Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Fruit Anxiety

This is my name for a psychological condition I and several others suffer from in Aishalton. It applies equally to vegetables, but I think ‘Fruit Anxiety’ has a better ring.

The anxiety begins the moment you arrive home from the market with fruit or veg. Shall I put them in a plastic box? The cockroaches won’t get them, and there won’t be a haze of tiny flies infesting my kitchen. But soon the box begins to sweat. Condensation forms and begins to flow. The fruit begins to rot, and then collect moulds of every colour except the expected one. Marrow?- red, with a damp grey and white beard. Bananas?- hoarfrost with green edging. Onions?- a treacle-like substance with red tidemarks. Potatoes?- blisters, oozing, with a foul smell. Papaya?- boils (you don’t want to know). Tomatoes?- grey and exploding. Pumpkin?- blue, fading to white and bushy. Mangoes?- first speckled like a leopard, then oozing, then white. All of these occur at an improbable time-lapse speed.

Hmmm. Maybe not the plastic box. Cardboard?- can’t get cardboard here. Out on the table in a bowl? Covered in cockroach bites in the morning. Hanging in bag from the kitchen shelf? A haze of tiny flies grows and grows until you dread entering the kitchen. So I go back to the plastic box, drying it out twice a day (sometimes washing and drying the fruit and veg as well). This means that I become a rot, mould and pest policeman. And if I let my attention slip for half a day, it’s too late. Either the fruit or the kitchen is festering. It is hard to find time to work amongst my foodstuff-policing responsibilities.

The anxiety level is roughly double if the fruit or veg in question is a gift. Fruit Anxiety means that the gift is greeted with a mixture of joy and dread. Added to the frustration of waste is the guilt of scorning generosity: literally throwing juicy pearls before swine, gifts gone to the dogs. I do get some tiny satisfaction from seeing the Infuriating Sleep-Destroying Cows munching vile slimy marrow beard, and a kinder consolation from feeding chickens lovely fruit that is too over-ripe for me but ambrosia to them.

Thus fruit and vegetables become our masters. Their presence demands activity and military planning. Fruit Anxiety is clearly a disorder of many facets: obsessive-compulsiveness, single-issue fixation, ingratitude, and a disordered attention to food.

There are two ways to protect yourself from Fruit Anxiety. The first is to have trees or vegetables in your yard, and only pick things minutes before eating. The second is far more popular among Amerindians- live on meat and farine. It may not be a balanced diet, but at least you retain some mental equilibrium!

Monday, 24 August 2009

Lambent moments

There’s a wonderful scene at the beginning of the film “Before Sunset”. The hero is sitting in a bookshop in Paris, the final stop on his book tour, deflecting critics intent on plundering his secrets. “What really happened?” they ask. He tells them instead of his next book, a book enclosed within the infinitely expandable bubble of one single moment. The moment is something like this: a man watches his young daughter dancing on top of a table, torn between loving admiration and protectiveness- wanting to tell her to take care, to get down. Simultaneously he relives a moment in his past with his first love: she is on top of a car, dancing, and the air is heavy with possibility. We, the knowing audience, see the moment he is embroidering, or even remember it from “Before Sunrise”- there is no car; she is dancing in the street in the dawn half-light to the music of a basement harpsichord. It’s hard to tell who the fiction is for- himself, the critics, or the love of his life hovering unbeknownst outside the window, waiting to be rediscovered. What ‘really’ happens?

Lambent moments. Where you can’t tell if it’s poetry, art or life that is so beautiful. Where time abolishes sequence in favour of serendipity. Where ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ are powerless and a moment holds you in thrall to ‘yes’.

