N to E, by Daniela Bragato

“I can’t find peace here. This city is as tight as my skinny jeans.”

Still, for someone who didn’t even want to come live here, nearly eight years is a long time. This thought catches me nearly every day, when I see the first ray of light coming through the blinds in the morning, when I trot down Camden High Street on my way to work dodging people, when I sip my tenth green tea of the day.

It’s past 8 o’clock in the morning and it’s a zig zag of cars overtaking, vendors setting up the stalls in the market, a bunch of school kids waiting for the number 24 towards Pimlico. Pret is an in and out of people getting their coffee before going to work. Their work badges hang out of their coats. I keep mine hidden in my bag. I wonder what their life might look like and compare it to mine.

I stop at the traffic light and stare into another person’s eyes on the street. I wonder if they can see it. Can they see I’m drowning? That all I want to do is lie on my back, on the pavement, and scream with all the breath I have, from every single pore of my body how much I hate this. How much I hate being stuck in a job that makes me sink slowly. For someone who learnt how to swim at six years old, nearly a year is a long time.

I adjust my wireless headphones and turn up the volume. I look at the red patch on my right hand. I scratch it. My recurrent eczema is back. I am never enough. Never British enough, still never Italian enough. Never good enough at writing. Never good enough at cooking. Never pretty enough, never skinny enough. Never assertive enough, never competent enough. Just never enough. If it’s true that we’re all fighting some kind of battle, then there must be strangers who know how I feel. I just don’t know where they are right now.

I wish I could just put this daily thought into one of the boxes I’m filling and file it away in storage and just forget about it, like the fake silver candelabra I’ve just resurrected from there and that I’ve never used since the day I bought it. That will definitely go to the charity shop.

Both the louge and my room are invaded by boxes, shopping bags and suitcases.

“I’ve got too much stuff,” I say to my parents. But the more I throw away, the more things I found in places I had forgotten. I stare at every item I own and like Marie Kondo, I ask myself: does this spark joy? In most cases, the answer is not, but still, I can’t get rid of that set of Moroccan silver teapot with coordinated glasses and tray. It smells of souk spices and mint. Of sand and camels and colourful rugs. It sparks memories that otherwise would simply fade away. And I need to hold on to these feelings for as long as I can.

This is my sixth move and my parents have come to help. It hasn’t stopped raining since they landed. It’s March, but it feels like November. The wind is so strong, it howls and a cold breeze comes through my flatmate’s bedroom window. I turn the light on. My dad sits on the couch and is shredding some documents from 2014 that have my name on it “because you never know who might look into your rubbish.” My mum is in my bedroom, sewing my jacket pocket, and I’m running around picking up pots and pans from the kitchen.

“How many boxes, Pa?” I shout.

“Fourteen for now.”

Winston observes these two new people, who have somehow taken possession of his house, and then hides himself under the piano. I’m going to miss him. I’m going to miss him standing on the balcony and then coming down the stairs to greet me no matter what time it was. I’m going to miss him tapping on my shoulder with his paw every time I pretended not to look at him. I moved to this flat with a broken heart and he’s been my silent companion since day one. He always stood on the kitchen table, looking out the window while I was eating, his tail wagging back and forth like the hands of a crazy clock. He used to rub his head against mine when I couldn’t stop my tears from falling.

“Your jacket is ready. Shall we put it in the suitcase? I doubt you’re going to use it in this weather,” says my mum.

“You know it was actually sunny before you came?”

“Yeah, yeah, you say this every time we come to visit you.”

I laugh and hug my mum. She smells like sweet almond milk. I feel her warmth and think that I should have learned how to sew when she taught me the first time, before I moved to Australia.

“Pa, are you done with those documents now? You’ve been shredding stuff for half an hour.”

My dad’s eyes are red. And a few bits of paper fall under the couch rather than in the black bin bag. It’s time to make coffee.

Winston comes around, rubs against my dad’s leg and follows us to the kitchen. My dad takes the caffettiera from the cupboard. I watch him making coffee as if it was a religious ritual. He opens the moka, fills the bottom pot with fresh water and then fills the pot’s filter basket with the Italian ground coffee they brought from home. He screws the top part tightly and then places the pot on the stove. I don’t drink coffee but nothing smells more like casa than this. I hear a hissing, bubbling sound. The nutty aroma of coffee fills up the kitchen. And my mind drifts back to a winter evening at a café in Soho a couple of months ago.

“See, you’re not clear with the universe, D. You’re sending it mixed messages and that’s why you’re not getting what you want.”

“I’m not sure I’m following you,” I tell L.

I can’t stop but staring at the pink neon sign behind L’s shoulders that spells ‘We can be heroes just for one day.’ We’re surrounded by tropical plants. Every corner of this place screams hipster, and we’re probably the only people who, on a Friday night, are only having green tea and coffee rather than an Espresso Martini and some roasted salty almonds. I look around: mainly couples or friends ready to celebrate the start of the weekend. I take a sip of my tea and then place the red cup on the cold marble table. We are sitting right in front of the door. Every time someone walks in I shiver. I put my scarf around my neck; another couple is coming in, and their beige Frenchie follows them slowly.

“It’s like you’re at a restaurant, looking at the menu and then you think you know what you want so you make your order. The waiter scribbles that down and then goes back to the kitchen and tell the chef, aka the universe, to start making your avo on toast with one poached egg only and some chilli flakes on top. But the truth is that half way through, you stop the waiter and tell him that you’ve actually changed your mind. You made a mistake and now want shakshuka instead. So the chef has to stop cooking your first order, put it aside and start afresh.”

L stops talking to check if I’m with him. I nod and he goes on.

“So yeah, the universe. Since you’ve cancelled your first order, the universe has to stop working around the decision you’ve initially made and start again. But guess what? Half way through the cooking you stop the waiter again and swear you finally know what you want and order a mixed salad with no oil instead. Can you see where I’m going here? You order something that you already know you don’t want because you’re too damned scared to take some risks. You’re making decisions based on what’s the most reasonable thing to do and not based on what makes you happy. This is why you constantly change your order.”

“Basically you’re telling me that I’m so hungry that I’d like to eat everything that’s on the menu?”

“You need to decide what you want, order it and then wait,” he pauses. “Wait patiently for your order to arrive. Don’t change your order because you’re impatient. If you visualise what you want properly, the universe will manifest exactly what you want.”

“Great! Time for dessert?”

As I walked back home that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about all the confused orders I’ve been sending to the universe in the last two years.

I feel like I haven’t seen things clearly. Like when you can’t be bothered to clean your window and you notice that thin dust mixed with smog that the wind carries with it and stays on the windowsill and on the glass for ages. It turns everything grey and blurry. But the minute you dust it all off, you suddenly see in full colours again: there’s a squirrel running around in the backyard, the usual rubbish on the pavement, and that big lime tree. Nothing has changed around you, but your vision has. You look at things differently. It was just a two-minute job after all but it took you nearly two years to do it.

“What’s up?” my mum asks.

I stretch my back and stretch my neck from left to right.

“Nothing, just a bit tired.”

“It’s stopped raining. Shall we go for a walk?”

“Yeah, why don’t we go to that park you took us last summer. The one when you climb up the hill and you can see the London zoo. Can’t remember…,”

“Primrose Hill?” I say.

“Yep, that one,” he says.

We walk through Regent’s Park Road, and I look at every single shop as if it’s going to be the last time. In my mind I say goodbye to the Greek restaurant on the corner and the little coffee shop I stopped for a matcha latte after my first Sunday run, not long after I had moved to Chalk Farm. Under those grey clouds, I was breathing again. Putting one foot in front of the other and adjusting my speed from jogging to sprinting were the easiest things I had done in months. I still had it. My feet were above the ground, even if for a split second. I was flying again.

Two years later, as my parents and I climb to the top of the hill, my breathing is calmer and controlled. But I’m not sure my heart is any stronger. I sit down cross-legged, looking at London’s skyline while my parents take some pictures. I close my eyes and take it all in. I inhale and exhale, the way they taught me at yoga.

I should state some positive intentions and feel grateful for what I have, but I say nothing. I’m still reconnecting, I’m still searching.  

Have I made the right decision? I’ve been obsessed by this idea of constantly wanting to make the right move all my life. Looking for validation and approval from both loved ones and people I barely know. Doubting myself a hundred times a day. Suppressing my inner voice and ordering something I don’t want because I want to make other people happy. Because I don’t want to ruin those castles I’ve built over the years, even if many are made out of sand. Maybe one day I’ll be able to leave all these insecurities behind and crumble all those castles with one big blow.

For now, time is dancing. And I’m still running to keep up with the pace of the universe, knowing that I’ll probably keep ordering the wrong meals for a long time. But maybe there’s no right or wrong here and I won’t be rewarded nor punished for actually making a decision. There is no fixed agenda, just lots of places that I haven’t explored yet. Lots of inner voices I haven’t listened to that now deserve my attention.

We’re only passing through, so I’ll grow my hair and keep my head up. I’ll take the courage to risk more.

I open my eyes and stare into people’s eyes again. Even if I am not making any sound, I’m sure they understand me loud and clear. I wonder if they can see it now. That underneath the sorries, the doubts and the fears, I’m wrapped up in all my dreams and hopes. And I still believe I can have it all. I hold this thought in and smile like I finally mean it. Like there’s still time to be enough. Even if it’s just for a split second, I’m not going to meet you halfway. This moment is only mine. I’m cherishing this. I’m owning this.

Lessons, by Claire Dougher

Loneliness
Aidan and Mitchell were always around. There were times of anger and frustration. They didn’t like me that much; they were always making fun of me. Mom was busy with them and not me. I felt lonely. I would wander around my yard, to the pond, the woods, or to my neighbour’s house. I would play in the grass and pick yellow flowers. I would do whatever my heart felt. I could sit in on my siblings’ lessons from my mom. I would attempt to read and draw; I remember being fascinated with ancient Egypt. The mythical world would be something that I was always drawn to, the stories and ideas. Possibly, that’s where my love for movies came from. We had no cable growing up, so TV shows were introduced by whatever my dad rented for us to watch on the weekends. I was infatuated with the stories and plots, I wanted to be a part of it. My loneliness helped me explore the things I liked and what I wanted to do. But I think it also makes me wary of ever being alone again. Now I hate being alone.

But then Paige was born.
I remember it was the day after Easter. April in New York is always rainy. The air smelt fresh. My aunt picked me up from the bus stop, which was unusual. I asked her why she picked me up, and she made me me run home, because my mom had just given birth to my new little baby sister. I remember the wind on my face as I ran down the hill to my house with her. I was now a middle child with Aidan. I was excited about having a little sister. I remember when I first met her. She was so small. I stuck my hand in and she grabbed my pinkie. I knew I would like being an older sister.

Acceptance
It was the first day of 4th grade. I was in recess, and I did not know where to go. Usually, I wandered around, so I decided to that. Then I saw the new girl. She was short, pale, had long brown hair, and the biggest blue eyes I had ever seen. She had just moved here from Connecticut. She was sitting on the swing alone. I asked if I could swing with her. I told her I was usually alone most of the time, so we could hang out. Though she now says she found it was creepy, Jackie is still my best friend to this day. Later that year, we met Kailey. I don’t have a clear memory of how Kailey and I met, but it did involve our mutual love for The Lord of the Rings.

For the last many years, we have been hanging out and dyeing each others hair, watching movies and binging on food with each other. If there was ever is an errand we didn’t want to do alone, we would drive and pick each other up just hang out meanwhile.
We can’t do that as much now because they are back in New York, but they have always made me feel accepted. We have always been there for one another. We have made it through thick and thin, through Jackie’s abusive boyfriend and the death of Kailey’s brother. They are family to me. They have my back no matter what. I know they will always accept me.

