony skin and brown-blue eyes. She is stunning, and she smells like all newborn babies. Delicious, fresh and new. The whole family is there. We congratulate Emma and Stuart and then the awkwardness in the room reaches out and grabs my ankles. I excuse myself to go to the gift shop. I need space, and as I leave the room I hear it filled with the sound of them all exhaling relief at my absence.

I walk around the hospital grounds for about an hour before I make my way back to Emma’s room. I ignore the ringing phone in my pocket. Acidic thoughts rise in my throat as I reflect that there is scarcely time to get used to each new baby before Emma’s stomach is swelling again, and our family is not even Catholics. I don’t see what their hurry is. But I love the babies, all of them. I guess I’ll just have to be satisfied with being the best auntie there is. Maybe that’s my destiny. That could be the way to bury the feelings of constant loss when I instead focus on celebrating the lives of these beautiful innocent babies that have joined our large family, and then I’ll continue to privately mourn the non-existence of my own.

I can smell the sympathy that people have for me when they see that I’m still not expecting. But I’m always expecting, I’m expecting my own miracle, it just doesn’t come to me no matter how many babygros I put under the pillow, what statues I rub, or how full the moon is. I remain empty.

If they do talk to me about my barren womb it’s usually words that I want to grab from their loose lips and stab them in the eye with.

“You’ll have a full, rich life without children,” they suggest. “Imagine all those exciting, different holidays you can go on!”

“You and Paul will have such adventurous experiences now,” my cousin said in a phone call as his children were playing in the background, “you’re not tied down.” Karl won the prize for the most insensitive comment of that week: that’s one of the regular awards that I give out to people I interact with. I have to do something to amuse myself as I mostly pace alone with my thoughts weighed down by biscuits and my internal inadequacy.

Dr Fitzwilliam, one of the line of doctors who stared at charts, then at me, said that it often took time for the drugs and treatment to take hold. I felt like I ran out of time and then I saw her, just lying there, in the corridor. I’d just come back on the ward, on my way back from the gift shop. I had a soft yellow duck for Chloe. 

The nurse had turned away for something and abandoned her.

So, I took her. I had to.

Immediately she filled the hole in my heart. The years of mourning disappeared because I found her. She’s perfect for me.

I call her Jasmine. I’m her mother now.

I’ve turned my phone off so she can sleep in my arms undisturbed. I’ll be her mother for as long as we remain in this linen cupboard.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018

After … ’til death

(100 words story)

Not many people embrace death like Joan did. Andrew’s passing started her simultaneous love and fear affair with it.

Three months following Andrew’s burial, Joan made her first new friend; friends were not previously welcomed in the marital home.  After forty-six years of solitude she was rusty at small talk, especially with other men. Fortunately Simon was patient. However, Joan was impatient with herself and surprised Simon after six months with a lingering kiss that ended in morning coffee.

Loving life Joan didn’t want to die, her children wouldn’t understand her need for a separate grave from their father.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2018

Realisations

She heard the noise around her.  It seemed to have always been like this as long as she could remember.  Today was possibly the worse as the sounds felt like they had morphed into a personalised attack on her brain as she searched for a fragment of peace and stillness.  A new string of thoughts appeared out of a wormhole somewhere in her left arm. It had been happening for … a period that had no start or end, so she could not put a structure or name to it. The first thought she recognised was persistent: this is madness.  The others shape-shifting thoughts followed in rapid succession without leaving her breathing space. All these people. They were everywhere. No room that she wandered into was every empty of the mysterious blurred faces.What were they doing in their house?  Who let them in?  Where were her children?  Where was her husband?

The lack of immediate answers to these questions created a deep fear that something inside of her was not working correctly and that there was going to be a messy explosion of all of her organs any minute. Her instinct was to grab hold of anything solid nearby – like the oak bed that dominated the middle of the room – but instead she sat perfectly still facing a mirror as her sister adjusted the large-brimmed hat that was crookedly perched on her head.  Looking at what should have been her own reflection Patricia struggled to identify herself in the ashen image she saw. She could not even remember getting dressed that morning.  Remembering anything was hard. Forgetting was easier.  As she sat there like a tailor’s dummy she instinctively knew there was a day – that she could just about remember the edges of – when they were a whole family. Somewhere in that day lay the foundations of the foggy tunnel she was currently lost in.

She started to focus on the pinhead of its origins that she could still make out, and when it began to become clear in her mind she blinked rapidly and then stubbornly refused to allow the memory to be reborn. ‘If I don’t know it, then it can’t be true,’ she tried to persuade herself as she automatically raised her hand and wiped the tears from the corner of her eyes. ‘It’s not real. That’s right. It’s not real. Everything is normal.’ The fresh tears created dark rivulets of mascara down her sunken face ruining the make-up recently applied there by her sister.

Too tired to summon the effort to keep wiping her face she dropped her head to one side and closed her eyes. She hoped the dream world that she was in would disappear when she woke up. This endeavour to realign the planets needed a determined effort that created deep furrows in her forehead as she concentrated, and for a splinter of a moment she was where everything was boringly ordinary.  As she settled comfortably into her memory the atmosphere she yearned for was broken on the turn of the isolated second she had just captured by a cold hand reaching into her calm seclusion and touching her gently, but firmly, on her left shoulder. 

This had been recurring for an unending number of days – every time she grasped hold of a shattered memory someone would touch her, and break her dream spell so delicate threads of smoke from before now were blown into extinction.  Whenever she opened her eyes she saw a multitude of faces, both strangely familiar and strangely strange, staring at her.  They all told the same story: it was real. She tried to reject the truth in the downcast faces of all her watchers, but they would not stop shouting the dense permanence of her new reality. Patricia’s mind recoiled against her body and she shuddered.

Tiredly she opened her eyes again. She accidentally caught the sympathetic gaze of an unknown woman who stood by her bedroom door and spontaneously the tears fell again, but this time they felt unusually heavy – more like blood than water – as they continued dripping down her face and fell weightily into her lap. 

‘It’s time,’ a floating voice said as it broke through into her maze of thoughts. It sounded like her sister Sandra had sounded when they were children. But she could not be sure of whose voice it was today. With assistance she stood and walked through the throngs of bodies lining her walls looking like strange black fruit.  Time was still misbehaving when she finally reached downstairs and was led to the front door; after the comforting dimness of their bedroom the harsh brightness of the sky outside temporarily blinded her. Momentary panic set in followed by a wish that she would never see anything again. As her sight adjusted to the light she saw repeated long rows of blurred black and white images before her.  She let herself be directed towards the centre of them. Her children trailed behind her. They were like a line of ants following spilt sugar. Every action was automatic.