Preparing to start teaching a literature course at Aishalton Secondary, I read poems all afternoon. It has been a long time since I did this. The poems have a strong Caribbean bias. Some are good, many not. At 5pm, sated with issues clumsily disguised as art, I transgress and traverse off-route to Derek Walcott. It’s a poem about his father’s death and the power of words. Beginning slowly, his pellucid perfections seep into my mind, follow the heart’s arteries to the brain. I can hardly bear to continue reading, because if I do, it must end. As I finish I stumble out into the evening sun, stunned with perfection. All is quiet. A cow rips grass, an old friend of mine, sunlight gilding its ear hair. It provided the iconic image in November that I sent to all my friends announcing our move here. Curled horns, white hide, huge almond eyes. Even now, when Aishalton is unremarkable ordinary home, this beautiful cow is exotic. Everything coexists for a long breath- the hopes I had then, Derek Walcott, my father’s vividity, the beauty of equatorial evening light, the cow’s breathing, the purpose of our presence here, poetry and love, stupefaction- and then I exhale. Return to the house, dazzled, needing to cook dinner before the light fails.

Lambent moments. I guess we all have them. I guess they expire if we are too busy to notice. They might be treasure. We might be paupers without them.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

"If she was just mad, I would keep her"

We visit Shea briefly. It is about three hours from Aishalton, the end of the north-east ‘road’. We have left behind the relative prosperity of Maruranau here. The walls of the houses are cracked. Gaps between mudbricks ventilate friably. The tracks are overgrown. Rubbish scars the grass, turning wildflowers into weeds. Nevertheless it is beautiful. Shea rock broods, shadowed by the slanting evening sun. Its gigantic black mass is articulated against the distant mountains. Unexpected friendly faces pop up everywhere- “Miss Sarah” recognised from school, Father Amar known and loved by local Catholics.

Headteacher Pernambuco’s house is one of the smartest. We park the jeep and pick our way through cow bones and long weeds to the front door. The house is concrete, painted green, hemmed in by thick clusters of banana palm and cassava. We sit outside, in the shadow of the house. The chairs are all full; I choose to sit on the gas bottle. The headmaster is an imposing man. He looks massive (my eyes judge height in context now, so I see a 5ft 6” man as tall). I’d guess he’s 5ft 7”. Confident, unsmiling, with the hook nose and lidded eyes of the smaller falcons. He tells us a bit about the school, which teaches years one to nine (5 to 15 years old). Many parents do not want to send their children all the way to Aishalton for secondary. Children are important for farming and housework, but perhaps most of all for childcare of the younger offspring. Parents will walk three hours to their farm and stay for a week, leaving the babies with a ten or eleven year old. A nine-year old boy who cannot cook at least something is the butt of jokes. A nine-year old girl who cannot look after a baby independently is unimaginable.

We hear a sudden animal whine. Headteacher Pernambuco looks uncomfortable. “My father had a child outside” he says. “She’s disabled. I didn’t know her till he died. Now she lives with us”. I wonder at the maths- his father still sowing wild, damaged oats in his fifties. We comment that it is good of him to look after her. I ask if she is physically disabled or learning-disabled. “No, she’s mental, you would say, mental illness, I mean she’s mad. I’m trying to send her to Georgetown. I can’t take care of her here. If she was just mad, I would keep her. But she’s awful violent. You can’t leave the little ones with her. It’s not safe.” I ask what age she is, expecting an epileptic child. “23 or so. No-one knows. And she messes all over. If she could use the toilet...”. Round the corner she comes, pushing through the crowding banana palms. Skinny, short hair, nimble. Her eyes dart. She sees us and begins to approach. He rises and tells her to go back. She is chewing something. She puts a hand over her mouth, extends the other boldly, like a forceful panhandler. Her skin is pale brown and perfectly smooth. Short curly hair, no expression at all, except perhaps a trace of wariness. He moves towards her, implacable and large. She backs away, then turns and darts off. Somehow she gives the impression of controlling the situation. He returns to his chair. “She eats the banana leaves just so. The plants, she rips them out. And she’s very violent.” I find the dark allotment oppressive, the air somehow depleted. I want to leave. We talk for a while about places that she could be sent- Guyana is not rich in institutions for people who are in good physical health but tear at children, defecate everywhere and eat gardens. Father Amar promises to contact the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa’s sisters, who may be able to look after her.

Shortly after this we take our leave. They press on us vegetables from the garden, a huge pumpkin and a long marrow. They are generous people, heavy laden, matter of fact about their one burden too many. As we drive away, we do not talk. I cannot get them out of my mind- the big family, already weighted with responsibilities in a poor village, bequeathed a violent and mysterious young stranger. Someone is securely locked in that slim curly head, fighting, no-one knows whether to get out or from some implacable malcontent of another kind. Who is to care about her when they cannot know who she is?

