Despite Babylon

Despite Babylon, I am in love. I am in love with my children and with the father of my children, a man who could if he chose abuse and exploit and beat me but doesn’t. A man who could perpetrate the exploitation and beatings meted out to his ancestors by their Babylonian slave masters. A man who could buckle under the weight of his own post traumatic agonies and pass them onto me, or his children instead. Despite Babylon, he is gentle and kind. Despite Babylon, he is not that man.

 

Despite Babylon, my children believe in themselves and other good things, not all the time, but enough, I hope. Despite Babylon they are witty and intelligent and bold. They have refused to surrender the essence of themselves, though it doesn’t always make for the easiest path. Despite Babylon money is not their sole pursuit and injustice still makes them cry, sometimes. Despite the system’s best efforts to eviscerate them – to pat them down and close them off and lock them up – my children jog along. Stubbornly, grinding and griming they refuse to have their roots disinterred. Despite Babylon they are not so easily felled.

 

Despite Babylon I am in love with other people too, some of who know full well that their ancestors may have been Babylon’s most inhuman murderous agents. Despite Babylon’s smoke and mirrors and the understandable desire to prune their family trees in another direction – away from slave traders and overseers and towards an affiliation with the oppressed instead of the oppressor, these people stand firm. They know that the whiteness in which they live is a peculiar thing. It is Whiteness and not Blackness that is Babylon’s most monstrous creation because it’s wearers can choose to believe it’s invisible.  Whiteness visible finds itself with no positive way to be. Maybe that’s tough to live with. Maybe it should be tough. Despite Babylon, I don’t want to be white.

 

Despite Babylon I am educated and well fed and oftentimes comfortable. Ditto my children. Despite Babylon, this fortress of meritocracy, we are not foolish enough to believe that any of this represents justice or equality. Despite Babylon, people risk death on unpredictable waters in boats not fit for purpose. Babylon can’t understand this – says, ‘we should bomb them, send them back’. Despite Babylon, it’s bombs and it’s sendings back, journeys continue.

 

Despite Babylon we have lived in our motherland – in the jungle of famine and war and disease that we were taught, so thoroughly, to fear. Despite Babylon we have not been eaten by snakes, neither have we eaten each other.

 

Despite Babylon we have not been shot. Not by law enforcement officers or by our brothers or sisters. Neither have we shot ourselves or medicated ourselves to death or accepted other dubious invitations to oblivion. Despite Babylon we do not apply bleach to our skins and torch ourselves in kilns of self-hatred.  Despite Babylon, we are still people of Colour.

 

Despite Babylon and the world made in it’s own image, projected via flat screens onto flattened minds, despite the whizz and glitz of its media and the sex-addled but glorious portrait of eternal youth unfurled before us, we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Despite Babylon, we know that there is another portrait, hidden in an attic somewhere, rotting.

 

Despite Babylon, we continue to navigate this maze. The false trails, dead ends, honey traps, cabals and corrals, hinder us, but the music doesn’t stop. Despite Babylon we sing. Despite Babylon, we refuse to be lost.

Ugly

Once upon a time when he was born, he was a duck. He didn’t know anything about himself, not even that he was once an egg. He opened his little duck eyes and saw that his mother was a big downy arse and that his brothers and sisters were a collection of beaks flapping open and closed. Later he would learn that he looked fairly similar and be deeply embarrassed.

Mother Arse led Duck and his brothers and sisters, down to the edge of the world, quacking at them to keep up. They didn’t keep up but it didn’t stop her quacking. She waggled her white tail feathers and kept her eyes on the road and in spite of her bad temper, Duck thought her very beautiful. She was the one who delivered the food and this was a surprisingly attractive quality.

The world was enormous and wet. Duck looked out over the huge expanse of it and asked his mother if there was another side. She said that she supposed there was but that other sides were an unnecessary distraction and that he would do better to concentrate on washing his dirty face. Obediently Duck splashed water on his face, scrubbed as far as his stubby arms would allow and peered at his reflection. After several full head submersions, his face was still the colour of scorched earth.

Thereafter, Duck banished thoughts of other sides and averted his gaze from the water. He learned to swim with his head up and trained his eyes to accept that the important things in life were always straight ahead and on this side of the horizon. He worked hard at living without looking. His best party trick was catching fish with his eyes closed. Duck didn’t go to many parties. The long necks, who thought they were cute, never invited him and even other ducks seemed to find him offensive. Sometimes they seemed offended by him even when he wasn’t at their parties – when he was minding his own business out on the pond or talking to himself down in the reeds. He took to wearing sunglasses and averting his gaze but even these strategies weren’t fool proof. Grubby faced ducks had been known to come to untidy ends. Grievous bodily peckings were not as uncommon as one would have hoped.