Pride
I started piano lessons when I was six. My first recital when I was 7. I remember playing piano every day. My mom would always say ‘Practice, practice, practice’. There were no words of encouragement like “Practice makes perfect”: just “practice”. But now I am grateful for my 12 years of classical training. I remember the lavender dress I wore to the classes. I remember waiting in line to play my song. I remember the nervousness, my hands shaking, but I also remember pushing through those nerves to perform. I remember memorizing my piece. The keys came to my fingers naturally; I knew which sound would come next and which key it would be. Piano started my great love of music. I listen closely to music now, to each and every sound. My hand always shake before I play the first chord. The keys feel so smooth to this day.

I also started to play violin. I remember feeling amazing. I was super excited to play, I had been dreaming of it. I remember opening my violin case for the first time, the smell of the resin and the smooth brown surface of it, my dad jokingly picking it up and playing with it. I started to pick apart songs on the radio on violin and piano. I drew more. I felt very confident in myself and my artistic abilities. I may have been a little too full of myself at that point, but I always felt I was destined for something bigger. I had dreams for an amazing future. My first NYSSMA solo was coming up: I was going to be judged. We started to learn the piece 4 months before we would perform. I was so nervous; I remember the song was called “The Clown”. I rehearsed so much I became sick of the song. I was nervous to perform, but confident. I got a perfect score. My last NYSSMA solo I taught to myself in a week just by listening to the piece. Antonin Dvorak, Violin Sonata, Op. 57. I got a 98%. I feel a bit vain telling this, but it is good to feel proud of your accomplishments. Learning violin made me feel prodigious compared to others. I was special. Everyone needs a way to feel special compared to others: violin and piano became mine.

Humility
Johnny Esposito was the worst kid in class. I wanted nothing to do with him. He interrupted, cursed, and made dirty jokes all the time. I had heard all about how awful he was. I was better. I was a good kid in school, smart, musical, and artistic. I listened, paid attention (unless doodling), and I was quiet. Then Mrs. Spivak moved him and I together. I was upset. Again, a teacher was forcing me to ‘a good example’ to someone else. But then Johnny started to joke. And he was friendly. I got along with him, and we would laugh together. Probably one of the reasons I started to curse.

Once, he opened a brown sharpie that exploded all over his blue math book. The cheap paper and Sharpie smell filled my nose, almost stinging it. The brown ink splattered and leaked through the whole book, and the stains would stay for the rest of the year. He almost got in trouble for causing a nuisance in class, but I backed him up and told the teacher it was a mistake. He was misunderstood; I had also misjudged him. I realised I needed to take a step back from being so pretentious.

Perseverance
My parents decided I should sign up for cross country. I am not a natural born runner, but my dad loves running. I hated it, but I had no reason as to why I shouldn’t do, so I joined. As I predicted, I hated it even more. I was the slowest on the team, I couldn’t run more than two miles without needing to walk, I was always left behind while running; I was just no good. I decided I was going to quit. As I was leaving practice one day with the intention of telling my dad I couldn’t do it any longer, a girl came up to me. Her name was Emily Rogers, and she was a senior. She was part of the fastest group, and I was jealous of her speed. She told me I was doing so well and she could see that I was getting better. She told me she used to be bad as well, but working at it she became faster.
I was inspired. I changed my mind, and stuck with running. I was still slow, but I was working to get better, and though I never became that fast, I did improve. I met new friends: Keri, Rosie and Anna. I remember laughing during our 30 minute runs and as we hung out in the backwoods of the course. The leaves were so beautiful. Colours of yellow, amber, orange and crimson.

I learned comradery, and found a new family. I remember when I broke 30 minutes in the 5k and my coach hugging me because he was proud, or the time I was about to come in last but then I pulled through and sprinted ahead. The wind on my face and adrenaline kicking in as I course the finish line. It’s a feeling I could never forget. I ran cross country and track for the next 4 years, and the friendships I made last to this day.

Failure
Towards the end of my senior year, I fell behind in my grades. I lost motivation. I was accepted into high school, but it was getting harder to wake up every day, go to school, then track, then do all of my homework, fall asleep, and do it all over again. I was working every Sunday, my only day off, and I couldn’t cope. I became academically ineligible to participate in track. My mother took this to mean that I was not ready to go to England. I was forced to go the Rockland Community College for a gap year. RCC was going to be torture.

I watched from social media of everyone away at school already and I was stuck in arguably the most boring place on earth. My life was supposed to be like theirs. I was trapped in a place I didn’t want to be. I was going to move to London. I would become something better. I was going to be this intelligent, interesting American girl: I would start a new life. I would make friends who understood me, and I would grow into something more. I couldn’t grow here anymore: the way New York felt had changed, and the feeling wasn’t a warm one, nor a could one. It was nothing. Numb nothingness, absence of purpose. I wanted to be anywhere but New York. I felt lost, at a standstill. I was at the finish line, I saw it there, I had it in my grasp. But then I was stuck, forced to wait before I could cross it. My life was closed off from me, I couldn’t get to it. A whole year lost, as a reminder I failed.

I couldn’t show that it bothered me. I didn’t want to be weak. I needed my pride. But my emotions? They had to be pulled underground. They were festering, they were heat in my veins. I was not going to be good enough. I never was, and I never would be. I was a failure. The anger slowly dissolved into sadness, and I decided that I would lie about it to everyone else. They don’t need to know. Get over yourself. If you had been better you would have gotten it. You deserve this punishment. You failed.

Love
My mom had taken me to London to move in to the University of East London. It breathtaking. We went sightseeing under the rain. Everything was so surreal; I could not believe I had finally made it. My mom and I have always had a weird relationship, and I feel like everyone I know is a lot closer with their mom than me. But this is a moment of pure love between us. As we rode the tube to Heathrow, we held each other. My mom cried as she said goodbye to me. The last few years of my life I felt like to her, I was a failure. But she told me she was so proud of me. We hugged and said we loved each other, as she walked in to the airport. I regret not crying then, because I am crying now as I write this.

And then, there’s Nick. How do I explain Nick? I first met him when I tripped him in 7th grade. After that, we met in Basic video production. He read 50 Shades of Grey out loud, and I knew from the start he was a weird kid. But the next year in Acting, I was glad he was my friend, and we became closer friends as the years went by. When RCC started, we ended up being on campus together. He has a very unique humou; some may say it’s obscene, dark and weird, but he makes me laugh all the time. He is incredibly sweet to me. He is someone I want to talk to forever. He has black curly hair, the warmest brown eyes and skin like caramel. We started to date in October 2016. Had I never stayed that year for RCC, it might have never happened. His is a silver lining in my life. We spent New Year’s Eve together this year; I had just come back from London for my winter break. He is the reason whyI like coming back to New York. We watched movies and cuddled. I remember closing my eyes; the light from the T.V. was bright against my eyelids. I loved feeling his chest move up and down as I rested my head on him. The warmth from him radiated through me as we dozed off. He is someone who always makes me feel safe. He always supports me. I never felt love like this. We missed the New Year because we fell asleep cuddling.

Happiness
I think London has been the most amazing experience. It has been difficult at times, but I have met so many new people. I remember last spring: Maggie and I ran around parks and hung out in nature. It was warm and beautiful; the flowers were blooming, yellow like the ones I liked to pick back home. Having picnics with my new friends was amazing. I am still amazed that I moved to a whole other country. But Nick and I stuck with long distance, and Kailey and Jackie always call.
Though it was sad leaving my friends and family, I was still able to grow. I think being in London made me truly happy and accomplished. I looked back at to how I was, and all of those feelings of failure were depression. I was out of it. I was not a failure. I failed once in the grand scheme of my life. Here, I was learning history, exploring a new city and meeting new friends.

One time, Maggie, Anne and I took a trip to Dover. It was very last minute, and I had nothing planned out. We got lost, almost missed our bus there, it rained and we got wet, we missed our bus back and had to get a train. But it was the best trip ever. I’ll never forget laughing with them as we ran back and forth in the cold towards the sea, the mist spraying from it. I remember the rocks under my feet, and the fog surrounding me. I felt so happy I met my new friends, and grateful for my new home.

No Trouble, for Pearline Donaldson

From the life of Pearline Donaldson

By Marta Guerreiro

Not all stories have a thread. Often, our life becomes easier to tell if we remember just some moments, pieces: a puzzle of loves and battles, which we preserve within us, in places that can be poetic – a treasure chest made of faith – but not always easy to describe with words.

Between laughter and expressions of concern, Pearline would grab my hand, or gently touch my leg while giggling; a giggle that lights up a room, leaving no dark corner unlit. This was her way – I imagine – of saying that she could not describe such an immensity of life, of love, of struggles and accomplishments without weeks of talking.

The things in her life that aren’t about connections seem to hold no weight for her. The things that are – parents, husband, kids, grandkids and the church every Sunday – make her eyes shine, like gold, so bright. She picks me up every Sunday, and we go to church together, she tells me about one of her daughters. Oh, I sing at the church, that is why I go there, to sing. There is no drama, no trouble, we are all friends. My daughter sings with me. Pearline won’t sing for me outside the church: with a shy look, and cheeks turning red, she says that I need to go to her church to hear her singing.

I can imagine that age brings us many things, taking other things away from us, the ones that hurt. However, here, with the sun hitting our heads as we talk, she doesn’t seems bothered by the times life made her fall: with a solid look in her eyes, she proves how strong she is.

A wave of joy hits me when I hear the way she tells me about the plans she makes. Oh, a family that does not forget that behind so many years of experience there is a woman, a mother, who fought for her children to study and have a life full of joy and achievements. They were all good students, they went to university, no trouble. Even my daughter who is in Jamaica, you know, she moved after she married, even she comes to visit me.

Jamaica seems to be emotionally far when Pearline talks about it, making it obvious that she misses it, but very certain that she wouldn’t change a thing about her decision. There, it is good – for holidays, not for living. My husband wanted to go back there at some point, so we went, but I got fed up. I was pregnant, I told him: I’m going to England again. So, I did, and I had my last child here, like I wanted. As soon my last child was born, I start working here and there. I needed money to buy the tickets for my other kids, back in Jamaica, to come back. I made it, and they returned to be near me.

Pearline laughs, as she realises she can’t recall how many grandchildren she has. So many. They visit me. All of them. Six daughters, two sons and grandchildren, no trouble.

There is so much about the present that she is passionate about, but the past isn’t much different. She emanates nothing but kindness when she talks about the chapters of her life.

I used to sew, to make clothes. She was seventeen when she started sewing children’s clothes. That was what I liked the most. Not even studying, that, was… so and so, she says as she laughs.

We talk in the garden flooded with sun, surrounded by the green and yellow of beautiful spring days. I ask about her friends and boyfriends. She only had one boyfriend before her husband, and makes it clear that she never had much patience for men. I met my husband in Jamaica, but I left him there and moved to England. We didn’t have a relationship back then. I thought, if he loved me, he would follow me – she giggles – and he did. He moved to England and we got married. She tells me it was love at first sight; he lived near her in Jamaica, and yes, it was love. Before him, she had already had her first kid when she was 20, but she didn’t know romantic love could be like this.  

We look at some old photos. Pearline surrounded with daughters and sons, a grandchild. Pearline the diva, with hair that would make anyone jealous, the posture of one who leads, who has the answers, who will provide safety. I ask her if she is a leader; she nods – yes, I am. With contagious laughter, she tells me about the photos. This house, this is the countryside. I lived in the countryside, here in England, before moving to London. London was just before, remember when I went to Jamaica because my husband wanted? So, when I return to England, I moved to London. But the country was before that.