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

A second bite at the luxury cherry

I remember in Georgetown considering what ‘luxury’ meant, and how relative a concept it is.

But now I’m wondering why I need to tally so slavishly. Is recollection of the luxuries that I cannot currently enjoy enhancing or impoverishing my life? Someone regaled me with a lovely detail about Paul Martin (the rugged teddy bear of Belem in January) the other day. In his normal life in Karasabai, Paul lives in conditions rather like ours, except for the hundreds of miles from village to village that he walks every year. When Paul is in Georgetown, apparently he really enjoys ice cream. He accepts it with alacrity and eats it with quiet relish. I can just see it- the springing up from the table, the healthy dollop, the happy grin and the attentive chomp. But the rest of the time, Paul does not consider ice cream. It does not enter his mind. He does not remark on its absence, or greet it with “Wow! I haven’t had ice cream for...”. You can hear the rue in my voice, can’t you?! I’m a shocking recaller, myself.

And there’s another confession to make. Reading this blog, it is painfully clear that I boast of my deprivations as a consolation for enduring them! As if this were not the life I have chosen. As if life were one of those muscular competitive board games that leave entire families flushed and swearing under their breath at Christmas. I compare too much. Today is what it is. My problem is that I want to have my cake, eat it, have some left over, share it with friends, bake another one, eat the lot and then move on to doughnuts. I’m allergic to being envied, so I paint with the true but unflattering brushes of one of those lumpy Flemish realists.

Do you think that taking things for granted is a blessing or a waste? I have realised that the concept of luxury has a symbiotic relationship with taking things for granted. But I suspect it’s over-simplistic to say that once you take something for granted it’s no longer a luxury. I luxuriate in taking for granted my husband’s love for me, whereas, years ago, I worried about not being able to assume it. Now I value it more, not less. But for me, I think luxury should only exist in the positive- the “isn’t it wonderful?” without the “if only”. Maybe taking things for granted is security, and luxury is joy, and you need both in balance.

So in the spirit of Paul Martin, instead of wallowing in luxuries past, I am going to tell you about the luxuries of life here, now, and unbalance the books.
The smell of a lime straight off the tree. It fades after about 20 seconds, making its peppery green cedarwoodiness all the more precious.
The quality of evening light here, and the happy laziness it has the power to bestow on almost everyone (except footballers and chickens).
Watching the audience’s faces at the village community centre as they whoop and guffaw at unintelligible Wapishana skits or songs.
The taste of a cup of Lavazza when you know it’s non-renewable; my personal fossil fuel.
Waking up to my husband’s face every morning, and falling asleep to it every night- it makes me very aware that I have travelled far too much over the last seven years. (It’s ironic that people think we’re ‘travelling’ here, when the truth is that I haven’t been this static since my schooldays).
Free fruit, especially mangoes, starfruit, bananas, five-fingers, papaya, sour oranges and limes. I’ve discovered an eighth type of mango here- the turpentine. The distinct odour of turps is slightly off-putting, but it tastes quite like the water spice. A bit fibrous but juicy, peachy-sweet and delicious.
Ingenuity leading to deliciousness in a kitchen against comically long odds.
The magic mosquito net. Kristen the Peace Corps volunteer said to me the other day that she can’t imagine coping without it. I think we are both slightly embarrassed by our love affair with our nets. The cloudy white Aladdin tent- I feel safe in there, and it’s more than the barrier against biting insects. It’s the bubble, the submarine, the child’s proprietorial claim-staking in the wendy house.
5:45am. It’s a fantastic time of day. We’ve never really met before, and I guess I’ve always assumed we wouldn’t be friends if we did.
Time – to gaze out at the mango trees, to notice every small wildflower growing by the track, to try to describe a person adequately in all their vivid eclectic uniqueness, and to see my own foibles through the unique concatenation of mirrors life has granted me.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Aishalton Music Course 2009

Adorable Agnes is 9, sloe-eyed and sweet. Loving Leonarda is 62, valiant in her disclaimers. The rest of our band of twenty-five participants is fairly evenly spread across the intervening ages: Cute Coleen in her teens preening in between the scenes, Beautiful Benita bonny in her twenties, Keen Kateri concentrating through to the end of her thirties, Rosey Rona singing through the narrowest possible lip-gap so as not to let her forties slip through, and Anxious Anthony modestly failing to notice how well he’s doing in his fifties.