 

For entertainment, Duck turned to the sky and its rolling broadcast of soap opera, sport and news. He watched a lot of sky and became quite knowledgeable about certain things, despite what appeared to be a slight right wing bias. He knew when a storm was due to blow in and when the cute long necks would be leaving town and the precise mechanics of swallows mating on the wing. Mother Arse said if he didn’t stop watching he would go blind but the temptation was too much and he just couldn’t resist. Watching the sky made him think about stuff and the more he watched the more stuff he thought about. He fondness for thinking made his brother and sister ducks nervous. They didn’t understand his fascination with the sky. They got that a duck’s life wasn’t all that, and that the life of a grubby faced duck might have a few extra challenges to it but they couldn’t see why he didn’t just do drugs like everyone else. Duck just said no, but he didn’t judge because in the end every duck needs a way to take the edge off. The birds though, fascinated him. He sat in awe of the way they circled the sky and posed in the trees and refused to give autographs. It was as if the adoration of the viewing public had no meaning for them at all. Watching the birds gave him his first big idea. What the hell? If the birds didn’t care what others thought about them, why should he? If they could flit away whenever it suited them, why not him?

Sadly, running away was harder than he imagined. His legs were short and didn’t cover a lot of ground. After a whole day of furious waddling he looked behind him and could still see Mother Arse’s lakeside nest – the nest that she liked to remind them that she had built with the sweat of her beak and the fat of her liver. Looking at it made him shiver. Running away might be hard but he wasn’t yet ready to give up the dream. He decided to try a different approach, which involved climbing a tree. Ducks can’t climb trees, but he was determined and improvised with hopping and scrabbling, which he was fairly skilled at, until he reached the lowest branch. Then he scrabbled some more up to the next branch, and the next, and so on, for quite a long time. The view from the top took his breath away which wasn’t helpful because perching in the uppermost branches of a tree was nowhere near as comfortable as the birds made it look. He wobbled and fell.

While he was travelling between the top of the tree and the ground, some amazing possibilities occurred to him – broken bones and head injuries and death. In his terror he scrabbled and twisted some more, and squawked and fought as well, battling the air around him to until the very last. In a puff of feathers, he hit to the ground. This is the story that the other ducks, who were watching from the pond side, were planning to tell, anyway. Some had even caught it on film, thinking that the press might show an interest and more importantly, be willing to pay for some on the spot footage. Ugly Duck Gets Bird Delusions, Plummets to Death from Tall Tree – it might have sold papers, but ‘Duck Flies Away’? Who cares? He flies anyway, over the other waddling ducks, the long necks and the grievous bodily peckers who shake their beaks in rage “What do you think you are?” they shout, “fucking special?”

 

He shits on their heads, not on purpose but because he’s terrified. He’s never flown before. Looking down from the sky, the big wet world looks incredibly big and incredibly beautiful but what draws his attention are the other ducks, who look small and incredibly angry. He makes his landing approach instinctively looking away, suddenly shamed by his rash behaviour and in fear of the consequences. He is a foolish, sky watching, stubby armed, grubby, ugly duck. Except that he isn’t. As he comes down over the water the reflection looking back at him is elegance; broad wings, long neck, flame orange legs stretched out behind him. The face that he thought Grubby is now shining. Mother Arse, standing in the middle of the crowd, screams up at him

“I might let you off this time” she says, “but you’d better promise to stop being silly and come down right now.”

In his sky watching days, Duck has thought about stuff like this – about truth and reconciliation and the nature of forgiveness. He cruises towards them, slowing as he gets nearer and then, without warning, accelerates. The thrill he feels as they scatter and trip over their feet is morally questionable. Rising high again, he fixes his sights on the other side. He doesn’t look down as he passes over the crowd but quacks a faint goodbye that may or may not be lost in the wind. Then he shits on their heads, this time, on purpose.

How the Land Lies

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There is grit in the air,

fragments of torture

injustice

via newsfeed, live feeds

daily grit

yesterday and today

everyday

we navigate a grit storm

and try to save ourselves

 

my friend finds pictures

in inconvenient places

stops suddenly

on roads and street corners

Has me wait

While he makes a frame

for this discarded stain,

that broken brick

Grit has become a way of life

 

Brexit. My friend will have an Irish passport

and I will not

Still I am lucky. I have two passports

one that gets me in to Ireland

to my friends’ foremothers’ endz

where the earth smells good.

and the water never fails

earth water running brown, down hills, under my feet

clear sky water lashing, rinsing me through

lakes and oceans in which I will not swim no matter who says what a fine day it is

and there is grit of course

always grit

 

Africa.

my friend makes us the picture

our family walking on sand

baobab trees in the frame

and a fishing boat

and the seven of us

unaware of the lens

with our backs to the sun

and to the grit we hope

our eyes forward

the I and I

wrapped in our beloved Mamaland

 

You think you might

in the right circumstances

with a favourable current, a tailwind,

escape

outrun this gritty system

except Babylon is a photo bomb

a where’s Wally on a page

always somewhere in the frame

we the navigators

seeing how the land lies

its sunsets, shadows, deadly edges

we take up tools

dig for the maps drawn under our skin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Sorts

When you want for company, your judgement slips. You talk to people that you shouldn’t. You offer kindness to the undeserving. Sometimes you’re even foolish enough to give your ear to children, who I’m sorry to tell you are the most undeserving of all.

