Author: Edgar Nkosi White | Date: 07 November 2018
There was a time in the village, Uncle said, when only women buried men. Not the making of caskets or the digging of graves mind you, but the washing of the dead. Tears could come later, and because women were nearly always there close by, it fell to them and the business of their hands.
The carpenter was the first called when death came. Rightly so since nothing could happen without him and he needed time to set about his business. Yet it was women who touched flesh first and when I asked Uncle why, he said because they were always watching and could wait you out. The life expectancy was greater with women since they would look food first whereas we would look rum. Not all but enough to matter and while we would live cigarette to cigarette, women would look for tomorrow.
Young, we'd be warriors with plenty chat and pacing the earth like roaring lions making shadows, but too soon that too would pass. If questioned," Where you gone to now?" the answer was always:
"Woman, no bother ask me no damn lawyer question. You see me when you see me!"
But then all too soon age would reach you and you find yourself suddenly an old man sitting on the doorstep shelling peas, silent. And turning you find those same eyes watching. Only now they were no longer needing to ask since they see the fall.
If wise you smile, if foolish you frown. It's just life and it's to know life we come for so don't bother fret.
Still somehow it bothered my mind that in the end woman would be the last to see me weak; so I'd argue over and over with him that it didn't seem right.
"But why that should vex you so? From time wasn't it a woman the first one to see you born, so then why not at the last? Call she nurse, same difference. Is just a way of seeing."
I knew he was right of course, which only angered me still more.There was always in the village one who was called, one who had the knowledge to cleanse and bind you. ( I know now that these were the same women who knew how to "throw way pickney" without either harming the girl or her name,( unless of course they wanted to).
To dress the dead is not an easy thing because, a man always knows somehow, alive or dead, who's touching him. It must be done right, with respect. Otherwise he can't rest and so won't let you rest either.
In those days, the time before, you walked a good distance with the coffin. That's when the carpenter's skill was called. You had to judge size right. No time for mistake and remake. Say you had to walk from Cudjoe Silk Cotton Tree to Cavallah Hill Church. Everything had to be done and finished to be out of the graveyard before late afternoon. You wouldn't want 6 o'clock to catch you out.There were times when the spirit wasn't quite ready to enter the church either, and so the pastor would have to wait it out. The pastor must know when. But how?
It was his commission to sense the when. Some spirits not quite ready to leave the earth. Death had come on them like a thief without asking. They had plans. Death had another. And so the spirit would play for time. Even if just for the space of a cigarette, the pastor must sense it and make the hearse rest outside the church before entering.
After the service comes the work of the gravediggers in the dry earth waiting. A skill which only comes with experience because sometimes the earth and the shovel quarrel together and this you don't want while people wait.
Finally, it's over and with the leave taking comes relief. Here again it's the women who like Sirens draw you to food and drink and a space where chat can happen. Hopefully the body unlike the night before, is no longer there in the house watching.
Now's the time, Uncle says, you learn things about the dead that you never knew. You hear of family connections and violations. Hour by hour, deed by deed the person you thought you knew is revealed, never all at once mind you, but over a space of time shadow by shadow you find pieces of people. Because the dead change. Over and over you catch yourself repeating : "Well well well" or "Aiyoowo!".
Mostly the dead are never who we knew them to be, although sometimes you find them more. They can't lie now so others lie for them.
As you hear rumours pass, you try to imagine how so kind a face could have masked such crimes but then you think back and signs begin to appear. A ram and a lizard can dwell together in the same body. Maybe a wife hides things to keep from been judged. Maybe she paints kindness that never was. Who can say why people stay together.
Sometimes when you learn what people come from things become clearer. You feel you know a man then. Now that you know what desperation he escaped from you feel you have an understanding, maybe you change your judgment or maybe not. Anyhow we carry our houses with us.
Each defends a myth: like say the contrary man who only pretends to be callous and cold so as not to be called soft. He wears his mask so tight that it can't come off until finally it catches him dead.
Later in the months that follow will come yet more stories of sightings, spirits returning. A peculiar walk may finally give them away and reveals them. It's the familiar game of "wrong father" A man lives his life thinking he has one father then we find he had two.
Or a child becomes possessed because you named them wrong. You were told that you must name them after So-and -So and you didn't listen because you too harden to listen, you didn't want to give them dead people name, so now punishment comes down. But Uncle's favorite was always the jumbie who never rests quiet until a wrong is made right: You can aways feel their presence. Always busy at mischief. "They say he dark!"
