African People

Sonia Hope school photo c.1975I am a librarian working in an academic library in the centre of London. The collection covers every possible subject that the university students might find useful: philosophy, psychology, business, marketing, oil and gas and banking, literature. I work two evenings a week, and this is when the mature, part-time students visit. One of the regulars is a petite woman, middle-aged but still youthful-looking. She has dark skin and angular features. She is friendly and talkative.

‘How’s the studying going?’ I ask. It’s late, and we both blink at each other under the harsh flourescent light.

‘Oh, you know,’ she says, and laughs, revealing perfect white teeth. I laugh with her.

‘I’m going to assume it’s all going well for you,’ I say.

She laughs a bit more. ‘I’m taking these out,’ she says, pushing a pile of books across the issue desk towards me and handing over her student card.

I really should have asked which course she is studying by now, two terms into the academic year, but I haven’t. Instead, I have merely found myself interested in the books that she borrows. Tonight, amongst the pile, there are books on African philosophy (we actually have books on African philosophy?) and a novel, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I remember how much I hated that book when I read it as part of my undergraduate degree, and how surprised my lecturer had been that I hated it. I scan the barcodes of each book and stamp them with a date set two weeks into the future. I look at the student’s face, now set in a serious expression as she waits for her books. I feel as if we are mirroring each other, dark faces opposite one another – hers more recently from Africa than mine, a product of centuries-old diasporic movement. My mind fleetingly recalls the scene in the Conrad novel in which Marlow encounters the enslaved Congolese people, ‘black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees […] nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation….’ [1] I want to say to her, don’t even bother with that book, but I don’t. I’m a librarian. I have to be neutral. Instead, I say, ‘due back in two weeks,’ and hand them over to her. ‘Take care. Don’t work too hard.’

She smiles, piles the books into a tote bag, and leaves.

Forty years earlier, my formal education began. I was four and a half years old when my family moved to Bedford, a town fifty miles from London where I was born. Everyone else in the reception class at my prospective school would be five. Mum had to persuade the headmaster to take me early. ‘She’s been at school in London since the age of four,’ Mum told the yellow-toothed, ferret-faced Mr Limmer. ‘Please take her’. Reluctantly, he accepted me into the school.

Goldington Green School was a red-brick Victorian building with a bold-faced clock staring out from its façade. It stood on one side of a busy main road which cut a swath of grey through the Green leading straight into Bedford Town Centre; Goldington Church stood on the other, ruined and crumbling to young eyes. The church was Gothic and cold, lifeless without its Sunday morning congregation.

The other children knew I was younger than them. They saw my hair in bunches, tied with red ribbons. Grey pleated skirt and v-neck jumper. Bright white blouse underneath. White knee-length socks and red t-strap Clarks shoes. Self-contained and nervous, I refused to give away words lightly.

There were seven of us, including my older sister, Susan. If we were lined up in a row like an identity parade and looked at through glass, there would be a row of small black faces: a face stony with defiance, a toothy, smiling face, a timid face, a face nervously turning away, others, childish and inscrutable. One of the seven was a little girl that the teachers thought I should be friends with. She was black, like me. Skinny and silent, like me. She had my Christian name and my mother’s maiden name, and for this reason I was highly suspicious of her. I decided to keep my distance. Sonia Fergusson and I would never be friends.

Now, I remember that Sonia Fergusson was quite dark-skinned. Smooth baby skin. Deep-brown, honest eyes. Distant, but related to me, somehow? That had been my anxiety.

Instead, I became friends with a girl who was even smaller than I was. Her name was Rebecca Smith. Her freckles and short, streaky-blonde hair reminded me of Jodie Foster, film star of Freaky Friday and Bugsy Malone. Rebecca fascinated me. One of her arms was shorter than the other. Instead of having a hand with five fingers, Rebecca’s right arm ended in a soft, curved bump, with tiny wart-like buds of skin where her fingers might have been. I was impressed by her tom-boy verve. We plotted adventures that would take us to the farthest reaches of the school playing field. We were going to cycle the breadth of Bedfordshire on our Raleigh Fourteens.[2] Snails would be given holidays in shoe boxes and jars.

I knew Rebecca was a special person because eventually she was given a ‘bionic’ hand, like The Six Million Dollar Man. The prosthetic hand matched her pale skin minus the freckles, and as she showed it off in the playground I could see how seamlessly it attached to her arm. She only had to look at it, she said, and the fingers would move. Rebecca Smith became, in my eyes, truly heroic.