I think old people should be allowed to decorate their houses as they see fit. I like yellow and green and candy pink. And I like window boxes and hanging baskets and flowers. If I were to make a bunch of marzipan flowers and put them on a cake, people would smile, but when I hang them in my window, people say I’ve lost my mind. What’s the difference? No one eats them either way. I tell this to the upper body of the woman in the post office, who may be standing behind the counter or sitting on a high stool, or, for all I know, have no legs at all. She scowls through the glass screen at the world on the other side – the world where the rest of us live. She watches us as she might the umpteenth rerun of an old film, hardly bothering to focus because she already knows how it ends. She stamps the book, licks her thumb and counts out my money on top. Then she posts the package back at me through the letter box sized gap at the bottom of the glass. It’s like a game of pass the parcel, only without music or wrapping paper or bonhomie and in which the person who ends up with the parcel seems to be the loser. The game ends. She gazes through me while I shuffle away and am replaced by the next scene.

Outside, though the cold nips at my knees through sagging tights, I break sweat under the weight of my bags and my own tired body, and the stairs I have yet to climb. They are well used stairs – homely, you might say if what you meant was a slightly shabby place where people sit around and chat and sleep and empty their bladders. I’ve heard it’s worse after the fourth floor but I live on the third so I wouldn’t know. I’ve no interest in the unfortunates living higher up and for the most part they’re kind enough not to visit me. So you can imagine that when I turned onto the walkway and found the girl leaned up against my front door I was taken by surprise. Her legs were stretched out in front of her, across the width of the walkway and her body was slumped forward so that her face hung over her knees. She may have been dribbling – it’s hard to remember details now – but the overall impression was that of a sock once full of bird seed intended for sparrows having since been ravished by crows; A once upon a time plump and appetising thing now meagre and wretched and waiting for the end to come. The girl looks up with a face that hasn’t seen water for days – except perhaps for a few angry tears – and mumbles something about bread. She says that her father has sent her away. What else could I do?

I look away as she gulps the tea down and eats my last piece of fruitcake in two gruesome mouthfuls. It’s clear that I need to have manners for the both of us. It is bizarre, after so many years, to sit across from another person at my kitchen table – a person whose cheeks are bulging as unapologetically as her constantly swinging legs are scuffing my floor. I worry about the lino – thinking that I’ll have to use bleach to bring the peppermint stripes back up to a shine – and this is why it’s only when she’s gone that I notice that my flowers have gone along with her. I guess if you’re hungry enough everything tastes good, even marzipan.

Fortunately all of this happens on a Monday – the day on which I always make a fresh batch – so I busy myself with pinks and purples and set about forgetting the girl with her sagging seedy body and dirty face. If only she had forgotten me.

She comes back on a Friday – when the air is thick with baking because it’s shortbread day. She refuses to move back from the front door, even when I threaten her with a can of whipped cream.

‘I have something for you auntie’, she says, and I say I don’t want anything that a person like her has to give me, but she sends them through anyway – first one, then two, and then a shower of silver coins. They drop down onto the doormat, waiting for me to pick them up. It takes a while for me to bend these days and while I’m at it she pokes her fingers through the letter box, lifting the flap so that our eyes meet, through the small rectangular opening, from our respective sides of the door. It feels familiar somehow – not dissimilar to my interactions with the woman at the post office except that she makes no effort to be anything more tempting than half a body, content to keep the colour of its eyes hidden behind tinted specs and a thick glass screen. On the other side of my letterbox now, a full complement of body parts linger – fingers with gnawed cuticles, and lips gripped between teeth, and eyes dark and sweet as chocolate.

‘Can I come in?’ she asks. What could I do?

Another surprise comes when I realise that she’s not alone, but by the time I have the wherewithal to protest they’re already inside. The girl has brought a friend along – a boy, I see – who is little more than an Adam’s apple and legs.

‘He’s my brother’, she says and the Adam’s apple appraises me through stubby lashes and lifts one of his wispy limbs in greeting. They are neither of them big, but still they manage to fill my hallway with dangling shadows – the kind that Daddy longlegs throw on summer nights when they puff themselves up and play tricks with the light. The girl is clutching a plastic bag in her fist and it’s not only because it is full of silver that I invite them to follow me into the back room. Perhaps I am nervous. Or lonely. Oh how loneliness addles the brain.

They seem happy enough sitting in the wingback chairs on either side of my old sideboard. They admire my collection of chocolate dolls and, when invited, pull fistfuls of fruit jellies from the mason jars in which I’ve kept them since some pre-millenial Christmas. The girl tells stories – sad and shocking ones – involving an indifferent father, a string of criminal stepmothers and some dubious moral choices. The boy nods his head in agreement though his scrawny neck seems to baulk at the task. The girl does all the talking, and says, once she has opened the bag so that I have a good view of the silver coins,

‘We can pay our way.’

The girl and her brother stay the winter, eating my cakes and marzipan leaves and only stepping out every once in a while to replenish the sugar and top up the coins. It seems rude to ask where the silver comes from, so I don’t, but whenever they slip me a coin or three I add extra sugar to their treats – coconut drops and apple pies and flapjacks drowned in molasses. We stick together – a simple matter of fair exchange. The two of them start to fill their skins and I can pay the electric bill. I clear the arrears all in one go, and this is clearly, for the woman in the post office, a plot twist of sorts. She looks at me, instead of through, and blinks. Her stamp, with its regulation red ink, is caught in a fleeting hover before it comes banging down. Subtle differences I know, but so often the ones on which stories rise and fall.