As she stepped into the car her will finally collapsed.

In her last resolution she resolved never to resolve again.  From that first moment in the glaring sunlight the day went according to somebody’s well prepared plan and she played her enforced part in it: the chess board Queen.

Patricia’s mind remained elsewhere.

The people started to arrive at the church early. The official start time was 2:00 p.m., but the deacons had opened the main doors from noon when there were half a dozen people already waiting outside the building.  They had come early to ensure a good seat where they could hear and see every movement of the proceedings – they also wanted to be seen. 

Brother and Sister Mackenzie were among the first people there, they were official funeral-goers.  Their church attendance for weddings, christenings and especially funerals, had become a habit like depositing time in a high interest savings account from which they expected to make a withdrawal of respect in their too near future. They knew Tony from the day he was born, he called them Aunty and Uncle when he learnt how to speak. Tony’s parents, their friends and countrymen, said they fit together like a pot and its lid.

Joe Mackenzie was a ripe septuagenarian and still walked without a stick.  He was the quieter one of the pair. His wife, of 51 years, mostly known as ‘Miss Ivy’ used her walking stick to enhance her self-appointed status as a wise and righteous older woman.  Her supporting rod was a carved ebony structure that she had purchased on a special trip to the Holy Land in her younger, more sprightly years.  She had bought it before she physically needed to use it, but as she always said ‘yu hab fi mek sure dat tum-morrow nuh ketch yu a nap, fi wen ‘im sneak up, ‘im will mek yu drop, sudden suh!’  Miss Ivy had been the most vocal since they met when she was 19, Joe knew he was lucky that she chose him and happily accepted that they grew into themselves and their increasingly lined faces at the same time they grew their own children. 

In the church the moments between noon and 1 p.m. passed like time had been anaesthetised. So between naps Miss Ivy looked around the sanctuary, taking in the detail of things she liked and other things that she was not too keen on.  She saw many familiar faces, but even more faces that were strange to her entered the church. Some were obviously from out of town. When there were about a hundred people present, the noise level started to rise where before it had been a reverently quiet whisper that crept around the beautifully arranged flowers.  Now they were all laughing and calling to each other across the church.

‘Yu still ‘ere?  Mi ‘ear seh yu dead lang time!’

‘No sah!  Mi ‘till ah batta batta galang.’

The joking banter was as scripted as the behaviour of the older men who always found a corner, outside of whichever church they were at, to assemble on and reminisce about the old days while they awaited the arrival of the family.  The grey haired, felt-hatted men dressed lavishly.  Their jackets were unfashionably long, their starched shirts were pure cotton and whiter than imaginable by any detergent advertiser.  Their trousers were always coal black with creases sharper than a chef’s paring knife.  They dressed as smartly as they always had in their youth even though they were now living at the turn of the century; they were ready for their own time to come. 

The younger men – of all ages from forties down to the teenagers – were in their own natty uniforms, the style of their trousers was the main dividing line as it reflected  what was vogue at their own masculine peak. However, there was no uniformity to be found in the attire of the women mourners who wore a variety of dresses, skirts, blouses, and trousers topped off with a matching hat if they were over fifty. Before the day was over half of the assembled women would weep as if it was their own spouse being buried, the other half would behave like robots to make sure everything was organised and all the food was cooked and served to the crowds of people at the wake in the evening.

By 1:30 p.m. the church was full with friends, relatives and work colleagues.  Some people had travelled for days from the other side of the world after hearing about the sudden accidental departure, and they sat pristine in their grief as they waited for the ceremony of  thanks for Tony’s life to begin.  There was no long illness, or time to acclimatise to this passing. Tony’s death was an unwelcome surprise – especially to him as he looked in his rear-view mirror and saw the lorry approaching him at the roundabout at an unexpected speed.

Anyone who arrived less than half an hour before the allocated start time was deemed a late-comer. The they entered the church they started to look hopefully at seats sandwiched between people in the middle of rows.  As they edged optimistically towards the seat they were invariably told that the seat was taken and that the owner had gone for a quick toilet break before the family arrived with the coffin.  Some late arrivals, although disappointed that they would have to stand for the length of the service in the heat of the crowded church, nevertheless found themselves a space to lean on against the cold brick walls.  Others, aware of their predicament, but prepared to take a risk, went to the front three rows of clearly marked reserved seats and guaranteed themselves the wrath of every other mourner for the entire day. They chose to be selectively deaf to the murmurs of, ‘Dem too bad-mind’ and ‘Dem kyan read?’

A short while after 2:25 p.m. a sudden hush came over the church as the young, old-looking Patricia entered followed by her small children.  The silence moved across the heads of the seated congregation and settled in the darkened vestry portal and then, as the wife, now a widow, was led to her seat in the front row, a low murmuring spread through the congregation as they commented to each other on how ‘she look draw’ and ‘wat a burden fi bear at such a tender age.’ Tony’s parents – sat numbly in the front pew of the church – carried their own version of grief: the type used only by people who had to bury their children.

As Patricia took her seat the women in the congregation, simultaneously, as if their movements were directed by an invisible conductor, reached into their bags or pockets for stored handkerchiefs, which  – depending on their age  – were either well pressed cotton squares or small packets of tissues.  They all came prepared for either their tears or someone else’s.

The organist started playing a sombre tune and an air of uncertainty and gloom pervaded the brightly decorated interior, and like a visiting spectre it lightly touched every person within hearing distance. While from outside the church the voice of the young pastor was heard speaking clearly as he read from the Bible.  Douglas Reid was preceding the coffin into the church.  His face was sombre and he looked older than his young 35 years as the responsibility of officiating over the funeral of his friend Anthony Barrett weighed heavily on his shoulders.  The pall bearers were also struggling with a weight: the coffin itself.  It was the heaviest, widest, and most expensive coffin to have entered that church in the last decade. Tony’s family only wanted to give the best display for his sudden farewell. So they had selected the immense black and silver American-styled casket that had ornate silver decorations evenly placed along the length of each side through which long ebony carrying poles were situated.