They say that an image is worth more than a thousand words. Pearline describes all the photos in as much depth as she can. This is the daughter I live with now, and this is the one who takes me to church. These are my sons, old men now. However, most of the time she just stares at the photos and then gently smiles at me. Sometimes, silence is the best way to describe emotions – speechless – living within us: all the good times, the good memories. Sometimes, silence is our best friend, allowing us to hold hands with our most genuine self.

Pearline, a pearl, a diva of her time, a piece of art with a heart shinier than any jewel. My favourite gift in my entire life was my wedding ring, she told me while looking at her hands. My husband bought it. Gold, wedding rings must be gold, you know? But I don’t have it anymore. I was at the hospital, I needed to take rings off, and I’ve lost it. He didn’t like to take pictures, that is why he isn’t in photos, my husband, but I have photos of him at home.

The gifts she loved remain in her mind, like precious treasures. At Christmas, she told me, she goes shopping and buys her kids and grandkids clothes, or gives them money. They give her clothes too, and when they can’t all be together, they send the gifts to each other’s homes. Sometimes I go and stay with my other daughter. They all care about me. I live with one, but I stay with the others too. Pearline tells me how she loves to stay close to her family, oh, but she also loves to travel.

As she tells me that she has travelled the world with her daughter – no, not the one who takes me to the church, the one with whom I live – time seems to stop. Her eyes are no longer focused on me: instead, they seems to be turning inward to the places she does not know how to describe, only feel. Her silence is comfortable, her body is in peace and nothing interrupts the return of this beautiful soul to these cities she once visited. I go to relax, I usually go six weeks, to relax; if there is beach, even better. Like a diva, like a pearl – returning to the sea, laying her body under hot skies and allowing her soul to receive the energy it needs.

We come back into the present, interrupting the holidays she is reliving in her thoughts. In most cases, food is what takes us back to cherished places of our childhood that are now far from our body. Not in this case, the food does not matter. It’s my daughter who cooks, oh no, it’s not Jamaican food, it’s anything because it does not matter to me, as long as it is food. There is a brief pause until she tells me about the food in her church. On Thursdays we have this event where everybody goes to the church, we have food, but I don’t go because of that, I go because I like being with them. Pearline tells me that on Thursdays her daughter can’t take her. They pick me up, this lady, they are nice, they pick me up and take me back home. She didn’t go to this church when she was younger. My parents were religious, but not like this. They were kind and had rules. Oh, when I was young, I wouldn’t party, my father wasn’t happy with that. So, I never gave them trouble.

She tells me that she missed them every day, but they didn’t want to move to England, and she did.

When I moved here, I could only talk with them by letters, so I wrote a lot of letters. She explains that it wasn’t because she couldn’t afford a phone, but because back then there was not a way to make a call to that far. Money? Money was better back then, everything was cheaper, now it is difficult. Flight tickets to Jamaica were so cheap, now it is really expensive.

My parents died a long time ago, I couldn’t go there, I had my kids here.

This time, her look was focused, full of the pain of losing a father and a mother. I could not always be present. It is not the places, the colours and the smells which she attaches meaning to in her memory seemed to have no meaning in her memory; everything only led to a place, to the unconditional love of a family. I asked her:

“And your parents, were they together?”

Together? Always. All the time.

Even when sadness would hit Pearline during our conversations, she would rapidly change the subject or make very clear, through her facial expressions, that happy places were the ones where she wanted to be.  Soon, the talk would have moved on and there she was, giggling again, talking about her singing, or the photos she was holding. In life – I imagine – we can choose which directions we want to look at, or the paths we left behind; for Pearline, it seems like it’s  only worth looking at the joy, the fun and the magic of being alive, of being loved and able to love.

For me, it doesn’t matter that my kids have grown, I don’t think it was better when they were little, because they are my kids; doesn’t matter if grown or not, I love them all the same. Never gave me problems, and they call me all the time.

For Pearline, the past and the present are about emotions, feelings no one can describe. It is about connections and the amazing skill it takes to ¡raise a human being. The church, meaning friendship and freedom, with voices, singing, that can reach the sky. Her husband, too shy for photos but not too shy to follow her across the ocean. Golden rings, lost in some place, but never forgotten. Oh, and time – that word that can mean nothing but giggles, watery eyes, family photos, reunions, letters once written, and a world travelled.

No matter what we were talking about, Pearline would always go back eventually to the subject of her family. There weren’t special objects for Pearline, other than the ring. There weren’t regrets she could recall, just a family, a constellation that is getting bigger, with her leading presence right in the middle, shining like gold.

Not all stories have a thread. Often, our life becomes easier to tell if we remember just some moments, pieces: a puzzle of loves and battles, which we preserve within us, in places that can be poetic – a treasure chest made of faith – but not always easy to describe with words.

When I met with Pearline for the first time, I noticed her heartwarming giggle. God bless you, she told me.

The sun never left us while we were talking, but Pearline managed to shine brighter than it.

Like gold – like a pearl. Daughter of the sea – Diva of the earth.

Questions for Lynford, for Lynford Cornelius Thompson

From the life of Lynford Cornelius Thompson

By Erica Masserano

When Lynford moves from Westmoreland, he is 20. Westmoreland was green, green, green, but his family lived in a house built out of wooden boards; concrete was for richer people, and stone for the slavehouses like the one his grandfather fixed up and lived in. Kingston is a big city, and he can live with his sister Catelyn, who became a widower when her boyfriend died in America just as he was working towards sending for her and their two kids. So Lynford has a room of his own now, and a job. There are people to meet in the streets, films to see beyond the white-trimmed façade of the Ward Theatre. It’s a lot of fun to be young in Jamaica.

He likes to take the ferry to Port Royal, the blue sheen of the water against blue sky. When the Spanish had control of Jamaica, Port Royal, not Kingston, was biggest; a true pirate port, where ships came and went with stolen goods. He imagines the ships with full sails on the horizon, the hustle and bustle of crates loaded and unloaded on the piers, the sailors full of rum, some of them coming all the way from Madagascar. Orders in several languages must have echoed through the air, mixing with shanties and insults. But now Jamaica is peaceful, the beach quiet, and with very little crime at all. Lynford can go for a trip to the old pirate harbours whenever he likes, and stroll around on the old grounds of Fort Charles. The house he has come to see is called the Giddy House, because it’s leaning at an angle in the sand; the carved stone on the front says 1888, but the house has been leaning from the earthquake of 1902. Many people died; Lynford was born in 1941, and many people Lynford knows can still remember it.

He loves all of Jamaica. He likes the waterfall cave near Montego Bay, the clean water falling into the sea from above, massaging his shoulders when he stands under it, the fish swimming through it. He likes looking at the view from Lover’s Leap as well. The story tells of two lovers who were slaves persecuted by their slavemaster, and how they jumped to death rather than be divided. It’s a sad story, but the lovers were Jamaican like Lynford, whose great-grandfather was a slave of the English, so he is proud of their pride. Lynford has grown up with the stories of the Christmas Rebellion: the slaves fighting back with Samuel Sharpe at their head, burning down the sugar cane plantations, the slavers eventually defeating them and hanging him in Montego Bay, but not forever.

What does Lynford do when he gets there? Does he stand and look at the house, does he sit? Has he brought friends to spend the day with before heading to the dance, or is he alone? Does he buy a patty and some cocoa bread to have a picnic on the beach? Only Lynford knows, each sunny afternoon a shiny doubloon in his pocket. These days are precious, and they won’t last. Jamaica gets its independence in 1962. In Kingston, people flood to the streets, shouting as loud as they can to greet the motorcade through; there are flags on every rooftop, and the stadium where the function takes place are filled despite the earlier downpour. Everyone is there for the hoisting of the flag and the fireworks, their faces lit up with the taste of something new. Although the party is smaller in Westmoreland, where Lynford happens to be at the time, the people are just as joyful, and the flag just as black, green and gold. But although the British got rich off the West Indies, there are no jobs in Jamaica now, and a lot of work in London, and so Lynford will leave for London very soon. Everyone is urging him to go, so he goes. He’s decided that he would like to travel anyway. His parents and older sister stay in Jamaica. He’ll just visit when he can.

When Lynford gets off the plane, there is no one to meet him. He takes a taxi to his cousin’s home, 90 Asylum Road, and pays £5. If he were to do the same thing today, it would cost him ten times as much. It’s cold, and the heating is paraffin: his cousin shows him how to put coins in the heater to warm the place up. But to pay the heat and the other costs, Lynford needs a job. He starts with a job at a hotel. Going into a strange land, he thinks, you’ve got to make friends.

And so word of mouth tells him he should go down to the Connaught Hotel near Hyde Park, a fancy place to be sure, and inquire for a job; soon he finds himself in charge of the stewards. He must make sure that the stewards receive the food deliveries for the hotel kitchen, and that they are properly stored in the fridge. Legs of lamb, fresh peas, sirloins of beef, sack after sack of potatoes parade out of the lorries that stop at the back of the hotel and into its pots and pans. On Mondays, he inventories what’s left from the weekend so orders can be written up. He doesn’t have to wear a uniform for this job, which is just as well, because he doesn’t like them very much. The pay is about £7 a week, which is ok. You can get things cheap. He shops for fish and yellow yam in Peckham, where he now lives, and cooks for himself. The English food at the hotel is terrible; they just boil everything.   

At the hotel he meets Broomfield, a tall, quiet bloke out of Saint James who is to be his best friend for many years. They will go to many parties together, spend the night dancing, have a tiny spliff together and then, when they get hungry, eat the delicious curry that the landlord prepares and sells to the revellers. Sometimes they will go to the Q near Edgware Road, a basement club where you can get in for a pound, listen to live music and see the best dancers do the twist, the dog, the boogaloo, the rocksteady. Other times, they will go all the way to the Roaring Twenties club in Carnaby Street. Entrance is one pound. This is a a Black joint, purveyor of the finest reggae and ska straight from Prince Buster’s record shop on Orange Street in Kingston. Later on, he will also go to the Fridge in Brixton with his friends to dance, and when Jimmy Cliff, his favourite, plays there, they will go see him. People are easy, happy to get a respite from the working week; a girl mistakes Lynford for her boyfriend and grabs him by the arm, yelling “Come on, let’s go” in his ear and giving him a hell of a shock; when she realises her mistake, they both collapse into laughter.

What do Lynford and Broomfield say under the dimmed lights at the party? Do they discuss the one they like, do they pick up the courage to make a move after a few drinks? Or do they just enjoy a moment of silent companionship and trust before throwing themselves into another dance? They are young and London is still new, opening its doors for them with a flourish at nighttimes and weekends. Except for the occasional Teddy Boy showing up to brawl, or the occasional racist march, the atmosphere is peaceful; police may show their face, but they never bear guns. It won’t always be this way, people will get greedier and more violent, clubs will be closed down and reborn with different names. People will go dancing less and less. But things are good for now.

///

Broomfield gets married to a Jamaican girl and leaves the hotel to go work for Ford in Dagenham; the money is better, and he hopes to stay there until he retires. Lynford gets married as well, at St. Giles’ Church in Camberwell Green. A friend of Lynford’s tells him that a factory in Peckham Grange Road is looking for workers, so Lynford goes there to apply for a job. He tries various factories, the Ford plant included, and he also leaves London for a year to take a holiday travelling to Jamaica, but then the lack of a job makes itself felt again; time for another stint in London, the longest one so far. In the end, when it comes to work what he likes best and is best at, is being a leather worker. He makes a horse saddle for the Queen at Barrow, Hepburn and Gale leather factory in Bermondsey: management is pleased with the result and they give the workers an extra break. He handstitches Olympic equipment, horses and swings. He handstitches belts to last a lifetime, and they sell at about £12. He takes a long rope of soft leather and cuts it, then punches the belt buckle pins through the black and brown cowskin, and the holes as well with special pliers. He handstitches shoes as well, stretches patches of leather on the shoe lasts, sews them up into the finished shoe; it’s a fun job to have. He must admit, though, that when he goes back to Jamaica and sees the sea, the sea you can just go in and swim, sometimes he wants to move back and have an easy life there.