On valentines day I pull a tray of cupcakes from the oven. While I wait for them to cool I find myself singing out loud – a song I’m surprised to remember, from a distant place that I’ve long forgotten. What is it that invites memory I wonder? The view from this window perhaps? The green revealed now that the frost has cleared, with it’s clusters of purple crocus heads sprung up in hope – colours to remind us that somewhere in time, brighter, warmer places exist? A double edged sword if ever there was one; nostalgia and anticipation, equally ready to cut you down. The girl is standing in the doorway, twisting a plait between nail bitten fingers.

‘Auntie’, she says, ‘we’re going home’.

It shouldn’t have surprised me I know, or made me so sad, and I should have let them go, I really should. You must understand how bright the colours – the green and purple mingling outside, the unrelenting red of the icing in the bowl in front of me. Life at its most vivid and insistent, was all around.

They soon get used to the routine – leaving the house only one at a time, the door locked behind them, the key tied to a liquorice lace around my neck. While one slips out into the dusk with the packages – sherbert wraps, fondant sticks – the other frets, and they take it in turns to whine and scratch the varnish from my sideboard. Nothing seems to calm them now, not candy sticks or sugared almonds, not even Turkish Delight. I think its because their teeth are gone and their arteries are starting to stick. Whichever one of them is out on the street knows not to come back until the goods are sold and not, for the sake of their sibling’s health, to stay out beyond sunrise. I spend the early mornings counting coins, and tying them in bags, which I stash under my bed.

The woman in the post office snatches my book away and tears the cover in two. There are questions I need to answer, she says, a number I need to call. She doesn’t give me the number and I don’t ask for it.

‘I guess that makes me self-employed?’ I say, and she doesn’t laugh. I guess she’s seen that film before – the one in which poor people use humour instead of murder to stave off hunger. She doesn’t know that I’ve rewritten this script – that I now have multiple income streams, that the pension book was never going to make the director’s cut.

Sometimes when the girl and her brother come back, they trail blood into the house. Fighting, I think, with other youngsters who’d have your eye out for a bit of fudge and a liquorice all sort.

‘Cut down on the sugar’ I tell them, but they rarely respond – barely have one eye to open between them. They hardly move at all these days unless it’s to burn holes in my furniture and steal my fresh macaroons. I’m beginning to understand why their father sent them away. It’s a good job I’ve got counting to do – bags of silver under the bed and of late, a little gold too.

I have to cut the plug from the TV. You’d think addiction was something new the way these ad campaigns run from morning til night. I’ve no energy for telling children to ‘just say no’ anymore than I have for telling ants to sit still. Why waste breath on idle persuasion when a honey trap will do? A knob of butter rolled in sugar keeps them – children and ants alike – occupied for hours. If only killing the TV was enough. It becomes clear, on the morning that the bullets come through the door with the post, that we can’t stop the outside world from encroaching on our sweet little lives.

The girl watches her brother trembling in his sleep – a recent habit – and asks what we’re going to do. I pull two bags from under the bed – silver, not gold – and tell her to get us protection. She’s quick on her feet that one – returns with a piece wrapped in cloth even before the fudge is set. It’s an impressive piece – heavy as a skillet; quicker than peanut brittle to break your teeth. That too goes under the bed, double wrapped, wedged between the silver and gold.

Sugar is everywhere, flooding the markets and whispers carry up from the stairwells warning that these are times in which anything can happen. I have bars fitted to my windows and a grill over the door – unsightly additions that make me want to weep. Wrapping them with coconut ice helps some, but not much. There is a narrow hatch in the door grill, which we can unlock to let in the post. I add this key to the lace around my neck and button my cardigan over the top. I can’t be too careful these days – more than once I’ve caught the girl looking at me as though I’m an insect she’d like to crush. I give her extra sherbert but even that keeps her happy for only a minute. Everytime I look in the sitting room I find her crying over the boy. He barely moves, except for his Adam’s apple, which pulses like the gills of a fish stranded in air. She begs me.

‘Easy to say you want to go home’, I tell her, ‘but after so long, I doubt you’ll remember the way’ That’s when she calls me a witch and I tell her she has no empathy and shed some tears of my own. Does she not think of me, I ask, boiling and stirring day after day, shrivelling up with age in front of my own oven?

Noone likes to argue though, especially not me, so by way of apology I make tea and cut slices of sweet potato pudding and we eat – even the boy manages a few crumbs – and after that we reward ourselves with an afternoon nap. I lie on my bed and dream that underneath it, instead of bags of silver, there are steaming bowls of soup. It’s funny how what’s sweet and shiny can make you forget about good things – yam and potato and plain flour dumplings.