The six pallbearers, Tony’s family and closest friends, listened to the instructions of John Stephens, the funeral director, as they lowered the huge coffin from their shoulders in order to get it through the church door. They tried not to show that they were struggling with the task, but their fearful gasps and whispered comments to each other were audible above the low hum of chatter from the congregation that watched with curious anticipation. They wore immaculately sharp dark suits, highly polished shoes, and dark sunglasses which they wore throughout the service while they sat with heads mostly bowed, and they resembled the brothers of the Nation of Islam but without the bow ties.

The older men who followed the procession – some of whom had left their corner outside of the church – bowed their heads and held their hats in front of their chests like a guard of honour.  The younger men chose to silently decorate the church foyer as they stood in their designer suits contemplating the weight of death.  It seemed that everybody, including the smallest of children, who were already getting warm and restless in the overcrowded church, were aware of the awkward specialness of this occasion. They frequently looked upwards to their parents’ altered faces with questions that were met with a gentle pat on the back or a momentary rocking that signified that silence and quietness was necessary. 

As the coffin was eventually laid on the trestles at the front of the church, the early-arrivers like Joe and Ivy Mackenzie could see the visible shaking of Patricia’s body – this is why they had strategically chosen their seats: to later discuss every detail of the service at the wake with those who did not have a good view or were only following the service via the PA system, it made them central to life for a short while.

Patricia, like the other people in the packed church, felt the presence and oppression of death after the coffin was raised on stilts in front of them. Pastor Douglas Reid, a family friend since he had graduated from Bible College, stood before the pulpit and closed his eyes while holding his left hand aloft.

‘Brethren,’ he started. En masse the gathered people shifted their focus from each other and looked towards him, all the while fanning themselves to disperse the heat. Their actions resembled the uniformed behaviour of meerkats on the lookout. ‘We are gathered here today together, united in grief …’

Yet only Patricia and Tony’s parents Renée and Benjamin felt entirely stripped naked by their grief. Patricia experienced the sensation of being exposed and vulnerable enough to break at even the slightest touch. The intense rawness of death’s reality hit her as she knew she would never physically be this close to Tony again for the rest of her life. Together they had had so many plans for the future.  Now she was alone.  Their joint designs, drawn together in private intimacy and hope, now seemed liked deflated balloons being blown into country hedgerows. Anger at Tony’s absence frightened her, then she felt hatred for those men who were still there – for their wives and children. ‘It’s not fair!’ She wailed silently to herself as she judged them and then discarded her handkerchief and left her tears to flow unstopped. The heat and humidity of the church did not affect the coldness in her bones. It was the same type of cold that came in bursts and had buffeted her from the moment that she had heard of his death, since then she had remained in a state of shock – suspended between belief and disbelief. 

The church service itself was rousing. Pastor Reid spoke with the passion of familiarity and love about life and death.  The songs were sung with extra gusto,  and the prayers were greeted with loud ‘Ah-mens’. But, it was the eulogy that brought firstly silence, then more profuse tears from men and women alike, and then a low, almost constant murmuring of agreement at all that was said.  Patricia stood, or rather leaned heavily against the pulpit.  She was supported by her sister as she tried to speak about Tony. Her repeated attempts did not succeed.  She broke down into a fresh burst of tears.  Patricia had never been keen on public speaking but tradition had dictated that she set aside her grief and face the sea of eyes staring at her to talk about the only person she wanted to talk to. Sandra spoke in her place.

Patricia was helped back to her seat as family and friends lined up to share a memory about Tony. Comforting arms surrounded her as she sat in a daze listening to all the words, such beautiful past tense words that held no hope of a future for her and Tony. She tried not to think too hard about the content and the meaning of those letters that were being strung together.  They only meant one thing to her.  He was dead. She had lost the lid to her pot.

When the last prayer had been offered the pastor asked those who wanted to, to file past the open casket to say a final good-bye.  The funeral director had propped the split lid of the casket open and Tony was there, in front of her, with his head unmoving and cushioned by the finest silk embroidery in the interior of the Royal Casket: her King.

The increasing heat of the church after the extended service aligned with the short tempers of the impatient people who started pushing and raising their voices to get in line to view the casket. ‘Brethren,’ Elder Bennett spoke gently into the PA system, ‘please remember Tony’s family is still here in the sanctuary. Please wait patiently to pay your last respects.’ Five minutes later the lead Elder returned to the microphone, ‘The funeral director has informed me that we will have to close the casket now as time is getting on. However, those of you who have not said a personal ‘goodbye’ here in the church may do so at the cemetery.’ Despite his words nobody left the long line of viewers, so he continued hopefully, ‘Thank you for your co-operation in this matter. If you could now make your way to the car park and prepare to attend the burial, the deacons situated on the doors will give you full directions. Thank you.’

It was after 4:30 p.m. before the main congregation started to leave the church.  Most people wanted to catch up with friends they had not seen for months or years and in doing so they blocked the doors and exits as they greeted each other with a hug, a laugh or a friendly pinch or slap on the back.

As the people spilled into the street outside the church they surrounded the two black horses with long feathered plumes that were standing in front of the highly polished wooden and etched glass hearse; the horses were waiting patiently for their load. The hearse driver, in his sombre black hat and tails, stood next to the blinkered but increasingly restless horse nearest the kerb and tried to calm it down as the volume of the people finally released from the belly of the church increased. Both of the horses started to move around nervously in the car-lined street as old friends and relatives called out to each other across the crowds. Death connected them all, and there were no awkward silences that habitually arise when new strangers meet.

‘Ah yu dat?!’

‘Bwoy, ah lang time mi nuh see yu!’

‘Mek wi nock sum domino later, yu hear?’

‘Is Aunty here?’

‘How you doing, Smithy?’

‘Come here let me squeeze you …’

‘You look well!’

‘I’ve missed you.’

‘That’s never Junior, is it? He’s so big!’

‘I’ve been away for far too long.’

‘We must keep in touch more.’

‘Poor Patricia … and the children.’

‘It’s just so sad.’

‘Save me a place at the graveside.’

‘Mi soon come.’

‘Hey, Sully. You have room in your car me can kotch?’

‘Have you got a drink? I’m parched. Not water, the hard stuff.’

‘Come, come with me. I need to talk to you.’

‘How are you? I’ve missed you.’