The many poisonings and illnesses which come from greed and grudge and badmind and because someone finds you a threat in the Montserrat way. This was so common in the village that it seldom even caused noise or mention. Whatever sense the world made, was made there, between hill and ghaut.
There are hands. These same hands that so skillfully makes cassava bread over an iron stone can ease you into paradise. One of the most powerful poisons in the world is "lamp oil" It was easy for someone to " do for you " and settle an account because they find you "too pret up!"
But that was another time. They say things are different now I think. What was it that made things change so in the village? Was it the advent of undertakers or just time and the sea?
Women began to go away to study and learn to become things. Became teachers and nurses and with the coming of the war some even became doctors. Suddenly they had more to do than just make babies and bury men, and so, little by little, we set about burying ourselves.
( The Journey)
Wanting to escape the quiet tyranny of the Silk cotton tree. Wanting more than just the dung cart and to have to stoop and care a next man's land. And because they said that everything came from the sea, and there was so little left there on the dry land that paid, Uncle followed them all down to the ship and so began the first wave of immigration to Britain.
He was the first on island, believing in the Windrush. Paid his passage at Osborne's Shipping and felt big. He'd made his mind up while others, they just stayed on, full of cigarette and chat.
He'll remember always arriving to the metallic taste of Paddington Railway Station and his first vision of London. Electrical wires stutter scrape wheels into existence and chimnies resemble factories. Then he couldn't smell the sea anymore.
Roll -up tobacco held him hostage in passage ways. Poor people who couldn't afford brand name cigarettes rolled their own. Burnt offerings. Fish and Chips wrapped in newspaper meant he wouldn't have to fight for time in the kitchen in order to eat. He had his own room now even if it was just a converted closet. No more Bed and Breakfast. He could at least have some privacy. He realized finally that yes he really had come to Britain. He started to believe the cold- smog he found himself walking through like a shrowd. He'd thought finding work would be the problem.Wrong, within two days he had work. It was housing that was a problem. Like the Son of Man.
It was hard to believe that England had really won the war because it didn't look it. Instead it looked grim and gray and unwashed with all the houses alike. But this wasn't Mayfair where the rich lived. (He heard about there but never got to see that). There they lived as they always had. But Hackney meant having to share a room and maybe even a bed. Taking turns. From rooming house to rooming house.
What he craved most was being able to lock a door after him. Finally he had one. When he came first he shared a common room and that meant they could walk in on him at will. He only came home to sleep then. Now he had a key which was his own and a 'wireless' radio he could turn on and talk back to, and hear the BBC if he wanted. Which meant he didn't have to hear the couple fighting next door or the sound of the leaking loo by the stairs which in self defence he'd taken to fixing so as not to be kept awake at night. The poor leaked into each others lives.
The couple was not as easy to fix as plumbing. Their rows would only start after the pub closed and the man wasn't drunk enough yet to ignore her and fall asleep. She spoke in creole a language he didn't speak but could understand her venom. She was cursing him for bringing her to this place of endless winter and rain. Drinkless he merely sat captive and smoked. Now he would just turn the radio up, drown out the voices and give space to the room. It was well worth the cost.
Finding work wasn't a hardship. There was plenty work if you really wanted it. Working on building sites or factory. British Rail or London Transport. But finding someplace to live that was the problem.
"We don't take coloureds. It's not me mind, it's the neighbors, see. They won't stick your sort." How many times had he heard that since he'd arrived?
But you needed someplace to sleep otherwise you'd come down sick or have an accident on the job which could be dangerous when your dealing with heavy machinery. He'd already slept one night in a private park and a policeman kicked him awake. He made certain that would never happen again. This was not what he left Montserrat to do, sleep in people's park.
There was no work insurance then and the Labour Party didn't welcome you with open arms either. they'd laugh and say how much they loved the workers but that didn't mean you. Yes there were unions but nobody would invite you to join. The same way people might talk to you on the job or at the pub but never ever quite invite you to their house. The unions were theirs. Never forget it. The only reason they formed in the first place was just to keep you out.
So you bit your tongue and didn't tell the foreman that you knew just what a racist bastard he really was, because they'd write you up if you did that and you needed to keep that card clean. The shop steward's name was Hitchens. He'd try every excuse to fine you. You'd sign up as a machine operator and he'd make you mop the floors. Anything to get a rise out of you. They called this "trying it on." Just a bit of fun. Ask to borrow your hair to use for a scrub brush and like that.