I wake to familiar sounds – the girl and her brother coughing and crying and scrabbling under the sideboard no doubt looking for dropped crumbs. I hear them unwrapping the last of the jellies – crackling the papers and throwing them down. Crackling and scuffling like they own the place. Is it my nose or mouth that registers first – the sweet saute of candy floss, the honeycomb left too long in the pan, the barbecue run away with itself, the quiet creep of smoke? My strawberry lace is gone, and with it, the key, and the children. So ungrateful. So undeserving.

It’s hard to believe that the screams come from me, shrill enough to break out through the bars and grills, and to ricochet off of the walls of a grimy stairwell and still find no place to go. The cupboards crack and spit as they burn. All around me the perfume of fritters and toffee and flambe desserts. Food to die for.

A pair of fools they were too, to think that they could lock me in and leave me to cook. People have some strange ideas about old women who dabble in marzipan – even when they don’t live in little cottages in the wood.

‘Don’t worry love’. He has a reassuringly low register, this man – a voice that rumbles through the space between his helmet and his combat boots and seems to give an extra polish to the high vis stripes on his sleeves. There are others around, trailing bolt cutters and hoses, amid blue flashing lights, but it’s his rumble that I lean into as he carries me down the stairs.

‘It’s alright‘ he says, ‘You’re safe now’.

Once he’s deposited me in the back of an ambulance – just precautionary, he assures me – he pushes his helmet back and looks upwards, to where dampened smoke continues to spill from my broken windows. I can’t help but think what a youthful face it is, gazing up from its sturdy neck, shaking its head as it shares its suspicions

‘Deliberate I reckon’ he says, ‘though we can’t say for sure until the police have been in.’

‘Police?’

‘Soon get to the bottom of it’ he says. ‘We always do.’

Why is it that we always want to get to the bottom of things? Why does an ending always have to involve the unearthing of missing pieces – dubious treasures dug out from the dark corners of cellars or attics or pulled from the backs of wardrobes? Imagine how much more appealing a film this would be if the bottom of things could be edited out? How much more fascinating an ending we might have if we skipped this particular cliché – if noone looked under the bed?

The ambulance doors are about to close. My saviour rumbles a brief goodbye. The reassuring hand he places on my shoulder transmits his words as a vibration through my bones

‘Just kids, I expect’.

‘Yes’ I say. ‘Just kids.’

Furies

The Erinyes
Female spirits of justice and vengeance, also known as The Furies

Teenage mess is difficult to live with and difficult to live without. Constant nagging wearies me, but so too does constant mess. I know that I need to get them (teenagers) to change, but how? Nagging doesn’t work, doing it all myself raises murderous impulses and several other ‘good’ plans that I instigate fail miserably. A friend suggests the answer lies in ‘caring less’ and insists that this is the best way to preserve my sanity and stay out of prison. It sounds improbable but I’m desperate so I give it a try, and make strenuous efforts to close off my senses to the chaos in which I now live. I refuse to see the dirty dishes or smell the bins that are not being emptied or hear the slurping sound that follows me around as my slippers repeatedly unstick themselves from a manky floor. I also attempt empathy with my children who, in the middle of significant pruning of their teenaged neural pathways, have only half a brain and virtually no empathy to share between them. Physically they have adult capabilities. Typically they can dress themselves, climb the stairs without falling over and work a toasted sandwich maker. Sometimes, when they’re feeling adventurous, as they were last night, they explore the freezer for ideas. Last night’s idea was apple strudel. At 10.30pm on a Friday night, apple strudel is an excellent idea. No prep, (preheating an oven is for losers) a half an hour wait and you don’t even need a baking tray to put it on. Do you? Best of all, while you wait for it to cook you can go back to more pressing, entertainment based tasks.

I arrive on the scene fifteen minutes later in search of a glass of water before bed. I’m still practicing my ‘I can’t see the mess’ meditation (let’s call it mindlessness) when I meet an apple strudel in the process of collapse, losing its integrity all over my oven. I rush to salvage the situation – to catch and shovel back the syrupy stalactites stretching down through the oven shelves – but no matter how teasing or insistent I am with my spatula the strudel simply refuses to pull itself together. It’s decided it’s not dessert but art. If I didn’t know better I would think it was laughing at me. In my mindless state I don’t know better so I swear hideously and smash it to pieces with the spatula. It’s a bit of a commotion. Various teens appear to bear witness. The strudel is an installation now – multidimensional. It’s still art, but it’s not laughing anymore. I stomp off to bed.

So, is the parent’s answer to teenage mess to make more mess than they do? Doubtful. I wouldn’t propose to add it to a list of good parenting strategies and I’d have to admit that it does leave you defenceless against accusations of being a poor role model. I’d be lying though, if I said it didn’t feel good (especially the next morning when I woke up to a sparkly clean oven and spotless kitchen).
It was the Furies. They made me do it.