‘I really can’t deal with this today …’

‘Do you have directions to the burying ground?’

‘Follow me, man. Follow me. That’s my whip there. Me and the boys’re gonna chip soon.’

‘D’yu have a light?’

‘That stuff will kill you … sorry. Bad timing. You know what I mean.’

‘Have you spoken to her yet?’

‘Gurrrrrl! You look fierce!’

‘I try. Even on days like this.’

‘You’re rocking black. Is that insensitive?’

‘Carol, I’ve run out of tissues. Is that shop still around the corner?’

‘Pat looks so mashed!’

‘Wait for me. I’ll be back in a minute. I’ve got to catch John before he disappears again.’

Just outside the church building was the starting block where old rifts were healed, but new ones had already replaced them by the end of the evening. Later in the hall where the wake was held, unwise love affairs were started in desperation to avoid the seeping grief. Although everyone tried to ignore it, the emotional balance of all of them was in turmoil for the whole day.

The children who had been allowed to attend the funeral, not Tony and Patricia’s children – they had no choice – the other children who were released to run free for a few minutes gravitated towards the large horses that stood out to them as an unusual sight for the grey urban street. The happiness of the children had not been stunted by either age or a sense of occasion. They wanted to touch and ride the horses. The hearse driver gently dissuaded them.

‘They’re working right now. Sorry. They’re not horses for riding, just for pulling the … carriage.’

‘Can I touch him?’

‘Can I feed him?’

‘He’s not hungry. He had his meal this morning. Thank you though. That’s a kind thought.’

John Stephens eventually had to ask the people to keep back from the horses when the coffin was exiting the church. For a moment they appeared to listen politely and then, turning their attention back to their previous focus point, they did whatever they wanted to. This was the way they always behaved at any funeral – for them it was a time to learn new facts about the deceased and a time to be self-centred because they were still alive in the midst of death.

It took nearly half an hour before the family wreaths were being replaced on top of the coffin in the hearse, the funeral director was looking nervously at his watch ever conscious that the booked time at the graveyard was rapidly passing.  Years of practice had taught John Stephens that these Caribbean funerals had a regular habit of running over the allotted time as the grieving practices of the small island people seemed to differ from the short sharp service of some of the older indigenous British Isles folk.  As he assessed the size of the crowd he thought ahead to the graveyard and envisaged that the hundreds of people in attendance at this funeral was going to be an absolute nightmare to control, but he said nothing and retained his mask of calm serenity that he had donned along with his black coat that morning. 

Once the hearse was closed, without overt unseemly behaviour, John Stephens moved silently and unobtrusively through the crowd to Patricia Barrett’s side, he gently touched her elbow as he leaned slightly towards her and, in a well exercised manner and low tones, he informed her that the lead family car was ready for her and the immediate family to follow the hearse the few miles through the city.  She looked dazed as she tried to focus on his face and words, but nevertheless she nodded and one of her guardians, who had overheard the information, steered her toward the opened car door. Once seated in the car Patricia saw only blurred human shapes as her eyes were focused on the middle distance of her life, yet she held her children to her with an uncomfortable tightness.

It still took another fifteen minutes of persuasion before the three family cars were fully occupied as people were busy sharing words of condolence with whoever they could.  As the convoy of cars moved smoothly along the road Patricia thought of how Tony would have enjoyed the ride in the limousine: a heavy tear fell from her eye as she thought of the reality of the situation.

The Barrett mourners arrived at the cemetery at the same time as a later funeral party did. There was the expected confusion over the parking and, in their desperation to get to the graveside before the coffin was lowered, the Barrett family mourners left their cars on verges and along the side of the cemetery entry road; they stopped wherever they could find a space big enough to get even a wheel or a wing of their car into.

At the cemetery the colour purple was dotted, in a speckled-hen fashion, among the black and white landscape of the hundreds of mourners: some old traditionalists had chosen to grieve in the style of ancient kings and were bedecked from head to foot by matching shades of plum that bobbed and dived in the monochrome horizon. They headed towards the middle of the graveyard where a newly dug hole had appeared that morning. It looked like the ground had been sick and ejected its contents around the fresh gap in the earth.

A few of the older people slowly made their own zigzag path towards Tony’s plot instead of following the straight narrow concrete lanes; they passed and sometimes paused at the graves of other friends and family members who had their final resting place in what many of them still saw as a hostile land. Flowers were straightened and handfuls of over-running grass were removed and discarded from the personal monuments to the dead.

Patricia was lead to the head of Tony’s grave. Her sister, Sandra, who had not left her side for the past three days, was supporting her with her arm around her waist. Today she cried with her sister. Before the church service she had silently mourned with Patricia since the news came through. In the weeks since the news was delivered Sandra had only cried privately before she slept, because her love for Tony was more than that of a brother-in-law. She wished he had chosen her instead of her sister, she had tried – even after the wedding – to make him change his mind. Sandra was driven by the lifelong malice she held for her younger sister Patricia. However, today even though her sorrow was gorge deep she could only show the flattened sanitised version of her grief in public.

As the crowds get deeper around Patricia and her close family at the graveside the air becomes more solemn as it fills with people’s own personal sadness at their failed plans and frustrated dreams that they carry on their shoulders to every funeral. The fear-lined laughter fades away as the mourners forsake their attempts at hiding their own fragile mortality. 

Joe and Ivy Mackenzie and others, who had arrived in England in the first half of the century with the intention of staying for a maximum of five years, were now there for their friends who were burying their only son, Tony. None of them had intended to stay in England long enough to have children, and especially not long enough to bury anyone. Yet they had all found themselves trapped by the poverty of their situation in Britain and handcuffed to the promise  to those they had left in their Caribbean home who were relying on them.  As the years went by their growing children put down roots that made them think seriously about moving back to the place they still romantically thought of as home after over 40 years apart. Now they were burying a man child who should have outlived them, but had died without even visiting their wrinkled memory of home.

The crowd took the song sheets handed to them and a momentary air of intense tiredness fell on every soul as the coffin juddered when it was lowered into the gaping hole. Eerily, to chase their individual terrors away, two stout motherly figures at different ends of the open grave, started singing the same hymn:

When we all get to heaven,

what a day of rejoicing that will be . . .’