I was sitting next to her as usual in the school assembly when Mr Limmer told us that we were about to watch an interesting film. Short films were occasionally shown in assembly, usually to illustrate a particular religious message that Mr Limmer was attempting to convey. The lights in the hall were dimmed, the heavy red curtains drawn. All of us, children aged from five to eleven, sat cross-legged on the parquet floor expectantly, giggling and shushing each other. The reel-to-reel projector rattled into action. The film was old, crackling, black and white but also washed-out grey. We sat in the dark, trying to make sense of what we were seeing.

The film seemed to be about African people – at least I think they were African people. There were men and women, and some children. The people walked across arid land and then around a cluster of mud huts with thatched roofing, wearing little and baring, declaring the colour of their skin. Rebecca and I looked at each other. Even in a televisual world of suggestion and innuendo, full of Benny Hill and Carry On films, I knew this type of nakedness was different. It was without reason or context. It was obscene. Rebecca knew it. I knew it. The boys sitting around us, sniggering, knew it. They should cover up, shouldn’t they? But it’s hot there, isn’t it?

Then the camera’s eye shifted to a group of people engaged in what seemed to be a festival of dancing. First, the people danced in a circle, arms throwing invisible arcs in the air. Some of them, I was relieved to see, were wearing cloths around their waists that looked like tatty mini kilts. Suddenly, frighteningly, a tall figure wearing a grass skirt and a huge white mask, blank except for black-lined eye slits and expressionless black lips, leapt into view. He was holding grass swats in each hand and shook them up and down, reminding me of a Morris dancer flicking his handkerchiefs. Other figures wearing masks joined the tall one. The images were punctuated with commentary which made little sense to me: ‘The sense of mimicry is highly developed…acting as Native Police is a popular turn.’[3]

The spectacle seemed to go on for a very long time. Apparently, all of this had something to do with me, but I couldn’t work out what. When the film ended, the curtains were pulled open again, and the end of the reel snapped to a finish, I felt hot with shame. I could hear Mr Limmer talking, but the words reached my ears as heavy echoes, as if I were under water. I began to question my place in Goldington Green School, as a girl who lived in Goldington Green, Bedford, England, The World.

Forty years later, I am reading pithy one hundred and forty character messages on a small screen. One of them takes me back to forty years past, to that strange assembly sitting next to Rebecca Smith: ‘Bedford kids learn Traditional African Dance for School Play’.[4] I cannot believe what I am reading; the information collides with the memory I carry with me from that day. The article reports that the children learned the dances for a play based on the life of an Ashanti king. We had sat and watched a film about African people, encouraged to deny any connection to them.

Now, my old primary school is twinned with a school in Ghana.

 

April 2016.

 

 

[1] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness p.25 http://bit.ly/1NRnkFt

[2] A model of girl’s bicycle popular in the 1970s.

[3] Basden Collection 3: Africa Dances [film, 8mins. 45 secs.] http://www.colonialfilm.org.uk/

[4] ‘Bedford Kids Learn Traditional African Dance’, The Voice, 16 December 2015   http://www.voice-online.co.uk/article/bedford-kids-learn-traditional-african-dance-school-play

 

Wild Walter Pigeon

from http://recordmecca.com/item-archives/lightnin-hopkins-first-pressing-lightnin-hopkins-strums-the-blues-lp/ [ sales image]

 

Walter Pigeon sits on a red plastic bench at the bus shelter on George Lane. He is waiting for one of the single-decker ‘W’ buses to arrive. The cool, damp drizzle of the early morning intensifies his pensive mood.

Walter glances up at the bus timetable: ‘about every twenty minutes’, he reads, and knows from past experience that twenty minutes can stretch to half an hour, depending on the sluggish suburban dual-carriageway traffic; that a bus may not arrive at all if a driver is ill and the route is short-staffed; that he could be sitting there for some time, with others around him waiting, then disappearing onto buses bound for other places. Over the years, Walter has witnessed the dissolution of queue etiquette. Who gets on the bus first cannot be predicted, as this particular triumph now depends on who has the most cheek to elbow their way past fellow passengers. No matter that Walter is a large but fragile man, his ageing, weighty body supported by crutches. Courtesy and politeness are long gone, he muses.