What was confusing was the way English people could laugh with you one day and look straight through you the next as if you didn't exist. But then everything was about appearance. They would treat you one way if they were by themselves but totally different in company. The worst thing was if you were coming out of their house. They'd turn red and treat you like a stranger because they didn't want anybody knowing that they were renting to you and had you sleeping in the coal bin.
It took time to unravel and make sense of really, but it comes to you eventually. West Indians were here to replace the war dead. We're ghost, phantoms. The phantoms of liberty. But there's no intention of us ever being permanent. We're a temporary fix so why not just charge us double but pay us half? Maybe then we'd get the message and leave quickly.
But then that didn't work and so we became a problem, we didn't leave quickly as they'd expected. Instead we start merging into the society. Making families.Leaking into their women. A rude confusion. A blot on their landscape. A reality they didn't want to have to face. But here we are anyway and things would never be the same again once we'd come inside them
How long does it take to teach you that they don't want you living among them, really? That it wasn 't like they said in the newsreels. There, they joke you through an interview and photograph you with Prince Philip, blue tailored suit and smiling down on you all height and privilege, visiting a job centre. After the first year they stop all the pretense. They call you Nig Nog to your face so that you know. They put it in print and place signs in their windows so you'd have no doubt. "NO DOGS OR COLOUREDS". They even use it in advertising :"Nigger coloured Jaguar for sale" They thought they were being polite when they said "golliwog dolls" Every day there's something to remind you. But soon you realize that if you take everything on you'll end up either dead from a heart attack or in HMP locked up. So you learn to suck it up, as they call it.
You went to work and you came home. Stayed off the streets otherwise. But what could you do without some kids following you and asking you ever so politely:
"Please mister, can you show us your tail?"
"Show us your tail!"
"I will if you show me yours."
"Me? I en' got no tail."
"Well me either."
Puzzled they stare at you. How can that be, could their parents lied? They'd told them definitely you had a tail. The blood is pounding in your head. And half of you wants to drop your pants and prove it to them. Scare them to death but you know where that will land you: Broadmoor. The mad house. No, the best thing is just to breathe deeply and keep moving. So you do. Just suck it up!
But on the weekend you have to let off steam in the pub. Even though you still have to choose very carefully because not all serve you. Some just stare at you like a Martian. Make a scene and guess who'd be charged? No law that says they have to serve you. So you turn and walk away. Suck it up.
You try and be cautious and read the danger in advance but you have to go out sometime otherwise you're just a prisoner of war. No matter how careful you are. You still wear the uniform: victim. The black half coat with leather patches to keep warm on the building site. The wool cap. The worker giving off dark shadows wherever you walk. Step by step they erase you.
You wake one day and find you have no neck. It had simply disappeared somewhere inside your coat. Next went the jaw with the upturned collar. Lastly the skull hidden inside the wool cap. You lost your face. Like the turtle inside its shell. The phantom. Suddenly you start sounding Cockney: "Hang about mate!" and "En` it?"
Careful as you are, still, you get caught in a crowd of football supporters one day. There you are suddenly trapped in the underground, and their drunk and your black and they encircle you and suck the air from right out your lungs until finally the police disperse the crowd and somehow you're still alive. Don't allow them victory over you.
Step by step you learn the boundaries. Where to shop and where the safe watering holes are. Where the listings for housing on bulletin boards. Where you could meet women. Music and dancing, Ladbroke Grove and Brixton. Money placed in post office savings accounts instead of banks. You learn.
Turf Accountants meant betting shops and these he tried to stay away from because he'd seen too many getting sucked under in the quicksand. Too many who started as once or twice a week gamblers. Soon they take up residence. Once the betting shop opens you know where to find them. Why? Because everyday there's at least a chance. Better than talking to yourself lonely in the street. People watching you and laughing. Snow starting to leak into your head. But suddenly you find yourself entering those same betting shops looking a life.
Yes, he was definitely losing his face. He couldn't find it anywhere not inside the black half coat nor the wool cap. Now the neck was starting to vanish beneath the upturned collar. He walked in the shadows of buildings an outline.
And then Notting Hill happened and he found what was left of himself in a race riot. First it was in the newspapers then it was in the streets and then it was in him. All through him. He saw their faces. The jeering faces of the Teddy Boys with their steel tipped shoes as they tried to kick a hole in his heart that night.