It’s an impossible task, running a music course here. Almost no-one has studied any music before, and musical notation isn’t present in any form in people’s daily lives (school music classes, sheet music kicking around in public places, internet, songbooks available at churches or clubs...). One of our group plays the guitar, and two have ever had a go on the descant recorder, which they call a flute and blow without ambition or technique. We have one very bad blackboard, chalk, a large empty hall with a thatch that drops even more than the twiglet house, some benches, two guitars and a recorder.
Bevis drawing the award-winning perfect treble clef
The first attempt at music dictation- more than half the class were note-perfect
So, freed from the constraints of resources and facilities, under no pressure to achieve anything of note, we’re having a ball instead!

Two broom handles and some string made Steve the Giant Stave. We learnt the names of the notes on it, sung ourselves on it, raced on to the correct notes in ‘spaces’ and ‘lines’ teams, and leapt from note to note like goats. The benches that are missing a leg are flipped on to their sides to make seats, so the good benches become the right height for tables. People rule up their own staves in cheap notebooks- particularly eclectic when they give staves 4 or 6 lines. Our pub quiz (no, no beer, but teams, proper question rounds, swapping papers to mark, and PRIZES! – a packet of biscuits for the winners, lollies for the runners-up) question sheets took me a full morning to write up in hexiplicate, but were worth every minute, as they gave the quiz the proper gravitas.
Winning team in the 'time signatures on the floor with chalk' speed contest
Pencils are perfect for conducting, and my laptop is just about loud enough to play extracts for them to find the downbeat, work out the time signature and then conduct along. We make treble clefs with string, tell stories with giant cardboard semibreves and crotchets as clues, and do as many entertaining breathing and whooping exercises as people can manage. We also dance three-step and four-step with breathless hilarity.

Working on rhythm by singing with actions

Retention has been good, and the quality of attention astounding.

Agnes and Joan taking down the notation for today's new song

Sister Lucy and Clara, our dancing stars!

Adults are giving up time on their farms to be here, children stacking up home responsibilities for the weekends. I’m trying to imagine some of my sister’s London pupils coming early to music class to sweep the dead cockroaches, storm dust and general detritus out of a large hall, without being asked. Failing. We have learnt all the basics of musical notation and are now starting to apply some of it. We’re grappling with the idea that there are choices to be made in singing- even dynamics have come as a shock, so phrasing is positively Copernican.

The most intriguing thing to me has been trying to imagine a world where songs are organic mysteries. Why should you expect a song to be fathomable, and to sound the same every time, if you’re thinking of it as a tree or a small fruit bat? I am trying to appreciate “To God be the Glory” with anything from 4 to 9 beats in the bar, but it definitely feels unsatisfactory; refractory, like a bad-tempered camel. Because people on the course have expressed some frustration with the rhythmic incontinence of Aishalton’s musical style, I am trying to teach them about songs as buildings: deliberately constructed, balanced and often even symmetrical constructs, containing rooms with different functions. I hope I haven’t killed anything in the process. Of course, some songs can carry off a certain time-signature fluidity- and others can’t get any worse. We have some amazing Caribbean choruses that certainly make it easier to imagine WHY people think of songs as trees or small fruit bats.

Closing celebration (Father Britt centre)- clapping 5 concurrent rhythmic patterns

We finished the course today with a concert party for friends and family. Everything was home-made: the programme, giant notes frieze, music education posters, doughnuts and cake and cool-down (Rupununi name for flavoured drinks). The participants conducted, danced, clapped, sang, acted and laughed their hearts out. The audience, of an even wider age range than the participants (5-90, to be precise), joined in with the clapping and dancing. It was a wonderful afternoon. I can’t tell you how proud I am of them. They are clearly proud of themselves and each other too. I don’t know whether anything will come of the course, or whether participants will consolidate what they have learnt. But ‘development work’ could get terribly humourless and ethicatious if I’m not careful. Sometimes we all need a bit of extravagance, a bit of beauty and a bit of nonsense. Music is a great place for the childish and the childlike to meet, and replace inhibitions with exhibitionists. It’s a friendship centrifuge.