Walter is proud of the fact that he has never needed to own a portable music player. Walter loves the blues, sings blues songs to himself in his head. Today, his mind throbs with Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘Woke up this Morning’, his silent-voice riding the rolling intensity of Hopkins’ melody.

‘Wild’ Walter Pigeon dwells inside him, a lithe, long-fingered guitar virtuoso, a rebellious poet of misfortune, loss and ruined romance. Walter has never played the guitar, but he can feel the rhythm and the cut of strings against his fingers. He has never sung in front of an audience, except in dreams.

He smiles as he thinks about his secret self, so lost in contemplation that he does not notice the W12 arrive until he feels the small crowd shuffle in front of him, vying to be the first to get on the bus. He eases himself slowly off the bench to join back of the queue, when a young boy, hunched, hood up obscuring his face, stands aside.

‘After you, mate,’ he says.

Invertebrates

From https://pixabay.com/en/spider-crab-spider-1054740/

 

When I first started this job, Ged said to me, What do you want to work here for? You should be out taking drugs and clubbing and fucking. I looked down at my clothes: too clingy, too red, too much boob, ass, leg? He struggles to look me in the eye. Rather than show me how to work the till, the first thing Ged did was to ask me where I’m from. I said, Cockfosters, and can you believe he actually said, no, where are you really from? I said again, Cockfosters. He thought I was being facetious.

I am on probation.

I was so bored in that dead hour before the shop closes that I was looking up pictures of spiders on the internet. I found one that’s the absolute spit of Ged – admittedly, Ged has fewer legs – but he’s the closest any homo sapien has come to resembling a Crab spider: a blob for a body, spindly legs, milk-white. The website states, helpfully, that they stalk their prey by jumping on unsuspecting victims. Spiders do what they must.

It’s one minute to nine the next morning. We’re not open yet. The phone rings. I say, Paul, can you get that? Paul says, no, you get it. I cajole, oh go on Paul with the professional voice, please. Then I feel Ged’s eyes boring into me across the shop floor, so I pick up. A voice is competing with the sound of traffic. His tongue curls around vowels, stretches them out. The voice is spilling out of the mouthpiece of the phone. I want a tri-band router. A ZT-5300 ZonePro Tech ethernet router. Can you hear me? I say, I’ll check, hold on a moment. In a thick-tongued, bristly brogue, I say to Paul, yooou got a ZT-5300 root-orrr in stuck? Paul shakes with silent laughter as he checks the shelves behind the counter and nods. I take my hand off the mouthpiece. Hello? Sorry to keep you – hello? But the voice has gone. Ged takes one contemptuous look at me and marches upstairs to his office.

A week later, and I’m in Ged’s grubby office sitting opposite a regional manager in an ill-fitting blue suit, an HR consultant from Head Office, all padded shoulders and bootcut trousers, and Ged. I’d half-expected the latter’s monotonic lecture about my unsatisfactory conduct – but then he uses The R Word: the one I use to describe my ex-boyfriend’s Dad who wouldn’t have me in the house; the one that sums up my maths teacher at school who outright called me thick, like the rest of my lot. Not to mention the people who moan and say the country’s full! I look at the faces opposite me: Ged’s, narrow and treacherous; the regional manager, his smile oily with schadenfreude. I listen to the HR consultant as her scarlet lips extol the virtues of training that will improve my cultural awareness. That’s when I begin to laugh. I laugh for so long that the muscles in my gut ping like overstretched elastic. I laugh myself out of the office, out of the front door of the shop, and out of a job.