Image

Dance – a short story inspired by a photograph


Photographer: © Robert Downes    @robertjfdownes

Saturday evening, riverside. A short-handled axe with a double head forged in the shape of eagle wings. The hand that wields it, is near invisible. The axe is a crowd surfer bobbing through the multitude of unseeing heads. Levi alerts his mother by tugging at her clothes. Look at that man, he says.
Levi’s mother looks up from her thoughts. She sees several men – teens, twenty somethings – dotted in groups along the riverbank path, doing largely unremarkable things; rolling fingers in the necks of their t-shirts to make room for the air and adjusting the angles of their caps to shield their eyes from the glare of the sun or perhaps from the scrutiny of other young men doing equally unremarkable things.
What man?
He has an axe, and red trousers.
Well I don’t see him, she says. Her snippiness comes from having essays to mark and lecture notes to prepare and from wearing closed toe shoes when it’s thirty degrees and forgetting that the person she’s with is six years old. Remembering this, she suggests that they get ice cream.

Elegba, divine keeper of the roads, has hitched a lift on a cart. The cart belongs to the man whose job it is to sweep the streets whose name is Joseph. Joseph can’t see Elegba because Elegba is a small god, also because Joseph’s business is discarded things he rarely lifts his eyes from the pavement. He has a collection of discarded things – fallen rings, lost banknotes, hastily ditched bags of weed – in the pockets of his blue overalls. Elegba’s eyes are not on Joseph, but on Oshun who is taking her time to come up from the riverbank. She has barely arrived when he starts to speak.
Have you seen that Shango? he says, storming around with his tempers like that? Not caring where he flings them or what he’s stirring up?
Oshun coughs and wrings out her hair. Yes, she says, the trousers are a bit much, and then she coughs some more.
Likely there’ll be a fight, says Elegba.
You look a bit gleeful, says Oshun, you need to work on your disapproving face. She draws a well of phlegm to the back of her throat. When she spits, it skims the front of the cart and Elegba draws in his dangling feet. His disapproving face makes progress.
A bit trashy no? he says, for the Goddess of the river?
Oshun has lived in the river for millennia. She’s seen lots of trash – is hard to offend.
It’s the raw sewage, she says, and the cigarettes.

Levi is sitting on the scarf that his mother has laid out picnic blanket style on the grass. He’s not keeping pace with his ice cream and is wearing it across his face and shirt.
Has that woman been swimming? he asks and as he points, the last of the ice cream slips from the cone into his lap.
Nobody swims here, says Levi’s mother, the water’s too dirty. She doesn’t see Oshun because she is hunting in her bag. I think I forgot the wet wipes, she says.

Ogun, the God of metals, who has never yet succeeded in persuading Shango to cool down his temper, has decided to keep his distance from today’s fracas. He is watching from a fifth-floor roof terrace café where he has laid down his own weapon – a square headed hammer – so as to get a better grip on the iron railings, which have given him a bit of an appetite. The narcotic effect of the rust in his mouth has him dreaming of his ex, Oya, Goddess of the winds.

I’ve changed my ways, he says, to the dream.
Liar, it answers. He looks up to where Oya is hovering overhead – the actual as opposed to the dream version. Today she has two mouths on each of her three faces, and an assembly of furrowed brows. She’s exuding the air bending, breeze kicking kind of mood that he’s seen many times before.
You best go and talk to your friend, she says and the word friend is unwelcome in her mouth, sour as a lemon. The sourness is for Shango, who she’s always considered vulgar and who is still down below, stomping the riverside and wielding his axe, whipping up, for no good reason at all as far as she can see, a surfeit of ill feeling. Bad vibes are brewing where not long before there was simply idling and unremarkable activity. Oya’s train of thought is broken by the sound of Ogun weeping, which makes her sigh, which in turn causes every tree along the river to lean and sway, and random strands of hair to fly up into faces, and a man with no hair curse as he loses his hat to the river. Ogun, fired up on grief and heartbreak, and a leaning toward dramatic gestures, grabs his hammer and throws himself off of the roof.

Levi is holding his mother’s hand, trying to keep pace with her as she searches for somewhere to get cleaned up. His sense of balance is compromised by his pointing up to the sky.
It’s the London Eye, says his mother.
But they’re flying, says Levi.
Thank goodness, says his mother. She says this because she’s seen a toilet sign which is, in this particular moment, what she most wants to see.

Elegba, trickster, keeper of the gateways, has turned his attentions to a young woman whose piercings are dotted in a constellation across her face. As she adjusts the height of her microphone stand Elegba copies her stance – pelvis forward, legs wide – and when she bends to connect guitar to amp, he bends too. The woman, whose name is Malawi, is in her final year of music college and has made this exact connection hundreds of times. This is why the thunderclap of feedback that hits the air, making people yelp and screw up their faces and cover their ears, lights a fire of shame in her cheeks. Malawi sees her own mistake, not the red trousers or the man wearing them or the sparks of red dust firing out from the stacked soles of his gold Huaraches and whispering; fight, fight, fight. Neither does Malawi see, as she throws out apologies to her scattered audience, the axe. It shines with a particular shade of murderous intent and passes within a hair of the industrial piercing on her right ear. Levi, face glistening fresh from the bathroom facilities, sees it all.