It’s the late 1960s now, and Lynford lives in Peckham. Good old Rye Lane! He likes the hustle and bustle of it, the vegetable market stalls, the butchers and furniture shop. There was quite a bit of bomb damage in this area, but these days it’s mostly all red brick housing, dotted with the inns that used to host traders when this was the last village you’d meet on your way to London. The squat shape of the Kings’ Arms pub on the Queen’s Road, where Lynford and company sometimes go to grab a beer after work, with the front bearing in big letters the word we all need to hear sometimes: COURAGE. The fancy Jones and Higgins building, with its clock tower and three styles of windows, is a labyrinth of retail with a supermarket, furniture, clothes for men and women… Anything you want, you can get there, and a pair of good men’s shoes are £4.99. You buy a cardigan there, it lasts forever: nothing like today’s Primark clothes, which are ready to throw out in a year.

What does Lynford do in his spare time? Does he think that a life of hard work is better than a life of no work at all? Does he have hopes and dreams that he wasn’t able to realise? The years are passing and he is getting more established now, has a house and a job and a family, so things aren’t bad at all. Sometimes he takes the bus to run errands, to go to Brixton to shop for sweet potatoes and pumpkins: he is not able to get them in Rye Lane yet at this point, or the Blue Mountain Coffee which he loves. But sometimes he buys a one-day ticket for the bus, picks one, and sits on it until the end of the line, just to see where it will take him. It’s like a little vacation; he looks outside the windows and takes a plunge into the shades of London as if it was the blue sea of Jamaica.

Who’s Sorry Now? For Alba

From the life of Alba

By Daniela Bragato

They say I’ve got a nice smile, but I don’t smile often these days.

“What’s the matter Alba, c’mon, where’s that smile? Where’s that smile?” they say.

“Oh, I’ve lost it.”

I lost it the day my husband left me and my children to go off with another woman and build another family. My son Rob was only 3, Polly 18. But what did I know back then? I was 21 when I got married and my husband Hugo was 18. He was in the army and after we got married they wanted to send him abroad, but I was ill so they didn’t. I had a collapsed lung. The doctors said that it was probably a collateral of the TB I caught when I was a child. But I never found out.

I was too scared Hugo might die in the army. In the end I lost him anyway. When his mother found out that I had caught TB she didn’t want me to marry him.

“When you’re gonna have a baby, you’re gonna regret it,” she said.

Now I know that my husband married me to get away from his mother, but I was too in love to notice that back then. Every time I tell people I was only four months courting into the relationship before we got married, they’re shocked. Now I know it was too quick. After the proposal, Hugo’s father said “yes”. His mother tried to stop me again but, in the end, she put a hand on her heart and we went on with the wedding.

Now I know that I should have listened to his mum. Oh yeah, I should have listened to her. £47 a week was all I had to bring up my little boy. Hugo used to give me £12 but when he had the first child with the other woman he stopped giving me anything at all. It’s still hard to think that he went off with another woman. Why me? Why me? Why me? That’s all I wondered back then, and what I still wonder now.

Our marriage was lovely before he left. We used to go to pubs every Friday and I used to sing him my favourite song by Connie Francis, Who’s Sorry Now. Then one day he phoned the landline and from that moment my life wasn’t the same anymore.

“I’m not coming home, Alba,” he said. “I found someone else.”

He told me that he had had sex with someone else and had a baby, then he asked me for a divorce. And that was all. That was all he said before hanging up. He didn’t want to meet me face to face. He left me and my children with a phone call. He didn’t even bother to give me an explanation. The next time I saw him was in court, and he was with the woman he was going to marry.

“It’s too late. I’ve made this woman pregnant and I’m gonna marry her,” he said to the judge.

I was in tears. His voice was loud and clear. Not a single sign of remorse. Was he unhappy with me because when we got married we had to live separately for quite a long time before we found a house? Was that the reason? Or was it simply that there was no reason at all, that this was just how it was? Sometimes things break and you can’t fix ‘em. Sometimes people fall out of love and there’s nothing you can do about it.

When Hugo died, his mum invited me and the children to his funeral. I bought him a cross and a big flower tribute shield. All the other woman bought him was a tiny basket of flowers, and she even came in late. Hugo’s mum and sister were shocked. I can never forget what happened after the ceremony was over. Never, never in my life. We got into the church and when they brought Hugo up in the coffin, I touched his hand and said goodbye to him. All of a sudden, my mother-in-law turned towards Hugo’s wife and yelled:

“You killed my son!”

“Really?” she replied.

“Yes, you did. You had no time for him. You didn’t look after him. You killed him.”

And that’s stuck in my heart. I’d heard that she didn’t look after him at all. Nothing. She didn’t even wash his cup. Oh no, she didn’t. She wasn’t clean, that woman. After the funeral, she tried to be friends with me, but it was too late. I would have never.

“Alba,” Hugo’s mum said whilst approaching me, “I’m sorry about what happened. He should have stayed with you.” She paused for a moment. “If he had, he would have been alive today.”

She seemed quite certain about it, but we both knew he had a kidney failure because he loved his beers. That’s what killed him. In the end, Hugo’s mother and I got on. After the funeral she even started to come down and see me and the children. She was a funny woman, oh yeah, she was.

When my daughter Polly started to work she promised she would help me. And she did. She’d always come home with something for me. If I focus hard enough, I can still picture that blue soft woolly coat she once bought me. I liked it so much I even took a picture outside my mum and dad’s council house. I leaned against the brick wall, my right arm resting on the windowsill, my hands clasped in front of my long black skirt. I had a long bob with a side fringe those days. I think I was even wearing red lipstick. It was one of those winter days when the sun gently stroked my face; I looked at the camera and smiled after a long time. I smiled under the illusion that spring was finally coming.

I don’t know why I didn’t have a happy life. I simply wasn’t meant to. My biggest regret? In a way, I regret married my husband. Oh yeah, I regret having married him. The way things turned out. And I still don’t know why. When I married him, I thought we would have grown old together. But no. Didn’t happen. I could have gotten married twice after he left me, but no. I didn’t want to. Not after what I went through.

My son Rob grew up hating Hugo and he still does. My daughter was too busy helping me out; she had no time for what he had done to us. My husband was a nice-looking fella and when I look at Rob I can see Hugo in him. And it hurts me. Oh yeah, it hurts.

They say I dance well. But I don’t dance these days.

“C’mon Alba, show us some moves,” they say.

“I can’t, my legs are gone now.”

I loved dancing. It took all the worries away from me. When I danced I didn’t care about anything. I just moved to the rock and roll music. My wide chiffon dress fluttering as I turned, as if there was no gravity to keep me grounded.

I’ve always protected myself, always kept myself out of trouble. But bad things happen when you least expect them. I should have known better that night at the picture palace, that that was only an omen for something much worse happening later on in my life. But I was too young to think that far ahead. And at that time, I thought I handled it quite well when this bloke came up to me and his hands started to wander. I reached for my handbag. I had a pair of scissors, I’ll never forget this. I got the scissors out and stabbed him in the leg. He yelped in fear and pain, so loud that another guy appeared and asked:

“What’s the matter, love?”

“He’s touching me all over my legs,” I said.

“Get out, get out, get out,” he shouted to my attacker.

This was nothing. Nothing could prepare me for what I went through when I was much, much older. In my house, where I thought I was safe. I was raped. And I never got over it. Once a bloke does that to you, it’s always in your mind and memory. You can never forget it. Even after a long time, when I would walk on the street in my neighbourhood, I wouldn’t feel safe. If I saw a man walking behind me, I’d stop, look back, and wait until he passed before I started to walk again. And now my daughter does the same too. I can’t bear having men behind me.

I wish I could dance again one more time. But now I can’t fly no more. My kneecap has gone completely. Polly and Rob, my kids, are the only thing that’s keeping me going at the moment. If it wasn’t for them I’d give up. I would. Oh yeah, I really would give up. I’m proud of them, the woman and man they’ve become. I mean, I have got the best children you could ever wish for.

The ring I’m wearing? It was my mum’s and it’s the only ring I’ve got. It’s a silver ring with an engraved blue little star. I took it off her finger when she died. I did it because I wanted her to be with me forever. Sometimes I speak to her when I’m on my own and I think she knows what I’m going through. I think she’s here with me.

Time for my daily tablets now. The one I’m taking are making my bones a bit stronger. I still can’t walk for long, but it’s something. I thought about one thing recently as I’ve heard my favourite song on the radio. I know the lyrics by heart but sometimes I forget the words. Someone left someone and they’re sorry. That’s what’s the song is about. And it goes like this:

“Who’s sorry now
Who’s sorry now
Whose heart is aching for breaking each vow
Who’s sad and blue
Who’s crying too
Just like I cried over you.”

It hurts to say, but if he had been alive today I would have loved to dance with my husband. I keep humming along:

“Right to the end
Just like a friend
I tried to warn you somehow
You had your way
Now you must pay
I’m glad that you’re sorry now

Right to the end
Just like a friend
I tried to warn you somehow
You had your way
Now you must pay
I’m glad that you’re sorry now.”

If this is my last dance, then I’ve saved it for you, Hugo.

Motherland, for Edwin Rolle

From the life of Edwin Rolle

By Sandra Wilson

The hot sun blazed down on the inhabitants of the small island of Dominica. The sea breeze blew very gently every so often to cool them as they went about their daily business. The sky was a bright blue and the sun shone onto the calm sea leaving sparkling rays.  

Edwin’s parents’ home was a quaint little house painted in pink and yellow stood at the end of the main road facing the sea. It stood out from all the other houses because it was covered in flowers of all shades, pink, reds, orange, white and yellow. They grew freely up the pillars and around, and cascaded over the balcony and onto the floor of the verandah. The different scents filled the air and often made one feel heady.

It was a two minute walk to the ocean from the house. Edwin would often wake before the household stirred for an early morning swim. Edwin and his father sat on the verandah enjoying a cool drink of homemade lemonade one evening. They waved away the flies and moths which circled the lamp.

“I going to England to work,” said Edwin.

“But you have a good job as a Carpenter here,” said his father.

“I’ve been working for five years and not been able to save enough to build my own house.”

“You have a family to take care of.”

“Cousin George write me and say they have good jobs in England. The pay is much better.”

“I here it’s cold over dere.”

“It cwan be dat bad,” said Edwin, smiling.

“People that have been there say it is bitter.”

“I will only stay for a few years.”

“You not saying anything to your Mudder?”

Edwin looked round, he had not realised his mother had been standing behind him. He looked at her as the big tears rolled down her cheeks.

“I will never see you again,” she said, sobbing.

“You will. I will write you and send money to look after you and daddy.”

“What about Sylvia and de girls?” she said.

“I will send for dem.”

“When you going, son?” asked his father.

“In two weeks.  I already pay my passage.  I just have a few fings to buy.”

His mother returned to the kitchen and busied herself in front of the coal pot.  She lifted the pan and fanned the flames adding more coal till it was blazing again.

“I will come back here a rich man.  I will build my house and….” Edwin waffled on.

When Edwin was leaving, his wife Sylvia, their two children, his mother and father, and half the little village came to see him off.  Edwin had seen ships before but only from a distance. He looked up and it felt as though the ship was touching the clouds, it was so big. He hugged his parents and the children.  He hugged his wife and tried to kiss her on the cheek. She turned away in annoyance.

“Mek sure you write us,” sobbed his mother, wiping her eyes with a white handkerchief. She looked up fearful of the large ship in front of them.

“See you soon son,” his father said as he waved, trying to swallow the big lump in his throat.  