The Mappers

Copyright Local Cycling Guide 4 2015, Transport for London

i) The Runaways, June 1984
Kay and I are best friends. We’ve just left school, forever. We are three weeks into the summer holidays, and I’m walking to her house down the North Circular Road. The grass verge with its pink cherry trees that runs between the dual carriageways is beautiful, like a postcard from the country. I love the familiar smell of cherry blossom mixed with ever-present traffic fumes.
I have my homemade map with me. Kay will tease me a bit because I’ve bothered to bring it, but then she will take out hers from her wardrobe and we’ll put them together. The only roads and buildings we include are the ones that matter to us: my house. Kay’s house. The A406 from Edmonton to Palmer’s Green, the sharp left of the road onto Green Lanes. On mine, the way to Kay’s house is drawn as a sharp backwards ‘L’ with a dislocated tail. Our maps are more like constellations, felt tip dreams of our reality.
Kay and I became interested in maps when we joined the Science Club at school. It was run by our unfeasibly good-looking science teacher, Mr Forster. We were fascinated by his laborious experiments to measure longitude and latitude: building a quadrant, waiting for the midday sun. We had to take his word for it when it came to working out latitude and identifying the North Star, because we were forbidden from meeting him at night. But our imaginations soared. We called ourselves the Mappers, and spent hours poring over ordinance survey maps and atlases in the school library.
We agreed that we would run away today – only for a day. Kay thinks it will take my mind off the fact that I failed all my O’ levels except two: Maths and Physics.
‘Let’s catch the 29 bus all the way to Trafalgar Square and wonder down the Thames towards Docklands,’ Kay suggested. ‘Don’t worry. In twenty year’s time school exams won’t seem so important anymore.’
I’m not sure I believe her.

ii) A Baby, August 1992
I receive a letter from Kay. It begins,

Guess what? I’ve had a baby! It’s a boy, 7lbs 9oz. I’m so happy! The labour was hell, though, I could barely walk afterwards!! Dave’s been brilliant, he’s going to be a great Dad…

I begin to lose interest. Kay writes that they are going to christen the baby Perry, which is a horrible name. She regrets that I couldn’t come to their wedding (that was a year ago), is sorry that I missed their housewarming party.
I concentrate on the hum and trundle of washing machines and dryers from the launderette beneath my flat. I stare down at the busy street full of shoppers through my living room window.
When we were teenagers, Kay and I said that we cared about most in the world is freedom, and in order to remain free we wouldn’t have kids. We didn’t tell anyone about this. It was the Mappers’ secret. Kay has broken the pact between us. Worse, she’s obviously forgotten that we made the pact in the first place. We are no longer the Mappers.

iii) On Not Meeting, March 2004
I’m forty. My soul is lost to Barclay’s Bank and banking is what I do for a living. The Maths O’ level came in handy. I’m divorced, I kept the Mappers’ pact. I travel to work, walking from my flat to Turnpike Lane station. I get the tube to Moorgate, and walk five minutes to the bank. If I was still updating my map, I would represent this journey with one-dimensional Monopoly houses of different colours (red for home and green for work) and a tangle of felt tip lines to indicate direction and method of transport. It would make sense.
I have an account on the Friends Reunited website. I waste time scrolling through the profiles of my ex-school acquaintances, now remarkably transformed into happy, successful adults. I look at Kay’s profile occasionally, and she is now on Baby Number Four. Kay posts pictures of camping holidays and family Christmases, and nights out with work colleagues. One day, unexpectedly, after years of silence I receive this message:

Hiya! It’s Kay – great to find you on here, it’s been ages!

We send each other messages, promise to catch up, make a date to meet. But now we are plotted on a map not made by us I want to erase the timeline.

 

 

Charmaine meets Charlie

women-s-shoes-red-pin-fashion-66856-mediumAfter to-ing and fro-ing, exchanging messages for a whole week, I thought it was time we met. We seem to get on, through words, anyway, so why not? You’ve seen photos of me, you know what I look like, and you’ve said you like what you see, this – twenty-something me. Slim-skinny – I think, a dream of yours. I’ve told you I’m a former model, and you’re impressed. You own properties all over East London and you’ve got a nice holiday home in Marbella. I’m mildly impressed by that.
We planned to meet tonight at 7 pm, at the Red Bar, a cavernous, best-kept secret beneath the Tottenham Court Road. You say, e-swift in your replies, yes, yes, great, can’t wait to meet you.
I put on my best silk dress. Cliché hot-red. My patent leather red stilettos, size ten, are a perfect fit. My long platinum-blond hair almost glitters against my sable skin.
At the Red Bar, I sit and watch as you approach: a mature man, slightly stooped, a little bit pink, but that could be the light. You are exactly as I thought you would be. Eager, face wide open with hope. I stand up, offer my hand.
Charmaine?  Charlie. Kiss. Kiss. Your grey eyes meet mine. A look, a start. I’m so much taller than you. My hand grips yours, tighter. Poor Charlie.
You say, you’re not, are you?
Deepening my voice for full effect, I almost purr, during the day, Charlie, yes. But at night, I’m all woman.