The hopeful words had no effect on Patricia who despite loving her children deeply only wanted to be left alone to go to sleep with her husband. She did not want to say a final good-bye.  She knew in the cloud of her grief that to admit that this was really the end would be to accept that her future existence would be full of unmanageable and unimaginable sorrow. She felt dehydrated as she continued to cry, but she could  not get the words past her parched throat to ask for a drink of water. So Patricia existed in a new suspended state as half an hour of loud and tuneless singing ensued. The self-appointed song leaders had hoarse voices from the shouting-singing that they were leading: they called out the words for those without papers.  The response was strong and multi-layered with people around the grave starting each line as if they were part of a Mexican wave. It was jarring.

The official council grave-diggers stood redundantly by as the sunglassed young men shovelled spades full of dirt and clay on top of the box that was finally laid in the ground. Other people threw handfuls of soil into the hole as they contributed to burying their own.  Each thud on the black and silver coffin renewed the pain in Patricia’s head.  She felt a new layer of grief land inside her heart like she had been hit by a cannonball.  A heavy loneliness engulfed her and left her further weakened.

The numerous floral tributes that had arrived in the past days were laid on and immediately around the rough protruding mound.  It looked, to Patricia, as if he shouldn’t be in the ground because it wasn’t as flat and even as the other surrounding graves.  She continued to watch from behind sheets of her semi-consciousness as the flowers were formed into attractive pyral pyramids.  The colours were vibrant.  He was dead. He was buried. These final thoughts travelled from her head to her battle-worn heart when she voluntarily and thankfully fainted.

When she awoke in their bedroom some hours later she saw the same looks on the faces peering at her as she had seen for days through her hazy existence.  As reassuring voices told her everything was alright she uttered a guttural sound that would have been a sardonic laugh if it had escaped her body.  Her aunts, who were now taking their turn to watch her, interpreted the sound as a query and responded that her children were all being looked after downstairs.  She stared at them and they continued to nervously talk at her.  They told her that everybody at the hall had had plenty to eat and drink and coach loads of people were now travelling back across country to their various destinations.

Patricia turned over on the bed so that she could no longer see them in the corners of her eyes.  Suddenly startled by a clear thought she jumped up, and shakily hurried into the adjoining bathroom.  Opening the laundry basket she pulled out the bed sheets that were on her bed when she had risen from her sleepless night to the sound of birds singing their usual happy dawn chorus the day Tony had gone.

‘Yes, they still have Tony’s smell on them,’ she thought as she inhaled deeply.

Clutching them to her breasts she stumbled back to the room and lay down heavily on his side of the bed.

‘Please,’ she whispered after a few minutes, ‘please . . . leave me alone now.’

‘But . . . Pat mi dear, yu nuh . . .’

Again she spoke quietly ‘Please . . . just leave me alone for a while.’ 

Hesitatingly they withdrew one by one, all shaking their heads in disagreement at her request but reluctantly respecting it nonetheless as it was the first time she had spoken for days beyond an empty weak ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  As Aunty Sue left the room Patricia spoke again.

‘Aunt, . . . could you send my children to me in about half an hour, please? We need to be together . . . alone.’

The door closed quietly as they tip-toed away. Even though she was now awake and coherent they regarded her as more fragile than ever. An hour later the children edged the bedroom door open and jumped on to the bed in their usual manner, they hugged their mother in the midst of tears and nervous laughter.  They were happy to be with her and she was looking a bit more like her old familiar self, but they were also sad because they could see that she was still crying.  They quietly held each other trying not to focus on who was not there.

‘I miss Daddy,’ the youngest child eventually said. The others answered with tears. Reassuring squeezes were passed like warm handshakes and the burden of her love for her offspring caused Patricia to sigh deeply as she realised they each had their own needs and sorrows.

In a single minute she had become a lone parent, and her children were fatherless – they were all floundering.


She looked at her children on the marital oak bed with the crumpled sheets entwined around them all and remembered the joy that had created each new person. The uncertainty in their eyes told her that they did not know how to behave in the current circumstances; she felt like them – lost and unsure.

‘Somehow,’ she whispered, not believing herself, ‘somehow, we’ll . . . we’ll make it. I miss Daddy, too.’  She managed a weak unconvincing smile while thinking, ’Oh God! How the hell is this life going to work?’

Later she understood that Tony’s death had caused their rebirth, because they all had to become transformed people with new routines as their past life had gone. Patricia felt she had to at least try to live, even if it was from her precarious unfamiliar position on the knife edge of sanity.

Back at her own home that night, Sandra packed a bag and left. She never had a reason to return.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2017

Sticks and Stones

Endings.
‘Mummy, what did she mean when she said I was different? What’s wrong with my nose? Mummy? Mummy? Why are you crying?’

‘Mummy? Talk to me Mummy!
You’re walking too fast Mummy, I can’t keep up… Mummy?’

As the years passed me by in the village so the questions dried up. They were never answered anyway. I knew but didn’t know all of it. But I would. Oh yes, I would know. They wanted me to know. And the others didn’t want me to know. I wanted to know and at the same time I didn’t want to know. So this is how I found out with my clumsy discovery. Some people were happy and some were sadder than a farmer in a drought when they knew I really knew.

Rachel Stitch. That was the girl that first spoke out. We were playing Poo Sticks at the bridge near the barley field by Milk Lane Cottage. Rachel was older than me, she was seven and I was only six, but we were best friends. How long do best friends stay best friends? Why are best friends only best for a while? What comes after best? I found out that Sunday morning.

We were on our way home from church, it was a normal Sunday morning; a bright, but cold, spring day, we were wearing hand-knitted hats, scarves and gloves as we crunched through the lanes on the way home.
Rachel and I ran to the bridge, we always did this, it was our routine every week. We hurried ahead missing the puddles, while our mothers talked and walked at a slower pace. At the usual point we grabbed sticks from the hedges at the side of the lane and raced back to the middle of the small stone bridge.