His children held onto his legs, pleading with sadness in their eyes. The large horn tooted and he boarded the ship, where he hurried to the top deck and waved to his family until they were a tiny dot in the distance.

When Sylvia arrived in England a year later with the children, Edwin hardly recognised them. They were taller than he had imagined. Sylvia was more beautiful than he could remember. He had written to her every week, but her letters had become less frequent. He took them to the house he had rented in Ladbroke Grove.  Sylvia stood outside, her nose in the air.

“Is dis what you bring me to England to live in?”

“Yes, all the houses are like this.”

They entered the house and he showed them around, the living room, the tiny kitchen and the two bedrooms.

“You mek me leave my parents big house in Dominica for this?”

“When we have more money we can get something bigger,” said Edwin.  This was not how he had imagined their reunion.

The children were tired after their long flight, so they were taken to bed.

“You can start work next week, Cousin George find you a good job in a factory.”

“A factory… I’m not going to work in a factory.  I will find my own job, tomorrow,” Sylvia said.

“Who will look after de children?”

“They can come with me.”

“It’s not like back home.”

She shot him a look, and he knew he was not going to win this battle. The following day she set off once Edwin had left for work. She returned home later in the day, exhausted but determined not to be beaten.

Sylvia went from shop to shop and soon realised England was not the welcoming place she had imagined. Eventually she found a job as a trainee nurse working nights to fit in with minding the children.

“I don’t like it here,” she said to Edwin that night.

“But you just reach. You will get used to it.”

“I will never get used to this place.”

Every night she sobbed herself to sleep. She hated the dirty pavements, the smog, the drab coloured houses. She missed the fresh fish from the sea and the fresh fruit you picked from the trees, not to mention fresh coconut and the sweet water inside. You couldn’t even buy fresh guava or soursop in the shops here. She missed the freshly baked bread from Mister Brown’s little shop and the days when it was extra hot and the rains came down to cool you. She missed everything.

After a year of late shifts on the wards of the local hospital, emptying bedpans, being hollered at or looked down on and the cold, bitter winter, she had had enough.

“Edwin, I want to go home,” she said firmly.

“You are home.”

“Back to Dominica.”

“But the children are settled. They have made friends.” He had to think quickly. “Where will you live? The house was damaged in the last hurricane.”

“I don’t care, I just want to go back,” she sobbed.

“I didn’t realise it was that bad.”

“I hate the weather, I don’t like some of the people, and I miss home.”

“OK, we will save up and we will all go back.”

They both worked and saved for several years, and eventually they had the fare and a little savings to travel back.

Sylvia was elated when the day came to finally return. Edwin had mixed feelings. They drove from the airport to Roseau in silence. They were deep in their own thoughts as the children chattered and giggled. They both drank in the sunshine, the smell and sounds of home and the welcoming warmth on their faces. Edwin hurried to his parents’ house, his father was sitting outside on the worn verandah reading a newspaper. He hugged him. He looked as though he had aged dramatically.  Tears rolled down his father’s face.

“Where is Mama?”

“She….”

“What happened?”

“She died three months ago.”

“But I didn’t get a letter from you,” said Edwin, shocked.

“I write to tell you when she was sick. You never write back,” sobbed his father.

“I didn’t get your letter. What was wrong with her?”

“The Doctor wasn’t really sure but she….”

“I’m sorry Papa. I’m so sorry I wasn’t here with you.”

Edwin refurbished his family home in earnest, and tried to spend time with his father. He worked hard, day and night, hoping that the hole in his heart would be filled. The sadness at losing his mother was a pain he could not explain.

He could not settle. He couldn’t believe that he was missing cold, old England.

Sylvia was pregnant with their third child and work was scarce on the island, so it was decided he would return to England for a few months, earn some money, and be back in time for the birth.

This time coming to England felt different. He had changed. Edwin realised he did not want to be there. He was missing his family immensely. Sylvia wrote to him to let him know his father was ill, and that their baby had been born, it was a girl.

Edwin could not understand how he could be so torn between two places. He consoled himself most evenings by going to the pub with new friends, but still felt so empty. His best friend George had moved away to East London and they lost contact.

He booked his flight, and knew this would be the last time he would see England. When he arrived back in Dominica, although he was not wealthy, he felt that he was rich because he had a loving family. When he arrived at the airport his wife, his father and children were waiting for him.

“Papa, Papa,” cried the children, running to him as he exited the departure gate. They held him around his waist. He held them tight as the tears fell and vowed he would never be parted from his family again. He held his youngest for the first time and drank in her baby smell as he kissed her soft fat cheeks. She gurgled and smiled at him. He hugged his father and Sylvia. She smiled, and said “Welcome home.”

They drove home and his face beamed as he approached their house. Sylvia and her father had been busy with the money he had been sending. The house had been refurbished and an extra level had been added; on another part of the land they had started a new build.

“This is going to be the family hotel,” Sylvia smiled.

“You did all of this?”

“Me and your father organised it together.”

“We rent the house now.”

“But Daddy, where are you living?” asked Edwin.

“He moved in with us,” said Sylvia, beaming.

“Anyway we are still close to the sea, just not as close as before,” said his father, laughing.

“You know I will want to help finish building the hotel?”

“Yes we do,” said his father.

The family sat on the verandah which had been filled with flowers, just like the other house, and chatted till the early hours about their plans for the future.

Nine Lives, for Ferdinand Maxwell

From the life of Ferdinand Maxwell

By Erica Masserano

1, 2: Barbados

What Barbados is like? Summer throughout the year, sunshine every day. I was born there in 1941. Growing up there is a lot better than what I see the kids doing who grow up here. My dad was police and my mom was a tailor, making dresses for weddings, bedspreads, embroidery…  I had one younger brother and two older sisters, so I had to look after them, and they had to do what I say! We went to school – 9 o’clock to 1 o’clock. My favourite subject was History. When school was finished, we played, all together, boys and girls. I liked it when we made lorries out of cardboard packages, and then we put different bits under them to make the wheels, and dragged them around; I used to make kites as well,  make them then sell them, made quite a lot of money! ‘pon a Sunday, we go to church, ‘pon the morning; from 9 o’clock in the morning, then until 3 we had Sunday school, and at 7 you had the last service at church. Even on holidays you always had something to do: football, family visits. Sometimes I ran with my friends to the beach at 4 in the morning. When I grew up, I worked for the government in Barbados as an engineer. Then I worked with buses, on these ramps that lift the buses in the air so you can work on them underneath. Once, I was working on these buses with big wheels, and I’ve got to fix a tire. But the gauge wasn’t working and too much air went in, so the tire exploded. The heavy metal clamp jumped up into the air, and when it fell, it hit me right on the head! I’m lucky to be here, anyhow.

But Barbados ain’t that big. I grew up two miles from Bridgetown, the capital. There are many big ships there, we got quite a lot of tourists even then, and now the cruise ships come, even more. My brother was 17, and he decided he was going to come over here, and he said, why don’t you come too? So I enlisted. I was 18. You want to see the world, you have to find a way, and the army is free. There were quite a few people who enlisted, many people before me and after me. We were very young, and we didn’t have nothing to worry about, because Barbados is very peaceful. And so in 1962, they flew me from Barbados to here. It was six hours on a plane.

3: England

From the plane, I saw these buildings and these lights and this smoke coming out of funnels on the roofs. We landed in London, and then took a train to Yorkshire, in the countryside. There are no trains in Barbados, just buses, and this was the first big train I saw; it looked like something new and shiny, like the toy train I had when I was a child. We were all together, British soldiers from everywhere, to complete military training for six months. Every day can’t be the same in the army. Sometimes you woke up and you had to carry something for a hundred yard, then you had to climb a wall, then you had to pull somebody in a stretcher over the wall.

It was nice to be with the people with Barbados; when you get to it, everyone was nice to us, but they did put us in a place by ourselves. But there was one guy from a different regiment, one day he came over and introduced himself. We got to train together, and so after a while they start to understand us, they get to know us. The British lads, they love the pub; the ones from Barbados, they love the pub. So after a while they started telling us, come on, let’s go down to the pub. Sometimes, if I didn’t have money, they said don’t worry about it, sit down and enjoy. We get on. I think those guys, it was their parents telling them to keep far from us, and then they come and find out that we are all the same; friends, living like brothers.

4: The Mediterranean

Gibraltar is one big mountain. The apes, they got up the mountain by the night, and you had to go and blow up the old guns by the night; they were dangerous! I liked Gibraltar, but there is nothing much to do there, so we go to across the border to Spain every night, to La Lìnea. We went over the border to see the Roman ruins, and we caught the ferry to Morocco in Algeciras and travel down the coast all the way to Casablanca. Then we had a call that there was trouble in Libya, so we had to go there by plane.

In Libya, we had to fix the tanks because they got damaged; and sometimes you’d be working, working, and there’d be scorpions and poisonous snakes. We had a big water barrel and the snakes would come and find to drink the water, and we’d go to drink the water and find snakes…! But you know, you get used to it. I was there for about 9 months. We didn’t meet a lot of people from Libya, we were in the camp working all the time. In the end, I got 13 weeks off; I got a job at a book factory because my money going. I enjoy. Well, it was a job. It makes the money to keep the fat on the body.  This was all in 1962.

5: West Berlin

What a great place. I love Berlin. I was there for two years and it was the best posting I ever had, because people were friendly, and they laugh, and it got a lot going on. In the winter we had exercises with the Americans and the French in the snow, but I enjoy. It was 1963, and Berlin was divided. We had to go to the Spandau prison, a big prison where the British and then the Russians and then the French and then the Americans took shifts. Hess and Speer; Hess was Deputy (Führer) in the last war. You never talked to any of them, just keep an eye on them, give them rations, and in the morning bring them out to exercise and so on. It was great, I enjoy. There was a train for the army as well, going to East Berlin. It had to have a guard, so sometimes I did guard duty. I loved it, going there in the morning then coming back. East Berlin was different; you could see the police and the army going up and down, up and down. You don’t see that much people moving up and down. But you can’t let nobody get on the train in East Berlin, and you couldn’t get off the train and look around.

I had the time to go out and see my friends. Oh, yes. The Barbadians, the Jamaicans, those from Trinidad, we were all friends. We went to the American sector, because we made friends with the Americans there, and they had a big dance hall, and there’s many working girls there. But we had to make sure we got back to camp by 6, or the person in charge would mark you down as absence of leave; the lieutenant caught me only one time, and then I did get punished, had to wash the plates and clean the potatoes for two weeks. So I swore I never again would get caught. But of course I kept going! They couldn’t find me and I’d come through the back door and my friends would say, oh, he’s been there the whole time!

I travelled more on holiday from the army, went to Copenhagen and Sweden. I loved Copenhagen; the people were great, came out of the hotel to carry all my luggage, and the women…! Yeah, women – I never did have the time to make myself a family. But that’s ok. I enjoy; people that I meet during my travels is nice. Even on Christmas, in Berlin, a lady and her husband came up to me on the bus and asked, what are you doing tonight? We would like to invite you.  Or another time, this lady invited us to this party at her house, and she had free food and drink for everybody. The Germans, war had made them very hungry, and they asked for food, but the British said, no, no. But we from Barbados, we know hungry, and we give food to them.

If I picked up any German when I was living there? Yeah, yeah. A few.

6, 7, 8: Yemen

In 1966, that was the first time that I was in combat, the civil war between North and South Yemen. I was a first class soldier; I had some guns to look after. I was there for nine months. I saw the desert: the heat melted the soles of the boots. It was too hot to do anything in the morning. And it also had scorpions!