Friday, 7 August 2009


After some recent rather self-indulgent obfuscatory philological excesses, I have decided to tone down my language and indulge less pathologically in orthological extravagances. So today’s entry will be uncluttered and factual. A personal campaign for plain English.

the shadow says it all...

A motorbike drones overhead, aiming for the tamarind tree. The locals call them black bees. This one is so large that I can see it reaching the mango grove eighty yards away. There’s a kiskadee in the shower and a rooster in the wheelbarrow. A dog crept into the kitchen and ran away with our whole bag of eggs. The brazil nuts are so fresh they evoke juicy coconut. There are seven kinds of mangoes here: the buxom (some disagreement over whether it’s really ‘Buxton’), water spice, grafted, table, long, Julie, and sour. My favourite at the moment is the water spice, which tastes of lavender.

A diet of flour and rice is transformed by onions. I just bought the last two pounds in town. The barbecue grill is the only safe place to grow basil. Elsewhere sheep, lizards, cows or hens eat it. The netting on the bedroom ceiling is drooping with poo, ite leaf fragments knocked down by rain, and cockroach carcasses. The kitchen isn’t exempt either: I heard myself saying calmly the other day, “Don’t leave the chopping board there to dry honey, the bat shits there every night”. I no longer notice noises I’m not worried about. B tells me the shower door creaks very loudly. I don’t hear that. I do hear the horses shrieking in the middle of the night, the knocks that turn out to be cowhorns on my shutters, and the anonymous rustles above my head in the dark. I killed a medium-sized scorpion at 5:45am today with three hard blows of the hammer. It’s splattered all over the kitchen. I shook for an hour. I won, though. Really it should have been shaking.

How did it go? It didn’t really work, did it? You don’t tone down Aishalton. Words aren’t even the half of it. It’s not an obvious place- facts are rare, rumours rife and mobile, knowledge scanty and people friendly-reticent. Perhaps I need the elaborations to bolster an illusion of volition. B conjures up the beautiful in images. These words are my attempt to wave a wand over the ugly, the scary, the infuriating and the dull, so I can live in it better. I’m aiming for more grace and more aplomb. That would be my dream combination.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Time travel

“The past inserts a finger into a slit in the skin of the present, and pulls”. Annie Dillard observes this happening in ‘A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek’ (incredible book). She’s so right. It pulls in unexpected ways. Thumping laundry today, my ipod on shuffle (I’m not a very authentic Wapishana washerwoman), I inadvertently enter a time machine for a tinted tour of my past. Tinted because my life slow-motions before my eyes with a personalised ‘favourites’ soundtrack.

First I’m in China, sitting in my concrete living room wrapped in a quilt looking out at the sandstorm. The sky is beige, the sun green, the overall daylight effect flat white. I am listening to a tape of James Taylor, a recent introduction by the brother of the man I am falling in love with. “Sweet Baby James” indeed. Suddenly I’m a schoolgirl, final year. The last sister has just left home, so for the first time in my life, I have a big bedroom to myself. I have a single of Marillion’s ‘Lavender’ on repeat on the record player. A long arm reaches, lifts, drops again and again. I am knitting, my fingers are cold, adult life is beginning to beckon. And then without warning I’m at Cambridge Folk Festival, seventeen years later, marvelling in awe and disbelief at the percussive violent genius of Rodrigo y Gabriela. The smells of cut grass, the Saturday Guardian and damp blanket provide an odd but pleasing counterpoint to the raw duende seducing its way off the stage. As if the ipod is concerned for my blood pressure, the next thing on the menu is the voice of Garrison Keillor. I’m in a big 4x4 on snowy freeways from Chicago to Washington DC. B is driving and we are VERY late because the hired 4x4 leviathan had been impounded when we parked it next to a fire hydrant (invisible under three feet of snow, but apparently we should have known...) and he spent the whole afternoon amongst the poor of Chicago pleading, paying fines and queueing to get it back. Keillor calms us, solves and satisfies and sets the world unchangeably in order (sorry Larkin!). We get there in the end; fifteen hours driving through seven states, arriving with fifteen minutes to spare. And then suddenly, the time machine lifts and drops me into Chopin, and now I am lost. I am six years old, sitting on the hall floor. It’s Saturday. My mother is teaching at the School of Music. My sisters are at Orchestra. There is only a reverberating radiator and a thin wall between my dad and Chopin, and me. “Aaaaaagh!” vociferates through the wall as a bum chord sounds, followed by a specially violent correct one: the pure distilled sound of frustration. Because more than anything else, my father wants to capture Chopin, to cradle the music between careful hands, like cradling a baby who can’t yet hold up her head. Ah, the responsibility! The lovely terror!