‘Ready, steady, go!’ We shouted together as we dropped the sticks into the fast flowing water. It was fun. This was like the stories we had read together, but it was our special game. Me and Rachel together in our easy intimacy. We had a common past: this was our world. Suddenly a dark shadow made me turn to my right and I looked up; it was nothing more than an old bird, a big old bird. I laughed as a blackbird swooped across the path in front of us. That was when Rachel said it. That was when my world cracked and the fissure never healed. The San Andreas fault originated in my chest after the beautiful music from the church organ had not yet gone to sleep for another week. Songs of the world at one rang in my mind: la la la lah la la la lah. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world…

‘You look like that bird,’ she skipped along at my side as we turned to run to the other side of the bridge to watch the sticks appear, ‘but your nose is different. Your nose is too big for a bird. You have the biggest nose I’ve ever seen in my life.’
Suddenly she stopped and looked directly at me. We had looked at each other hundreds of times before, all the days of all the years that were my short childhood, but today Rachel’s eyes were like dead fish eyes to me, they were flat and cold. There was a glaze of distance behind her lids as she blinked. She was somebody else, so was I. We stood two feet apart but thousands of miles away. I did not know what a mile was. It was further than I had ever been. But I felt far away without moving an inch. I was in my dream again. The dream I had before I was here. I was in that dream.
‘Why is your nose so big and why are you so black?’ those were her words. Were they a question or something bigger than a question can ever be? The sticks floating beneath us did not pause except to navigate a rock or clump of reeds.

I thought it was a game and I looked at her with a puzzled frown, I was trying to remember what I was supposed to say next. We always played games together. We read each other’s minds. I was surprised because suddenly all I felt was an ancient yearning for someone I did not know. I moved my eyes to look for the answer. There was nothing in my head. I was lost.
Since she was my best friend, and since that was the last day that she was going to be my best friend, Rachel just carried on talking. She must have been trying to help me out with the game. I smiled at her as I stood opposite her on the cold stone bridge. Our parents had been walking behind us and they were now within earshot of us.

‘You are as black as soot – that’s what my dad says and Mum tells him to be careful in case walls have ears, do wall have ears? And you have a nose like a monkey because you’re the monkey’s cousin…. Is that true that you came from a mud hut in the jungle?’ Paralysed by the absence of joy the gloom of the moment clung to me, it seeped into me like clothes that have taken on the smell of cooking or burning. Unbidden voices told me that I wouldn’t forget this moment in a long while.

‘Look! You won!’ Rachel turned and hugged me. She didn’t know. I wasn’t sure but I felt the change moving in on me and I couldn’t stop it. The tornado of difference lifted me up, flung me around into the star filled night on the other side of the world and then set me back down in the same place as if nothing had happened. The second inside the second that it took for my travels made my feet burn as if I was a Buddhist monk walking across hot coals. I reached a new age but I was harmed.
‘My turn to win next,’ Rachel bubbled as she ran to get more sticks.

I stood leaning on the cold stone bridge afraid to move. I knew I would break into a thousand pieces of dust if I breathed or flinched. My gloves offered me no protection and my coat was like a silk sheet against a blizzard. I stood on the bridge totally exposed: to myself and to Rachel.
My ears were hurting with the words. I didn’t understand. My world was now unstable. I missed what I didn’t know. I understood nothing.
I was startled when I thought I was safe; before I knew what unsafe was I felt it.
I remained fixed to the spot afraid the bridge would buckle if I moved and my mother had to grab me hard to dislocate me. I was torn from the bridge, separated from the skipping child that was me who had run on to it.
I was deaf to my mother’s voice, the only sound available to me was my blood as it exploded and collided inside of me as I experienced the aftershock of seeing myself from outside of myself for the first time. I was using Mr Stitch’s eyes. I was no longer as black as Rachel had said I had turned an ashen grey because I was confused and still only six. I looked up at Mummy and asked her the said questions. Adding ‘Is is true what Rachel says Mummy?’ she never answered me, but held my hand firmly and with a curt nod to Mrs Stitch she pulled me quickly along the lane mumbling something about eggs. That was all she said. Nothing about being black, or having a big nose, or living in the jungle with monkey cousins, all Mummy spoke about was eggs. Got to get to the shop to get eggs. All the way to the shop to get eggs that we didn’t need. We had eggs at home. I knew that, Mummy knew that, but eggs were the first thing she said so off we went, back the opposite way from Rachel and her Mum to get the unneeded eggs. My legs were tired when we got home because we had to walk too fast and Mummy would not let go of my hand. She held it so tight that it hurt a lot but I didn’t say anything else after we passed the church because Mummy was quiet and her eyes had changed to the colour of cold metal.
Mummy was scared, I saw it in her claret cheeks and felt it in her abnormally long strides as I flew along beside her.

Mummy and Mrs Stitch were good friends as well as me and Rachel. But after that day they didn’t like to talk for too long. A whole life of shared memories stopped for all of us after the blackbird. Mummy and Mrs Stitch had longer lives and memories than me and Rachel, but the big people grew as frosty as a winter’s day to each other. They usually only nodded and rushed in different directions. Time made people walk faster. Away, away, away from me. This happened a lot when Mummy and Mrs Stitch were in the High Street. There were only four shops in our village and everybody knew everything about everybody else. But after the Sunday when me and Rachel stopped being best friends, after that day, they, all the people in the village started looking different. They looked whiter and longer than they had before. I felt shorter and darker. I felt black. I was different and I didn’t know what different was. But once I felt it, once the words were out from the plaster on the walls with ears, once everybody knew that I knew, then the sheen of kindness vanished like vapour from an extinct volcano.

I was in a castle all alone. The walls were erected instinctively. I hadn’t been taught.

At six years old I had no insulation against raw hatred for just being me.
I was outside. I was marked from the outside. In my village I was out of place because I fitted better in another country that I didn’t know.

When was I old enough to know that I was not seen as the same and that the grey and blue eyes that saw me didn’t want to see me so close to them? It was on that Sunday when Rachel and I dropped the sticks into the water and after the blackbird eclipsed the light in front of me. I hate Sundays. I hate blackbirds.

Alchemy.
‘Marilyn, it won’t work,’ I could hear the exasperation in his voice, ‘just think about it. It’s the same with the animals, they’ll isolate her.’
I remember when Jeff said that to me but Molly looked so cute that I couldn’t hear reason, I believed that love and understanding are stronger than bad reason so I went ahead. I brought her home. And I was right. And I was wrong.
And Jeff was right and Jeff was wrong.