We had a Land Rover and we had to go round and round and make sure that everything was in order. I was to go on at 7 o’clock and it had two recruits who asked me, can we go on at 7 o’clock? And I said it was fine, I said it because they were new. And they went down by the big gun, and less than fifteen minutes, one were killed by two grenades. They were in the Land Rover, and they get shrapnel; the second one get lucky. As I said, it was my turn to go. And they switched me. And another time, I was on a roundabout, and we have a machine gun tower. The police was chasing two guys in a car. A soldier tried to shoot them, but he left the safety catch on his gun on, and that’s just as well, because I was standing right in front and he would have ended up shooting me in the mouth!

Another time, two of my friends cross by the same road they were accustomed to using, and they got blown, blown, blown. One of them was a good friend of mine, a close friend of mine. Quiet fella. Bad luck, it was.

I was doing sports in the army; lots of athletics, and back in Berlin I was the champion of the 400m run in the army games. But one day, I was playing football, and it hurt; it was the ligaments, and I had to spend 13 days in the infirmary. That was the only injuries I had. I left the army and come to live in London again. But there is still war now in Yemen.

9: London

My whole life in London I’ve been living around Kensal Rise, Latimer Road… It was easy to find friends there. When I moved to London it was good, but there was also fighting with them English guys they used to call the Teddy Boys, fighting with our boys. You got to be careful, ‘cause if you got over the road at a certain time you might get yourself involved. But if they can fight, we can fight too. A friend of mine once got attacked three to one, but he was a tough guy so he fought them all off. I was never in the middle; I wouldn’t have lived long. It’s a lot better now; you can walk ‘pon the streets and nobody will interfere. People are more friendly.

My first job in London, I was an engineer, a mechanic. Then I was inspecting garages, making sure they had heat. I had another bus mechanic job as well, and I worked for the board of transport. I never had trouble finding jobs, but I did once work with three Australians at the same place, and they ask me how much money I get so I tell them. And they tell me, they’re cheating you, because we are getting more money than you and we can’t do your work. So I go to the big chief and I ask, why did I get the short end? And he says, I will drop their pay. But I didn’t want their pay dropped, I wanted mine to go up, so in two weeks’ time I was out of there. I was never out of work for long, though one of the garages I worked, Mistress Thatcher close it down. My last job, I was there for twelve years, near the docks; worked with pumps, fans, everything. I enjoy the challenge; taking it apart, seeing which ones are the good and the bad parts, I love it. Even now, sometimes they ask me to come down and work with them, and every Christmas they have something for me. It’s nice to have a job where people appreciate you, but it is good to be retired now; I’ve been retired for 8 years now.

I live in a flat, been living there over 12 years, and my good friend and her daughter live next door. I can sleep all day, get up when I want. I come down to Pepper Pot several times a week. The rest of the time I visit friends in Kilburn and other places, nearly every Friday and Saturday we go to the dances.  I dance to everything, soca, Bob Marley, everything. But no ballet. Sometimes I go see other army guys at the army hotel in Waterloo, cheap for the army people, or to a club in Brixton where we meet. Sometimes I am going in uniform. One of my friends from the army named Cumberbatch was buried last Thursday, and the church was packed. When we meet with the other veterans, we don’t talk about the war; we prefer to take it easy. But it’s not because I have a problem talking about it. It’s better than keeping it inside.

I still go to the Carnival as well, don’t spend much time there now but go watch the floats and the people enjoying. Too much crowds now, and the police up and down, up and down. I just come for the show. I enjoy. I do think about going back to Barbados; I would live there, it’s my number one. But it’s changed; big houses down there now, and instead of using the bus there are cars everywhere now. I like living in London; sometimes is good, sometimes is bad. You got to keep away from the bad and enjoy the good. I have seen a lot of places, went to Boston to visit family, went to see the Niagara Falls and it really is the eighth wonder of the world; all this water, coming from different angles! But I would like to go back to Barbados and retire there sometimes. The best thing in life is traveling, and I’m free.

What Goes Around, Comes Around, for Ernest Forde

From the life of Ernest Forde

By Claire Dougher

I am from the West Indies, Barbados, St. Phillips on the West Coast. I lived there with my granny from when I was about three months old and then moved here when I was nine. Back in the day, your parents came over here first to set up and left the kids back home. The kids would stay with the grandparents, then the parents would send for them. So my mum and dad came over here and left me back home with my grandmother. But when my dad came here, he saw the bright lights of London and all the women and started messing around with the women. Obviously, my mum left him then, so she was on her own now. And I was stuck at home on the island for eight more years.

When my granny died I had nowhere to go. My little brother Trevor was with my mom and I wasn’t and felt abandoned by her. I stayed with my great-aunt for a bit, but they couldn’t afford me either. They wrote to my mom saying, I love him, but I can’t keep him. ‘Cause you know, a youngster needs shoes and clothes. So my mum hustled, scrimped and saved to send for me, but I didn’t realise. I would always wonder, how come my cousins they’ve always got new shoes and clothes, and I’m always wearing the same clothes everyday? I was young and very naive so I didn’t ask any questions, but I saw these kids always wearing new clothes.

When I finally came over to London, in 1967, I was wearing short pants in November. I had socks and shoes but no jacket, just a suit coat. I was freezing! I was coming from Barbados! I had never been more cold in all of my life. I just cried and said I wanted to go home. The chaperone dropped me off to my mom, and I was shocked. I was nine and it was the first time I had ever seen her. My uncle drove us back from the airport. I didn’t say a word, not the whole ride home, because I didn’t know her. When we got home, my mum took my suitcase, and started to unpack it. When she opened it, she went “Ernest? Where’s all your clothes?” I shrugged back. She said, “Where are all the clothes I’ve been sending you?” That is when it hit me. My cousins had been getting my clothes. But it didn’t matter now, since I was in London. I was going to grow up in Ladbroke Grove.

I’ve lived in England most of my life. But I still got ties to my flag. Never will I ever give up my flag. That’s why I’ve kept my passport. It’s funny, when I go home the people there say, “Oh you’re not from here; you’re English.” It’s only when I show them my passport that they go, ‘Ooh you’re Bajin?’ I go, ‘Yeah! I told you!’. I know it surprises them, since I lived around this area my whole life! I think a lot has changed. Don’t get me wrong, it’s changed for the best. But also for the worst. When I first came to Ladbroke Grove, not a single white person wanted to live here. It was 95% black, and there was a lot of drugs and a lot of killing. This area before used to be full of drugs, a lot of crack and prostitution. But what they’ve done now is get rid of the ones who were causing problems. I never caused problems, but they wanted to move me out. They wanted me to take a flat in Brixton. I said, Why am I going down to Brixton for? My mum is around here, my kids are around. This is now Notting Hill. It’s sad to see the culture and area change and move away from how it was to now.

I’m not sure that this stuff doesn’t go on now, but it’s not as upfront as it used to be. Before it was right in your face. But it’s not like that anymore, because they got rid of the people who used to do that kind of thing, over the years. And a lot of them were black. You hardly find many black people around here anymore. People are being forced away. But this is one black dude they’re not forcing away. My whole life is here, I even used to work around here.

When I first came over I was sparks, I was an electrician, I done that for about eight, nine years, then my firm broke and then I drove trucks. I used to go all over the place. Loved it. It’s free. You know just get wherever you wanna go. But then I got injured: my back, that’s why I walk with a stint. My lower back got ruptured. I couldn’t work. What I made sure I got was a good pension anyways. My daughter Jade looks over my funds. So, I’m ok for now. What I find is that when you’re young you’ve got to plan for your future. You learn from your mistakes. And luckily that’s what I’ve done. One thing I learned from was my marriage.

I got married down in Barbados. The wedding was huge! Massive. Yeah, my now ex-wife is also from there, and my aunties and uncles and my sisters are all in Barbados. You see, back home, the church was super important. My ex-wife and I had a child together, which made her parents upset. Because of the church, people over there would judge us for not being married and having a kid. I knew she wanted to, so I said that I would do it if we got married in the same church I was baptised in. So her parents arranged that for me, and then I had to go. I went back down there for eight weeks. It didn’t work out so well. I would never get married again. No no no, never again. That was horrible. I never wanted to get married in the first place. You know, back home, in the Caribbean, they are into the church big time. And when we got pregnant, the first time that caused a big stink, because her father and  mother, they were in the church and to them it wasn’t right. So when we had the second child and still weren’t married, that really caused a lot of problems. I thought to myself, you know Ernest, it’s best you get married, you’ve been with her for about 10 years anyway, you’ve got 2 kids… So I told her, You know what? Let’s just get married. She made a phone call back home and said “Mummy, we’re getting married!” They arranged it, paid for it and for me to go back.

So we both packed up, took the kids back home, and moved into her parents’ massive place, which I did not want to do. I was working for her father’s business. But you understand, I wanted to be my own man, with my own house. What was the last straw was, I was out with my friends, I got in about half past 3 in the morning, and the doors were locked. They had locked me out! I knew she could hear me, because I was screaming, calling, nobody let me in. So I went back downstairs to the car, went into the back seat, and slept there. I woke up at dawn and decided to divorce my wife. You’re my wife, I’m your husband, you should let me in, not let your parents tell you what to do. That wasn’t the only problem though. Something I’ll never forget is the night she cheated on me.

What happened was, I used to play football, and we went to Holland, France, Spain, Belgium, and all the countries, and I got paid for it. And we went away for a weekend to play, and I got injured. So, instead of keeping me there, they sent me back to London to get treatment. But my wife didn’t know I was coming early, because as far she was concerned, I was gone for the weekend. So they put me on a train. I must have arrived back home around half-past three in the morning. When I got my flat I tried to put the key in the door and it was locked. Okay fair enough, because it was late. And she’s alone so she had the doors double locked, so no problem, but then I started to say, ‘It’s me Sharon, let me in!’ But she said to me, ‘Wait a minute’. Wait for what, I think, it’s me! Then one of my closest friends shot past me right out. You know when you’re just rooted, shocked. I didn’t know what to do.

So yeah, that was when I decided I’m never doing that again. The flat was mine, so I told her to get out. She took my kid, and she went to a bed and breakfast. But I didn’t want her there because there were a lot of drug addicts and I didn’t want my daughter there. So I told her, ‘You’re not staying there with my daughter, come back.’ The flat was big enough for all of us. We tried to get back into the marriage, but it didn’t work.So I packed my bags, and I left them.

I filed for a divorce and she never responded, and I waited and waited. One day I got a letter at my door and I opened it, and the court granted me my divorce, based on the fact that she refused to respond. So I had a party that day. It’s difficult to get a divorce. It’s about an hour to get married, but 10 years to get divorced! It’s funny now, because the kids and me are close, and my wife and I talk now. So it’s all good. But at the time it was hard.

When I was living with my wife I was down and out. My marriage was on the rocks and I was drinking a lot. I had to go onto the streets for a while and live on people’s sofas. So when I bounced back, I swore that would never happen again. Sometimes in life you have to go through those things. To really make you, what’s the word to use, appreciate. But I could never live with a woman again. All of the trust was gone.

I’m too used now to being alone, but I’ve got loads of friends, we’ve all got mobile phones, so I come here every day. I’ve got my music, my T.V., everything I need. I live alone, and so it shall continue. It’s my time now, and it’s nice sometimes to put in your own front key in and put on a pair of shorts and chill. So I love it. I’ve got a beautiful flat, all my kids are big now. Yes, I’ve got three girls. Jade is 31; Rachel is 24; and Stephanie is 20. They went to school in Barbados with their mum. The schools are stricter, they are totally different than schools over here. When they came back, they were well advanced in their school. Rachel went to Uni and became a nurse, and Stephanie went in to the armed forces in the police. They all done well. Stephanie told me if I act up she’ll come arrest me!