I switch off the ipod after that. The skin of the present should only have to tolerate so much tugging. I return to Aishalton slightly dazed, bulging with the riches of my past, to find the dirty linen of the present requiring my full attention.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Father Britt

I defy anyone to summon Father Britt on to a page (poetry, prose or drama) or a screen (TV, computer or shadow puppet). His ninety years of life have given him a wealth that enjoys poverty, a depth that is not complex precisely, and a stature that suffers nothing from stumbles or a bow in the spine. How are such qualities to be distilled?
Father Britt smile lights up the room around him with glee and mischief. His smile creases his whole face, but I can’t look beyond his eyes. It is not so much that his eyes smile, as that they ARE smile. Every day that I go to Morning Prayer, I shake his hand and appropriate one smile entirely for myself. He has been in the church since 5a.m, sitting in the dark enjoying the peace so that when dawn arrives he will be there to greet it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the sun refused to rise the day he slept in.

Joining the hordes to eat outside during the Celebration in May

Father Britt is very deaf. Added to this, he hears women’s voices less clearly. This has two effects: first, people tend to treat him as if he is stupid, or at least a blunted intelligence. Their mistake- after shouting the same facile comment three times, he will finally hear it and counter with his distinctive understated, dry wit. Many times he has made B and me laugh out loud with the chalky, gentlemanly English ascerbity of it. Second, it makes you very aware of how much garbage we pad out conversations with- many sentences wish themselves unsaid on third holler. Now, I tend to ask a question which will allow him to conduct most of the conversation himself. He is full of fascinating memories (watching the first sea-planes being developed at Lee-on-Solent as a boy in the 1920s), opinions (he reads as many papers and magazines as he can find) and facts. Unlocking them is frustratingly difficult, especially as he is clearly sociable. Delicate questions are no longer delicate after you’ve bellowed them three times to the surrounding district. He is staggeringly open to new ideas, and to re-assessing his views in the light of new evidence. I miss the conversations I could imagine having with him.
He came to Guyana by boat in 1954, not long after his Ordination. He could thus be excused for being very conservative (he’s 90!), very colonial (Guyana was a colony for the whole of his first decade here), and rather ex-pat. But it would not occur to Father Britt to be any of these things. He is too humble, belongs too dearly, sees himself too much at the service of people. This makes him surprising. He appreciates everything, remarking every day on how good each meal is, insisting on washing up his own plate, and even handwashing his clothes. (The difference between the humble and the pigheaded; he only washes the half-dirty ones, giving the rest to Emma who will do them better). Most days he gardens, sometimes walking right out of the compound to collect manure. Getting up from planting is hard for him, but not humiliating. He glows not like a fire, or a candle, but like a lantern.

I find his company poignant because he shows me what my grandfather could have been. They have some superficial resemblances, but my grandfather’s life was twisted out of shape because he tried to have two lives, and got lost in the maze of the parallel realities he created. He was miserable, and bitter, constantly meting out the judgments of which he was so desperately afraid himself. Perhaps we become what we fear. Father Britt is a man who wills the one thing. I honestly believe he fears nothing. Jesuits talk about freedom: watching him day after day, I think I am beginning to comprehend it. It’s a kind of empty-handed abundance. And when his trumpet sounds, his life will not be lost, but completed.