The first four years were bliss. Nothing better on this earth than being in Flax Cottage with Jeff and Molly. I had friends then. I thought I had friends anyhow. When do you know if a friendship is real? Is there always a litmus test moment? I would have told Molly to look out for it if I had known what I know now. Hindsight is always clear vision. But I had lived in the village as long as I had life. It was my home and now it was Molly’s as well. My little darling, Molly. I called her Molly because she looked fragile like a small doll and she gurgled for hours, content in my arms. Her fat little fingers explored my face with gentleness. I had never had such a smooth innocent touch on my skin before. Molly my angel, my gift from God.

I prayed for a baby and Molly came. God gave me Molly but He didn’t warn me that the bliss could shake after a few years. She was in the paper. Somebody needed me to take care of her. I cried for a week after I first saw her. I didn’t think she would ever be mine. And she isn’t. But I thought she was mine and I sometimes tell myself she is mine even though I know the same as they know. And now, now, even Molly knows, but once she did love me as if she was mine and I was hers. We loved each other without explanation from our first meeting.

I told Jeff that Molly was special and nothing could break the love shield around us three. I was wrong, again. I believed in good. I was too young to know any better. I see that now but I still believe that it is wrong that I could be wrong. I should have been right, love said so. Maybe I didn’t love enough? Maybe it’s my fault … if I had more love then Molly would be safe, not alone, without me, without … anybody.
Molly told me that I lied to her. She said, ‘It’s not true you know, they hurt…’
‘What hurts, darling?’ I knew the answer but as I played for time with my useless question I was searching for another bigger truth to absolve her pain.
‘Sticks and stones do break bones… and names, yes, names always hurt you. I’m sorry Mum,’ she raced on not giving me a chance to speak. I had no words anyway so I was glad for her need to express her anger, ‘But they hurt too bad…’ Her tears and my tears were the same colour. As they flowed they prevented us from speaking or hearing any more. But I could never cry enough to wash away all her pain. She has been gone for fifteen years. Just a phone call at Christmas and on my birthday. She never let me call her on her birthday, but I always sent her cards, for the first years at least. The tradition stopped when the past swooped down and eclipsed the present.
‘It reminds me of what I haven’t got to get a card from you, Mum’. From 1979 I kept the unsent cards that I persisted in buying for her; maybe one day she will see them. My only way through is to look at the same moon and feel her absence. I know I am missing part of me – without Molly there is no point.

Existing in my current lack of her I know I love her more that I did when she was one and I could feel her warm breath on my cheeks. I knew that love got bigger. I was right about that. I grew my love to cover her, and me, and Jeff. But it was not enough.

Molly was nineteen when she first told me how much she loved me and hated me at the same time.

‘You are the first one in the family to ever go to university,’ I proudly stated as I sat at the bottom of her bed and watched her pack to leave home.
‘What family?’
My smile fell like a parachutist without a chute.
‘Who do I belong to … really?’
The pause was longer than my life.
‘I feel… incomplete…’ she faded away with her words.
All the little questions were there. All the protection was blown away. I was exposed as a fraud. My love was ersatz.

I looked at her and remembered the lies that I had told her. They were to protect her not to harm her, but they took hold of our lives and it’s now impossible to go back to where we came from. The truth is back there, the truth is in the past that is a foreign place; it’s here too.
I told myself lies as well, lies to make the truth go away. The truth about myself and about Molly’s other mother. I didn’t want Molly to ever leave me so I made this new world the best place for her to be, with me, with me and not with them. I needed Molly as much as she needed me. We were right for each other, are right for each other. How do I tell her that they did want her back but I couldn’t let her go because I would cease to live without her?
It’s not true that if you love something enough you will let it go because I was afraid that Molly would not ever come back to me. For years I remembered the lies and watched for a word from her world. It only ever came in my dreams.

‘Nothing has ever reflected me here in the village… how do I reconstruct myself from nothing?’ What answers were possible to the unknown? My lips trembled as she lowered her head and allowed herself to sag onto the bed. The folded clothes spewed onto the floor as her leg dangled over the edge of the loaded bed.
‘Sorry, Mum. I’m not saying this to hurt you, I know you love me, and have done your best, but I don’t know who I am.’
I was silent. Not even tears helped me through that valley of solitude. I was between the question and the piercing look that was travelling over my face like a solitary searchlight for a lost child in a forest.
‘I’m glad I’ve had you, no, what I mean is that I’m glad you had me, but I have to wonder what was the rest of my past like. Do they think of me any more? Am I missed or loved?… you never told me why Grandma stopped coming. I’m old enough now, tell me today, please. Tell me now. I need to know if I should bother to look for them, if I should bother to expect them to come back again.’
Her call to me receives a sad response. I echo her grief. I know it is no longer hidden.
‘Molly,’ her name came easily to my lips, however, I stuttered on the next word for a long hot moment and eventually gave it up; it was not to be mine. I was grasping for solutions to fix her life. I knew this day was due but it is always too soon when you are not ready.

I had practised this moment for years and never wanted to have to act it out. I started again.
‘You are really special to me…’
‘You are my daughter, Molly…’
It all sounded lame. I couldn’t finish a sentence. Speech was heavy and as sharp as flames.
It was then that I knew there were no words, in any language, in any world, to explain. My memories have found me wanting. They were suddenly upon me like an overtaking car on a hairpin bend.
I felt the greatness of my gift from God was now pure bitter herbs.

We sat in the tense room. The bags remained unpacked.

‘They hated me too you know? That’s why your dad left because he couldn’t stand the ridicule any more. They said you were really mine, for that I couldn’t be angry, but they said that Jeff was a fool to keep us both under his roof and that hurt him more.’
‘Molly, I didn’t know. I can’t be blamed for not knowing people had flint words held in their hearts to throw at us, to throw at you. I did try to stop them, Molly. I tried to keep you safe, but the world is bigger than my heart can reach. I’m sorry I failed you, darling, I’m sorry. I only wanted to continue loving you. That’s what I did, that’s what I will always do, keep on loving you. I did my best and tried to make love grow here in the village; it did for a while then the storm of unpleasantness came and nothing was upright any more.’
‘Was that when we stopped going to church? When all this ‘unpleasantness’ started?’ I tried not to notice the sarcasm in her voice, the dam of her indignation was opened.
‘Yes. That was it. I wanted you to learn from me and not them. It was the best I could think of at the time. I’m sorry, darling.’ Even to me the words sounded empty. I looked towards her with empty hope. Molly rose from the bed and came towards me.
‘Oh, Mum!’ With her arms around my neck I felt able to move again. Thank God it was not all lost, I still had my gift.
‘Sorry is too small for this,’ her voice was low and I realised that she was in the past. I had hoped too soon. She sighed and shook then spoke slowly, ‘you’ll never know how I really feel, no matter how sad you are for me, it never happens to you, the look, the pressure on the word, the loose laugh, it’s not meant for you. Mum, you’ll never know.’
Another long life pause was placed between us.
‘Did you know that the look from a stranger, one who is strange for a multitude of reasons, often by choice like personal estrangement, that look, did you know that it lacks the kindness contained in the look from a friend?’ Her eyes did not meet mine. But her question was like a dagger in my heart: I could not ignore it.
Unknown to me her resolve was already set in stone. She was lost to me and that day Molly let me go to find the missing truths. I was abandoned with my lies and my lonely love as company. I was bereft but I saw that it was Molly who was shipwrecked.
I couldn’t reach her because it was then she turned away from me.
‘I still had to go to school on my own Mum, everyday. I was not OK all the time. There are some things you can’t keep away from me, some things you can never feel. You see, Mum, you are different to me too.’