Levi sees Ogun and his hammer plunge to earth within a metre of each other. They both narrowly miss the head of a skateboarder named Carlos. It’s a long time since Carlos has had a basic heel flip end like this, with his body skidding the concrete, graceless as a bowled skittle. His skateboard races ahead for tricks of its own – banging shins and scuffing shoes, including the shoes of strangers who are already rattled by the heat, and agitated by the whispers of the red fire dust that they can’t see. Those closest find themselves filled with a sudden need to be seen and heard, and rated, and respected, or else. Shoulders square up, lips mutter and curl, agitated eyes bug and look for other eyes to lock on to. They are all too busy to see the skateboard, or the quiet foot that brings it to rest. Even Carlos, who is looking in the right direction, sees only that one of his trucks is bent and will need money to fix. The quiet foot is one of a pair, both of which have high arches and are tucked inside turquoise jelly sandals sewn with cowrie shells. They smell of the ocean. Levi thinks they are quite lovely.

As a general rule, Yemaja doesn’t get involved. Age upon age of minding the oceans, dispersing shipwrecks and tolerating the wailing of sirens has left her both sage and hard of hearing. She is at peace with the sagging of things, personal and historical – the slump of her own belly and breasts as much as the gutter bound trajectory of world affairs in general. She’s long ago ceased to harangue the wrinkles on her face, and now tends each one like a child, thanking them for the work they have done. It’s all very quiet in Yemaja’s world, no matter the weather or time of day, even in a hullaballoo like this, fraught with high chins and thunder and fists at the ready and people saying ‘let’s go then yeah? Let’s go!’ Yemaja stands with one finger on her lips, and Levi has learned at school that this means no talking, so he doesn’t talk. He watches as Yemaja moves an arm – a vaguely perceptible movement, slow as an hour hand on a clock, the tiniest friction in the depths of an ocean as water curls and a wave is conceived.

Riverside; a darkness slips in and all eyes are up, looking for rain, puzzled by the cloudless sky. The water comes up, not down – great arcs of it, sprayed from the ground – and makes them jump, literally. For a second – a long enough second – the people forget themselves. The mechanics – the magic of the thing – are unseen and unsought. To be thrown water on a hot day is to care nothing for who may have flicked the switch, whether a person inside a building doing a job or a Goddess hushing the world. Levi’s mother, whose name is Veronique, is not thinking about which. She is letting her bag slide from her shoulder and focusing her lens to catch the shot. She sees him clearly – her son – in his shirtless, shoeless, artless, oblivion in the mists of the fountain. He takes a bow. The water blesses his naked back, also the backs of other shadows dancing alongside. In the blessing dance, all thirsts are quenched; mortal and immortal, living and dead.

© Foluke Taylor 2017

 

 

The Stain

They don’t go to the church with the steeple and the organ chamber any more. At the Free Church there are no stained glass disciples, fonts or baptisteries and no robed choirboys for her to envy. The hall of the Free Church is shaped like a shoebox and open to interpretation. When it’s empty, if not for the thin cross, mounted on the wall at the front, it might not be a place of worship at all. Here, the spirit of praise and prayer is not invoked with architecture but with slideshows of good works in faraway places and hill songs accompanied by guitars. Gone then is the oaken grandeur of All Saints, where she could tune out soporific sermons, dream and be safely invisible. Now she sits alert waiting to be pounced upon.

Here, in the Free Church, they call her by her name. To them, she is not invisible. Here they don’t feel the need to ignore brown people – on the contrary they single them out for special attention. They ply her with soft drinks and bible tracts, and offer to take her to camp. They cast her in the church plays. They have given her the part of Mary Magdalene, because she speaks so well and this is a special honour because today they will perform in front of a visiting preacher. He’s visiting from America, which up to this point in her life is somewhere that only exists on TV. It’s a big occasion.

Mrs Turpin rushes them through breakfast ‘to get there on time and get seats at the front’. In the rush runny egg yolk spills on her white T-shirt. The T-shirt has a thick neckband and a hole cut out over her throat and until this moment it has been her favourite T-shirt. Now dead centre between the faint mounds of her budding breasts, it has an egg-yellow stain. Mrs Turpin rushes her to the car, chiding as she goes

“Stop fussing. It’ll dry out. Who’s going to notice?”

“Me” is what she doesn’t say but she does notice it, all through the opening hymns and the prayers and for each long minute that she waits to be called up to perform. She practices hiding the stain behind her hands and then with one arm slung casually across her chest. The poses aren’t casual but rather awkward and backache inducing. The stain refuses to be cowed and instead it thrives, swelling and deepening before her eyes. By the time the start of the children’s contribution is announced to the assembled church it’s not a dribble of yolk, but the sign of the beast that she can feel splashed in sunset yellow across her chest.

She takes the stage, along with her fellow Sunday schoolers to enthusiastic applause. The part has been easy to learn. Mary Magdalene is despised, shunned by all and then accepted and saved by Jesus. She’s unclear on the reasons for the shunning except that Mary, like all of them was a sinner. The Sunday school teachers have been uncharacteristically vague in their telling of Mary’s story and silent on the specifics of her sins, apparently so dark and dirty that they are unspeakable.

Bradley Reedham opens with his only line, thrusting his arm out in front of her

“Move away woman! A great healer approaches!”