He threw back milk bottles at the many headed beast that was a mob and found it didn't like that, this animal. And when he poured petrol into a bottle and placed a rag inside it and made a bomb; they ran away in disbelief. Explosions all around them. They didn't like it that you fought back. Suddenly the police decided it was serious enough to put a stop to. Suddenly he found his face again.
Not that long ago there were hangings of the poor to keep people amused now they had race-riots instead. It didn't matter so long as it didn't reach the Palace.
And that went on for a week and then things were different. People looked at you differently. With respect. Then a month later they killed the Antiguan boy, Kelso Cockrane. They stabbed him up and ran. Then it got quiet. Enoch Powell, he had a dog's face. He tried to bring on the Rivers of Blood. He even offered free passage if you left England. But then somebody pushed him down in the street and nobody cared about him anymore. The sacrifice had been made. The blood offering.
But this wasn't the way that they wanted Britain seen abroad. What of the Commonwealth? Was Britain really no different than Apartheid South Africa after all was said and done? All and everywhere everything was unraveling. Then it went into the next phase. They'd already lost India. Now they were losing Egypt and the Suez Canal as well. Nasser showed it was possible to say no to Britain and stand up. Africa would be next.
They settled down to share their guilt together. The Labour Party decided that maybe it wouldn't hurt to have blacks with them after all. They weren't afraid to call names now. Even to have them run for office. David Pitt, the first black face to run for Parliament.
And now suddenly for the first time you have to decide do you really want to live here? You've never decided. Never had a plan more than five years at a time. It's now been ten since you've come and when you think of it, the only reason that you've stayed at all was to spite them. Make them call you contrary.
The more they try to drive you away the more determine you become, why was that? You got as accustomed to the hate as to the weather. Call it a marriage. Like a woman once entered it seems easier to stay inside than to go.
Then the house. Step by step He moved from room to flat and finally to owning a house in Islington. He'd repaired everything himself and had even taken to renting out space. Together with five others he had put together a crew with a plan to purchase and renovate houses in Stoke Newington and sell them. A good plan. The hardest part was getting qualified electricians to see to the wiring. The carpenters and painters were easy enough. The most difficult was the business of getting a building inspector to grant the permit. Here again you were alright as long as you didn't over reach. One or two houses wasn't threatening but when they see you trying to become a property developer all kind of obstacles suddenly appear. "Can you really insure these properties until they're sold?" Then one night a mysterious fire. The problems seemed never to end. You needed a Rabbi with a good lawyer. A Rachman.
Then it came to him one day. The wind moving along Ladbroke Grove. The echoing voices. The phantoms. Do you want to stay here among them telling each other the same stories over and over about back- in- the- day; when stranded starlets strayed among them rich and drunk and searching blackness. The seedy Carib clubs. They would pay you to service them when the Continent was no longer an option. And who was King Cock and who was the greatest pleasure giver? Fire hot seed and pay them back the pain!
Of course they made certain these starlets, that they were never photographed with you and be blackmailed. And so they'd move on when ready and leave the King Cocks behind to Council flats and memories. Trying to relive those glory days.
He didn't want to become like them. He had one place that he cared about that kept his sanity. An allotment that he kept in the yard in back of the house. Carrots and green peas. Corn and tomatoes. He even managed some success with okra. It was his Victory garden. He made something grow out of the earth, even in this gray city. It was funny, as long as he'd lived in Britain he never dreamed. Never had a dream he could recall on waking. If he dreamt at all it was always childhood and back home. Never of England.
Some found different ways to deal with the new Jerusalem which was England. There was Delphina, a girl that he knew from the village. She too had come across soon after him to stay with family but then had vanished. He couldn't quite remember what he'd heard but something to do with her working with the Health service. Then he saw her one day. He was working with London Underground at the time and she asked for a ticket to Kew Gardens.
At first he couldn't be certain. She was with an English girl and when he greeted her she was totally distant and gave him a puzzled look, made an " O" with her mouth and shook her head as if she couldn't understand who he was and who he could possibly be mistaking her for. She quickly put on her glasses which she wore now and which helped distance her from any reality she chose to avoid. He didn't press her.
Some time after he heard that she 'd married an Englishman named Stanley, a dentist, and had moved to Claxton on Sea where she opened a flower shop. She had a daughter now named Tiffany and became totally English. Apparently, what she'd done to him she'd done to others. She simply erased them from her memory bank. Everyone had their way of dealing with England. In truth Delphina never had to clean a house that wasn't hers. For her England had been a success but people still talked.