And I kept in contact with their mum, because the kids would have just suffered otherwise. I did it the right way: I wasn’t going to be like my dad. My dad, that’s my real dad, I meet him twice in my life, he used to treat my mum bad, he used to beat her bad. And we were young then: I was nine and my brother was seven, and we knew what was going on but we couldn’t really do nothing. It got to a stage, he was beating my mum so bad, my mum put a knife on him, and she just stabbed him. The man almost died! And my mum walked out the court free, because all of the neighbors said, ‘No no no, he deserved what he got, because he was beating her a lot.’

As we were getting older, we was tellin’ my mum, “You gotta divorce him” and she would say “Yeah, but he’s the one who is bringing in the money,” and we told her, “No mummy, we will go to work, we will look after you. You can go divorce that guy.” I was about 16 at that stage, so I knew what was going on, plus I was working. She plucked up the courage, and then she was free. That was the best thing she’s ever done. She’s as happy as a larry now! She goes around shopping with her friends, she goes out, because no man is in her life no more.

I think my father has taught me to be the opposite of him. You know why? Because I’ve got daughters. And grandchildren. I’ve got three grandsons and two granddaughters. And they’re lovely. So I think God gave me those girls for a reason, you know? I treat women with respect because of that. What goes around comes around. And when my dad passed away, must have been about six years ago, a woman rang me. How this woman got my number I’ll never know, but she called me up and she said, ‘We’ve got no one to bury him.’ The last I heard they put him in, oh what’s it called again? A Pauper’s Grave. And I felt bad for that. But then I was told not to do. But that’s why you gotta be careful with what you do in life, because one day you’re going to die. And you want your memory to be a good one.

 

Surface Shoots & Sucker Roots, for Claire Chatelet

From the life of Claire Chatelet

By Naida Redgrave

‘I’m warning you, I jump from subject to subject. I’ve got a form of dyslexia. I’ll take you somewhere, then I’ll loop back and forth. The problem is, I find it very difficult to find salient points. I view everything as equally interesting and important.’

Claire sits, her long hair draping a frame across to her poised shoulders. She leans in with a laugh, gentle but hearty. The sunlight on the other side of the window bounces from the demountables along Cody Dock, to the water, to the table inside the River Princess boat, catching her hands with a glisten as they occasionally move with her words.

I’d say most of the time my life feels like I’ve been reincarnated in treacle.’

She mimics wading with her arms. Claire’s humour is dry and electric; her stories a meandering tapestry of pain and joy, weaving into meaning. The image of her persevering through thick viscous surroundings, pushing through a sweetness that is at times sickly, fits her perfectly.

She is spiritual but not religious. A former partner introduced her to some teachings from India.  ‘I worked a lot with death, so my story is heavy.’

Claire worked as a nurse during the height of the epidemic, when there was no medication and no hope to offer patients.

‘At the time I was so strongly rooted in these impermanent things… like you just die. The belief in reincarnation was very new to me. If I hadn’t have had that spiritual opening, I would have been in a mental hospital.’

Her delivery is ambiguous enough that she could be joking, but just as easily not. Her mind appears to organise a balance amongst an unbalanced world. She does not over or understate. She makes deep eye contact, solemnly stating that she does not lie because she can’t — it goes against her beliefs.

Her French accent clings to the rhythm of her lilting voice and her hands speak with it. ‘I came to England in ’74, to Cambridge University.’ She pauses, a smile spreads upwards from her mouth to her eyes.  She leans in — ‘as a cleaner’ — and laughs.

Information is sprinkled like seeds in soil — her mind a garden, as she wanders from plot to plot, watering the memories alive.

‘People saw I was French and they thought I would be the Parisian glam girl. I was anything but.’

She grew up on a small farm, one of five siblings. As a young child, the land was self-sufficient. They kept a few cows, sheep, pigs, rabbits and chickens, and grew most of what they ate. In the early years, before mechanisation, the family kept a horse for farm labour. Later, her father would be the first in the village to procure a small tractor.

‘I’m the middle child. I’m so in the middle that there’s a girl that end and a girl that end, six or seven years difference, then they each have a brother a year in-between, and then there’s two years difference between me and the brothers.’ She smiles mischievously. ‘I’m so much in the middle, it’s what gives me independence.’

As a youth she would get forgotten by her her parents, who would lump her with either the youngest or eldest two siblings. When the children would get split into age groups for activities, she’d always find herself left with the younger ones when the activity was deemed too old, or the older ones when the activity was too young.

‘What saved me was being a rebel. I remember standing and saying to my parents, you’ve got to decide if I’m small or big, because I never get to go anywhere.’ At seven years old, the workings of a justice seeker were already brewing.  

The village of Béreyziat, where she’s from, is small and largely agricultural. ‘The mayor of my village is married to an African woman, and yet the village votes far right.’ She says this with a half-laugh of exasperation. Claire speaks with a fondness of it, as if teasing an old friend. It’s a ridiculous mentality, she explains.

‘I was not born quite in the village but it’s where I grew up until I was eighteen. Even though I went to secondary school elsewhere I was really, really attached to that place.’

Later, reflecting on belonging and home, she sits back, drawing in a deep sigh. ‘I always felt at odds, wherever I was.’ The village is one of the only two places she’s ever felt attached.

‘The name itself is weird for France because of the spelling.’ She tells of a Basque word, spelled exactly the same, that means special.

Her relationship with the other place she has felt attached, Bethnal Green, has shifted in recent times. ‘It was where I did belong but I feel I’m ousted. I call it inner gentrification.’

After developing her estate’s community garden for some years, she is no longer able to garden there. She put in 40 hour weeks during a summer draught, to make sure the plants all survived.

‘Do you know how a cherry tree grows? Well some trees, the way they try to survive in the forest, they’ll have sucker shoots and other trees will pop up along the root. So you’ll have deep roots and you’ll have surface roots. And eventually those trees will die but some of the surface roots will survive.’

She has spent the majority of her life in Tower Hamlets, around the Bethnal Green area.

‘First in Lucas Hall, at the Royal London, which was an old fashioned nursing home when nursing was still very rigid, with uniforms and so on. From then I moved into shared accommodation with other people I knew, some musicians.’

When that building was demolished to make way for a park, Claire was able to access a council flat.

‘I lived there from ’81 to ’97. 16 years. During the first years, I never felt totally connected to it. It was a place I was renting. It’s only when my daughter was born in ’89 that I felt I had a sense of belonging.’

That building was also demolished, and she moved to her fourth and current accommodation in the Borough, the garden of which is out of bounds.

‘I finally felt at home, and now I feel pushed out. With the garden, I felt like I was putting the green back in Bethnal Green. I really felt I was bringing my childhood environment, and I would be able to feed all those seeds and plant, and now that’s not happening.’

The affect of this loss is apparent, not only in her words but through the pain in her eyes. Coincidentally, her parents farm is in the process of being sold.

When she speaks of her parents, her demeanour shifts. She takes longer pauses, breaths more drawn, as if calmly savouring a feeling that cannot be spoken.

‘When I was ten years old, life changed because mechanisation entered our lives in a big way. All the farmers’ livelihoods started to die, and the common market brought in more rules for production. It was a very confusing time for those who had been totally self-sufficient.’

Compulsory education was introduced and the self-sufficiency that she’d always known became slowly replaced with the pressures of material goods and keeping up with the Jones’.

‘We were looked down on as peasants. We grew up with no toilets at all, we had to go in the horse shed.’ She allows this last sentence time to linger, her posture unflinching, her arms leaning out onto the table, like sucker shoots reaching out an offering into her past.

Her younger brother was tasked with taking over the farm, so the remaining siblings had to fend for themselves. It was the 70s, and her classmates were immersing themselves in American literature and playing The Beatles — markers of the generation that felt lost on her. She preferred French music, where she could fully understand the lyrics being sang.

I didn’t want to go. I’d written essays at school that my ambition was to marry a farmer and be a social worker. But I felt I had to do something, everyone else was talking about going on the road.’ She left France for Germany, then England.  

‘I was the only one who did it. Two years later everybody was settled back at home and married, and I was the one stuck in England.’ The light catches the humour in her eyes.

After leaving the village and spending a short time in Germany, she and some others made their way to the UK to become Au Pairs. Instead, she found herself working at one of the colleges of Cambridge University, eventually waitressing its prestigious High Table. One day, serving one of the Masters of the College, she was invited to clean some ancient texts in the Medieval Library. ‘I didn’t realise at the time that he had a reputation as a womaniser. It’s only later I realised he was trying to bed me. But there were a lot of things I was oblivious to.’

She wears a gratefulness that reads as relief. She doesn’t elaborate, but there’s a sense that there were many close calls and near misses that she appreciates more greatly now than she would have realised in her twenties.

Walking the grounds of the University, suddenly immersed in an almost Dickensian world of fog laden buildings and gentleman in their gowns, just like the books she read as a child, it was a world away from the rural France of her childhood.

‘Being French, they thought I came with my culture. Not agriculture.’ Her laughter is inviting, her train of thought weaves freely and joyously through memories igniting behind her eyes.

She stayed in Cambridge after meeting an undergraduate Law student, and when he got a teaching job at the University of Kent, they moved together. ‘I know the academic life from the inside. There’s something very stuffy in the academic world.’

She laughs, telling of swearing to never go out with someone from another culture, after the experience of dating an Englishman.

‘On one of the misunderstandings with my English boyfriend, I had cooked Brussel sprouts the way my mother cooked them in France – you boil them a lot and you make them Gratin with cheese and white sauce and it’s really gooey and yummy. For him, I hadn’t put the cross behind them. And he just focused on that.”

After Kent, Claire decided to study nursing, choosing London as a halfway point between Kent and Cambridge, where she’d made a network of friends. The move, intended to be for three years, became three decades.

‘I always wanted to be a nurse, interestingly enough. When I was a child, people asked, what do you want to do when you’re older? And it was a nun, a nurse or a ballet dancer.’  Her sharp laughter breaks into earnestness. She describes a French dancer, at the pinnacle of her career, who gave everything up to become a nun. ‘As a child I couldn’t say why they connected, I just knew they did.’

During nursing school, she was considered a mature student amongst a mixture of eighteen and nineteen year olds. ‘You had some Eastenders, you had a big part who were middle class, who were doing nursing whilst they were waiting to be married.’ She scoffs playfully. ‘They came into it to find a doctor to marry.’

Amongst the cohort were immigrant recruits from the West Indies and Philippines, who assumed that being French, she was middle class.

‘My experience was, I had much more in common with first generation immigrants. I had this instant’ — she clicks her fingers, eyes widened and eyebrows raised — ‘and they recognised it as well. We had this unseen understanding… I don’t know what it is. It would be interesting to know why…how we recognised each other.’

During nursing training she experienced many layers of prejudice, both personally and through observation. ‘We had three tutors, one was a West Indian lady. Before she would arrive, the other tutor would say, oh you’re about to get the sunburnt lady.’

During a placement she was given a bad report that could’ve risked her career, but was overturned by the Matron on the following placement who recognised her abilities. The person who had given her the bad report was struck off after six months for sexual coercion with the younger students.  ‘Perhaps he sensed it wouldn’t work with me. I was a danger to his dominance of the group. Maybe it’s a pattern in my life, I seem to attract it. It’s weird because if people have integrity, people seem to be against them.’

When her training was complete, she asked to be placed in the Sexual Health department, reasoning that it was at least a place where nobody died. Then the AIDS epidemic hit.

‘The coin flipped  overnight. The department where nobody died, it was suddenly the department where everyone was dying. If I start talking about the AIDs epidemic, I enter thousands and thousands of life stories. I made the calculation once if you take an average of ten people per day over four days, and ten months a year over ten years, that’s how many people I’ve interviewed about their sexual history and about HIV at a time when there was no medication and no hope. In order to survive I had to reconcile.’

Counselling didn’t exist in nursing at that point, and there was nothing in place to support the nurses during the epidemic.