She let go, and I let go too.
I had to wait from then on. I had to wait and watch for a change. Molly left me. I was alone, with my rock heart.

Beginnings.
My name is… I don’t know the answer to that simple truth. I don’t know who I am. I have a name, in fact I have several names, but they don’t relate to anything I know or knew. I am ignorant of myself.

What is the shape of wisdom?
I knew everything when I was six, or so I thought, then I was emptied of light. I was on a bridge and although I wanted to fly into my dreams I couldn’t move. It was a crisp Sunday. I had started my journey to the underground city of refuge as a creature newly born and blind. It’s hard to find the answer when you never knew the question. Inches of discovery took years as I learned the language of warm stone. I folded up inside of myself on the bridge, like origami I kept folding.
Suspense had hung over me for years. I strained my neck trying to see what was there but it never revealed itself to me in any form and neither would it remove its claws from my back.
I remember standing on the bridge, I remember being ignorant and invalid; I had no capability to alter anything but I was in the last moment of my childhood and I clung on to it; I was unfit for the journey ahead. Are we all unprepared for the wall that slams into us? Suddenly I was in a different land, I had not blinked but I had travelled, there was no going back. In this land I was ignorant of any of the rules. Mum couldn’t help me. The blank times were the most frightening. I tried to map my own facts but had no honesty to work with. My memory was blank. It was that simple. My co-ordinates were lost.

A few times I saw strangers that looked as lost as me on the television, no one similar came to the village after I was nine. The old lady with the skin like wrinkled leather who used to come, she unsettled me with her truth, her tight squeezes and her long bright clothes.
She wanted me to go back with her, but I didn’t know where back was. Rachel could have been right. I was afraid. I had to stay where I was confined and visible. She was my family but still a stranger. I didn’t know what to do, I was a child. But I had to take each step alone.
School was the concentration of terror and loneliness. No more best friends. Even Rachel became distant. But most of all I became distant from myself. I didn’t trust myself to know them. I became a watcher and a seeker.

I grew up as resistant as mountains although I still responded to the yearning in my mother’s eyes because she wore her jagged fear there. When I was at school or in the garden the instant she next saw me she would quest my face to see if copies of Rachel’s words had built a way into my life. I hid the fences filled with poisonous darts away from her gaze.
I kept my face fitted out with clean and simple acts of deceit to salve her desire for normality. We never spoke of the heavy words on the bridge, or in the playground, or those words that hung in the air like slaughtered beasts in the barns. We never shared things she didn’t want to know.
The Jesus who we sang about was absent in our house. Mummy cried but didn’t go to visit Him.
Daddy scowled and repeated ‘I told you so, I warned you!’
Life was reborn each day in a clean and simple smock of innocence. I was six years old and Sunday had not yet come. Then I would open my eyes and the dream would vanish.
When I entered a room too quickly and surprised Mummy I would recognise the same old shadow slipping from her eyes as she remembered and tried to understand where I, the child, was buried.

Even her best will could not protect me from my life. My portion of it was due, due to me alone. She was not a filter to my safety.
I was not in a position to forget the clear Sunday adventure into my new world. The record was in my face, in my father’s face, in my mother’s face from then until I stopped looking. Even then, when my eyes closed to the brightness of spring’s cruel birth, even then after the sharp shock had stopped stinging my face, I had no luxury. I was not in a position to forget.

I am so tired, so tired of feeling the weight of every second. It’s time to disappear.

I hid myself within myself within myself within myself like a Russian doll. I am successful at hiding from myself. I don’t recognise my true self now; I have gone so deep within.

I am to be found in the centre of granite. I leave the map to me.

My birth certificate says Mariama Nwakwaluzo. Who is she? I know Molly. I see Molly everyday but I am told that Mariama means a gift from God – to who? I ask if I can be a gift to myself. Who do I belong to? Who owns me as theirs? Who do I claim as mine? Will I ever discover myself? Without me my past was invented. I can find my meaning there or make my own here in the centre of this granite.
I have missed the pleasure of belonging to someone. The advantage of ownership was stolen from me. The day will not be created that makes me understand this theft.

Childhood passed years ago but still I cannot decipher the elusive record of my past for I am still blind. Could any missing information have saved me from now?

It took five years of living as a shadow among shadows in the university to realise that I can’t just burn my past away I must salvage it and claim the finders fee to move forwards. My training as an archaeologist proves mysteries remain in stone for centuries. I search deeply to uncover time and remove ancient power from the stones. The silence of now helps to carry the true memory forward. The mystery of myself is less of a mystery now. I am a stoneshaper.
Gently brushing the dust away I sit back on my heels and reflect; the scars from the stones look like tribal signs. We have all been in a battle and are marked.

It’s not what was meant that matters, it’s what was done – that’s what matters. There is no greater truth than appearance; I wonder if Oscar Wilde knew this truth as he was set in his harbour of stones.

My whole existence is like a watermark, visible and distinguished. I feel right, not wrong.

I have sat at the desk and I watch the Sunday morning grow before me. In front of me lie the doodles of my black ink, they are instructions to myself, to be deciphered from within; they are directions from myself before I knew myself.
Rocks and branches populate the paper giving it a black edge.

It’s time to write a letter to my mother.

© Marjorie H Morgan 2017