She takes a practiced step back and recites word perfect lines,

“What grace! What light! My eyes have never beheld such a man”

The other children, acting as the crowd, move ahead, pushing her back until she’s almost out of sight. Then, as Lenny Bell who is playing Jesus, spots her and beckons her to approach, they dutifully part to let her through. The precise choreography is the result of weeks of practice. The awkwardness that rises through her as she moves along the human corridor of her peers is unscripted and takes her by surprise. It’s an awkwardness that clings to her and gathers weight with each step. She can feel the prickle of sweat inside the T-shirt that’s suddenly too tight and too imperfectly white. She reaches the front of the stage, comes face to face with Jesus and there instead of the scripted kneeling she falters, trapped in the glare of the gaze from the front row. Jesus speaks, waits, coughs and is then forced to repeat himself

“Woman, what is your name?”

Dragging her gaze away from the audience and down to the varnished pine of the stage she manages to recover enough to speak

“Mary” she says, adding, a few seconds too late, “of Magdalene”

The scene continues, Mary and Jesus centre stage, he reaching out a hand to touch her and her pulling away in shame

“I am not clean Lord,” she says, and her voice shakes

A flicker of a frown appears on Jesus’ face

“What ails you?” he says

“Sickness my Lord” she replies

With each line her voice ebbs further away, like a tide that will soon be out of sight

“What kind of sickness?” demands Jesus, raising the volume of his own voice to compensate for hers,

“The sickness of sinners Lord” she mumbles, “with devils hounding me day and night”

Her final words, the ones that she has been told to ‘bounce off of the furthest walls of the church’, are less than a whisper

“Praise his holy name, I am free”

There’s a moment of confusion in which no one is sure whether or not Mary has spoken and Jesus has to decide whether or not to continue with his lines.

“Weep no more,” he says, eventually.

As Jesus turns his back to the audience to cast out Mary’s demons with seven arcs of his right arm, he shoots dirty looks in her direction. She is engulfed in a wave of embarrassment and relief as the play ends and the children are drowned in applause.

Back in her seat she’s still burning with shame when the guest preacher rocks up to draw all the attention. A toothy wide mouthed man with a precision haircut he has a solid frame packaged in a crisp beige suit and garnished with a bow tie. He sweeps down the aisle that has been formed between the rows of chairs and bounces up to the lectern with a charge that seems to emanate directly from his high polished winkle pickers. Everything about him says pay attention. He holds a sturdy finger up between him and the hushed congregation,

“Already ye are clean,” he says, “because of the word which I have spoken unto you”

She feels the vibration of his voice deep in her chest.

The preacher continues, conducting his voice like a full orchestra as he weaves a symphony in and out of the gospel and through people’s everyday lives. He takes the congregation with him as he navigates the movements. When he drops to a whisper they lean in to hear and when he raises the volume, shoulders pulls back to attention. A hundred eyes follow the dance of his arms as they point down to hell, up to heaven and then out at them, personalising the message to each and every person present. As he reaches the climax, his hand strikes the lectern, evoking drums and the crash of cymbals
“Are you ready?” he asks, “Ready to be cleansed?”

Several members of the congregation say ‘yes’ but he acts as though he hasn’t heard and cranks up the volume again

“Are you ready to let HIM into your life?” the sturdy finger, crooked now, raps on an invisible door, “Ready to accept Jesus Christ as your personal saviour?”

This time several members of the congregation rise to their feet and the assent is more substantial, bolstered with applause and isolated break outs of joyful whooping, or perhaps weeping – it’s hard for her to tell without turning around. The commotion persists, even as the preacher himself, pursued by handshakes and back pats, returns to his seat. The person with the job of reading the notices has to linger at the front for what feels like forever before it’s quiet enough for him to be heard. Fortunately today’s notices are short. The brownie guides will be holding a jumble sale next Saturday afternoon to raise money for African children. Any person who would like to enter into a personal relationship with Jesus please join with others to receive the preacher’s blessings in the side room. Refreshments will be served from the kitchen at the back of the church. She sits for a few crucial minutes, torn between good deeds, orange squash and salvation.

The room at the side of the church is dim and smells of polish. She is the last one to arrive and eases herself inside with her back to the wall so as not to disturb the circle of people, already deep in silent prayer, eyes closed, hands outstretched. Slipping into a gap and aping their stance, she wonders what it is that they are praying for. Since she can’t ask she makes her own prayers. She prays for African children to have food and for there to be no more earthquakes and for the Holy Spirit to come down and speak to her. There are things she needs explained. Why doesn’t Mrs Turpin like her? Why can’t her t-shirt stay white? Why can’t her skin? What is this stain that clings to her wherever she goes? How will she know when like Mary, she has been forgiven? When will Jesus wash her clean? What kind of sinner is she?

Mrs Turpin is pacing the stretch of pavement next to the car, arms folded, bull bars across her stomach

“Where the hell have you been?”
“Nowhere”
“I’ve been looking all over for you! You must have been somewhere!”

She shakes her head and shrugs, picks at her t-shirt. Her mouth is parched, empty of words.

“I’ve been worried sick,” says Mrs Turpin, “Worried sick!”

Neither of them says any more as they get in the car and drive home. In the back seat she keeps her face to the window, watching but not seeing familiar streets, praying that the Holy Spirit knows where they live.