‘When you’re in the caring role, and people look to the carers, where do the carers get their support?’

At a later stage of the epidemic, when a Zimbabwean friend worked alongside her at a Hackney HIV clinic, they were instructed to destroy unused medication, instead of returning it to the pharmacy as had previously been procedure.

‘I was sat next to her, and we had to destroy drugs that we knew back home for her would be lifesaving.’

She reaches her hands out, palms down on the table, her fingers curved like surface roots, inside carrying the memories of the seven year old rebel, and the twenty-year-old unswayed by the intimidation of Cambridge, and the nurse who’d conducted around sixteen thousand interviews with desperate patients in a time before there was a cure, and she shoots out with a smile and a shrug:

‘I took some and gave it to her in a bag. I’d say most of the time my life felt like I’ve been reincarnated in treacle. And then there’s these moments of complete miracles.’

She says this, waving her hand and surrendering these miracles to the unexplained, perhaps not fully realising her part in planting seeds in various stages of her life, nurturing the survival from which miracles have been born.

The root system of a cherry tree serves two critical functions; it collects water and nutrients from the soil, directing them upwards to feed the leaves and fruit of the tree; then it holds firmly into the ground to support the trunk.

Lost & Found, for Rosie Joyce

From the life of Rosie Joyce

By Nacima Khan

We met on a boat, Rosie and I.

Affectionately named the ‘River Princess’, the boat was charming yet weather-beaten and floated in the waters of Cody Dock, a less frequented and quiet part of East London. The boat smelled damp; the ghosts of past legendary women welcomed you in the form of fading posters, pinned to the walls, as you crawled through the entrance of the boat and spilled out further into a seating area.  I sat across from Rosie and sipped my tea. Its fragrant note of peppermint filled my chest with a warm feeling, and I leaned back against the hard red seat. The River Princess stood strangely still in the waters and through the dusty windows; we watched the grey waters lay quiet. I listened to the steady tone of Rosie’s voice as she began to describe a particular memory of her mother. She took me back in time, to the dawn of the new millennium in the year 2000 and on Southwold beach, quietly nestled on the edge of Suffolk…

***

Rosie stood still and looked across the horizon as the orange sun began rising against the water and cast a warm glow on her face. It was a beautiful sight. The first sun of the millennium bowed before her in its full glory. One of the biggest moments in history, and this is how she was to remember it. Her right hand ached with the weight of the plastic bag brimming full of empty bottles and food packages, making a dull clanging noise and releasing a waft of stale alcohol, as she heaved it over to her other hand. She had spent the last three hours of her walk on the beach, trying to pick up the rubbish left behind. Sleep would not come to her after watching the fireworks on TV earlier that night.

The smell of fresh water was starting to rise against the heavy smell of gunpowder – a residue of the fireworks from the night. As Rosie breathed in the fresh air, she glanced up at the top knot of her mother’s bungalow just overlooking the beach. Her feet sunk deep into the sand as she clambered across the beach to reach down for another bottle partially covered by the sand. The beach was empty now and Rosie could see the tail of a stray dog wagging happily with his nose buried deep into the remains of a KFC box. Rosie shook her head as she cast her mind back to the noise on the beach earlier that night, when a young and rowdy group had decided to welcome the millennium with their own private celebration by shouting against the quietness of the neighbouring homes.

Earlier that evening, as Rosie rearranged the books on her mother’s shelf, she could hear the group on the beach celebrating as they started to settle on the cool smooth sand, blaring music from speakers and laughing uncontrollably in fits.

“What’s that, then?” her mother asked from her armchair.

Rosie turned her head slightly towards her.

“What’s that racket?”

Rosie sighed as she let her fingers run across the books, now neatly arranged in alphabetical order.

“It’s the millennium, mum. There are people on the beach celebrating the millennium.’

Silence followed and Rosie shook the hair away from her eyes as she braced herself for the questions to come.

“Millennium? Is that today? No one told me. No one tells me anything. Why didn’t you tell me?”

Rosie took a deep breath and turned around, walking towards the 89 years old hunched figure of her mother, sitting slightly forward on a stiff red armchair. This armchair was the only surviving member of a three-piece suite which her mother had cherished but Rosie had hated with a passion whilst growing up.

“I did tell you, but you must have forgotten… again.”

Rosie whispered the last word to herself and she stooped down to pick up a ceramic white soup bowl from the coffee table. She pulled a wooden chair from against the wall and placed it near the armchair.

“Come on, mum, the soup has cooled down now.”

Rosie’s eye flickered up at the old-fashioned clock and followed the creak of the longer hand as it stopped at the number 8.

11.40pm.

It would be another twenty minutes before the countdown began. She thought of her partner Neil, waiting for the millennium on his own, sat in their London flat whilst guilt and duty had cast her away from him to keep her mother company. It would be another five days before she could hand her mother’s care over to professionals and return back to her life.

Rosie looked around the small front room of the bungalow. Furniture from the previous family house had been cramped into the rooms, all still laced with the same strong scent of polish which also seemed to be emanating from the overwhelming maroons and dark reds of the furnishing. Earlier in the morning, when Rosie frantically searched the bungalow for a mirror, she suddenly remembered how, because her mother had always thought herself to be ugly, she never looked at herself in one, and hence why there were none in any of the rooms. Rosie wondered, as she rifled through her hand bag for her tiny hand mirror, why, when growing up, she never stopped to think how tragic that was until now.

After the death of her father, her mother, Peggy, took the opportunity to sell the family home. It was a big, rambling old house which Rosie’s father had bought without notifying the family and which Peggy resented from the moment she set eyes on it. The cold and dark rooms imprisoned the otherwise brilliant and academic mind she had and after feeble attempts to fill the rooms with visiting relatives and friends, Peggy resorted to shutting herself away from the darkness by retreating into her books and escaping to attend matinees at the local theatre.  After selling the house, she chose to move into this bungalow because of its coastal location, something which she hoped would help lure her three daughters to visit and stay with her often, which of course, never happened. Rosie thought of her two sisters: the eldest, who had harboured an eating disorder for many years, resulting in her tall and incredibly thin frame, and the youngest sister, who was not much different with her obsessive need to adorn herself with the latest heights of fashion. And here she was, the one who agreed to watch her mother as she withered away, over time, in mind and spirit, much like the cliffs which bordered the neighbouring coasts, crumbling bit by bit into the sea.

Peggy looked up at Rosie as the pale light from the bulb bounced off her glasses.

“Don’t you miss him?”

Rosie stirred the soup with a spoon.

“Miss who?”

“Richie. I’ve lost him again.”

Rosie froze and looked at her mother who was watching her, waiting for an answer. Peggy’s eyes looked ridiculously large from behind the lenses which had hidden them away for so many years, and for a moment, Rosie saw a flicker of her younger mother in the wrinkled and crushed face. Richie, Rosie’s brother, had died tragically many years ago and was followed shortly by the death of their father. Rosie placed the warm bowl on her lap.

“I miss him, mum, every day.”

Peggy leaned forward and placed one hand on top of hers; it was warm and soft and looked so small and fragile.

“My mother would tell me to always look for lost things. And take care of them better. Stupid girl, she would laugh, always losing things.”

Rosie opened her mouth to say something but was cut off when Peggy suddenly leaned back and jerked her head towards the window.

“What is that racket?”

Rosie wiped a tear from her eye and picked up the TV remote from the coffee table and clicked down on the worn out buttons to bring the small screen before them to life. The screen flashed blue first and then a pair of bright red lips loomed on the screen, as a hyper-feminine presenter shrilled at the camera at the top of her voice.

”It’s the millennium countdown!”

“Millennium? Today? No one told me.”

Rosie continued to stir the soup.

Her mother slept soundly after watching the fireworks on TV with a childish fascination, their colourful sparks reflecting on her glasses. Rosie spent the rest of the night pacing back and forth from wall to wall in the cramped living room, not being able to sleep and looking for things to pick up and put back in their place. She finally slipped into her shoes, grabbed her anorak and headed out of the door and walked to the beach, where she spent the next couple of hours, clearing up the rubbish.

Rosie leaned against the wall of her mother’s house and dug her feet into the sand. She placed the heavy bag against the other bag she had filled earlier.

Richie.

Rosie clasped a hand to her heart as she took a sharp intake of breath and a dull sensation of pain surfaced to her chest. She let her eyes follow the movement of the water as it calmly rolled forward and then back against the beach. A fluid, beautiful disaster which had claimed so many loved ones including Richie, who had drowned in the Atlantic sea after a feeble attempt to reach America on a yacht. A quiet but adventurous soul was her brother, and with only a two year difference in their age, he was her companion throughout their childhood and adolescence. Rosie closed her eyes and smiled as she remembered the cycling marathons they would undertake between Aldenham and Whetstone just for the thrill of adventure and competition.

“Come on, Rosie!”

He would shout as he sped ahead teasing her to race.

She missed him. Rosie opened her eyes and continued to look out onto the water. So many lives and hopes had been buried beneath this very water. Earth’s biggest grave.

Rosie was startled out of her thoughts by the clang of a bottle rolling out of one of the bags on the floor. Rosie heaved herself up, put the bottle back in the bag and braced herself against the cold air which had started to pick up. She looked at her watch – 8.45am. Peggy would be scampering around in the room looking for her glasses, no doubt, and the expectation of breakfast would have her in panic looking for Rosie. She hurried onto the pathway leading up to the bungalow door and then into her mother’s front room.

***

“It tore my family apart when my brother died.”

Rosie looked at me when she spoke those words.  

“We didn’t cope with it well, especially my mum. No one spoke, no one consoled each other. We all just retreated into our own corners. It was awful.”

Peggy spent the rest of her days being cared for in a sheltered accommodation until she passed away and the topic of Richie was never to come up again.

I could see the Rosie stood on the beach, looking out across the water and grieving for the brother taken from her and as we moved to the life she created for herself after her brother’s death, she revealed her biggest heartbreak of all.

“My son is missing. Joff, as we all call him, or Jonathon. He is my youngest.”

Rosie uttered those words to me and pushed back against her seat as she looked away and towards the waters outside the window. She recalled that day, eight years ago, when she had picked up the phone and heard the words which were to haunt her thereafter.

“Joff is gone.”

It was Heidi, Joff’s ex-wife, who had broken the news to her whilst hysterically crying and prompting Rosie to comfort and console her.

“I tried everything in my power to stop him.”

She looked back at me.

“But I failed. I lost him.”

I hesitated before asking my next question and watched Rosie’s face as she pondered on her answer.

“Will you try to find him?”

She shook the hair away from her eyes as her hands moved rapidly from one position to another.

“I’m not sure.”

I took myself back to the Rosie stood on the beach, and I could hear her thoughts echoing across the water as her voice bounced and laced itself through the waves to reach across many of its beds, the flesh of her flesh – her son Joff.

‘Dear Joff,

I tried everything in my power

to make you stay.

Three little souls

you left to fate.

Thank you mum,

The last words you said,

robotic words which chimed in my hands.

A flash of blond,

charming smile,

eyes which twinkled,

feathered with snow.

A gaping hole,

you left behind,

that I desperately fill,

with a memory

a smile,

a cuddle,

visits to school plays,

tissues for runny noses and wet eyes.

I have become an old armchair,

wrapping myself around them.

And they know where I am.

But so do you,

My Joff,

So do you.’

Rosie recalled the cheeky, bright boy he was contrasting with the withdrawn, unreachable man he had eventually become before he disappeared altogether.

“It was sink or swim with Joff.”

Joff, Richie, and Peggy, all connected to the Rosie stood on the beach, and somehow to the two strangers sat on the River Princess.

Rosie shifted forward.

“Perhaps I could contact Missing Persons again, I don’t know. Let’s see.”

We both looked out of the window.

“Oh, look, the tide has risen.”