There was something else Uncle had to learn in Britain. Something that had him more confused even than race. It was class. Often they wore the same shoes and shared the same bed. Race and class. Yet race was still used to make the piss poor forget their poverty. " At least we're free and white". Never for a second did they let you forget it. It determined how and where you sat on a railway car. And everything down to what you ate and the air you breathed. Race and class.And the strong stench of carbolic soap.
Given the right class they might even forgive race. Claim royal blood and even Africa can be forgiven. Witness Haile Selassie. He they welcomed to Britain and didn't ask to sweep a street. He a saw a photograph of Queen Elizabeth bowing to this black man. Haile Selassie. He couldn't believe it but there it was in the News of the World. The Queen bowing.
What they wanted was to keep those born beneath stairs right where they'd come from. Working Class meaning the class that works for those who needn't. Those in power could stay in power.
Back home he had never known there was such a thing as poor Englishmen. They all wore a shirt and tie even in the sun so he had no idea what they were fleeing from. In the Caribbean they could live as they never could here at home. They had cars and servants to wash their clothes. He knew because his own family would fight for that privilege to be a domestic to white tourist and wash their dirty draws.
Some did wars and some business and some did the business of war. Now here he was in their country. Searching the phantom of liberty.
They had done a good job of keeping the workers at each other's throats well enough to prevent any serious revolt. The best job he'd ever had in Britain was as spray paint finisher for luxury cars and once he became the most skillful and the highest paid at the plant he was targeted. He sent his attacker(Hitchens) to hospital and ended spending a weekend in prison awaiting bail.
He was fired but asked to come back and work off the books when they needed a special job done. He was that good and so hard to replace. They called him The Guvner or the Old Man which made him laugh because that was what he called his hood. "The Old Man."
He had made two children there in England. They didn't know anything else. A son, Patrick born from pride, and a daughter, Vanessa who held his heart ransom. But the mother Iris he couldn't get on with. They shared a war together. It's funny the way babies still manage to get themselves born regardless.
Patrick who was his favourite had once had hopes of becoming a footballer but a vicious tackle from behind ended all that. He still grieved over it. He'd had limousine dreams of being internationally known like Pele. He knew now that it would never be. He had to come to terms with coaching school children instead. Though gifted he'd really never had the total obsession it would have taken to become successful as a black footballer in Britain. He was glad that at least he hadn't been crippled. Here even supporters spat at you from the stands and might fling bottles. Referees mostly looked the other way. Yet still in his heart-of-hearts he felt that if his father had pushed harder for him he might have been great.
Push harder. Did that mean arranging to have him born in Brazil? No, but at least attending every match and pretending he liked the game. Though he tried he couldn't lie. Uncle hated football simply because it reminded him of the skinheads and the National Front.
Vanessa, the younger, became an x-ray technician. She hadn't given any trouble but usually sided with her mother, Iris, who encouraged her to marry British so that life would be easier. Iris had a sad voice full of churches and caution. It bothered him now although in the beginning it was what had attracted him to her. The eternal judgement of her eyes. But now he came to see that try as he would, he would never be quite good enough to deserve her. He would always fall short of the mark.
He knew with some certainty now that Great Britain was no longer great. He suspected it from the time he'd first arrived. God had left and gone to America but the Queen had stayed.
America came late to the war. Just in time to win everything. America was a young man's country. Young with the arrogance of victory. Britain was now bleeding colonies. And he :
"No longer quite the Indian that they wanted
Born as he was, too far West to please
And hadn't enough to do with rice
To be called a son of the Indies.
And they asked him where he was from
He admitted Montserrat
They only wondered:
"where the hell
in Jamaica was that?"
He came home that afternoon to find that a skip was on the corner of his street. A huge rubbish container for the construction work that was going on next door. As he passed he couldn't help but look in. He noticed his old radio among the scraps of plywood. An old suitcase without a handle bound with twine. He ran into his house.
"Iris, is what you doing? Why you throw way me things?"
"What things, you mean that rubbish? I take advantage of the skip. None of that is any use. What you saving these things for? That radio not working again. It can't be fixed, they don't even make those parts anymore. Leave it to you and you would never throw anything away. You would make this house into one big rubbish skip."
He sat down in the brokeness of his life.
"A skip, that's what you call this. That's how you see me, en' it? Well everything I have is for a reason."
She just sucked her teeth. "Well, the reason pass."
He walked away from her voice. He looked from the window to the skip.The crociated curtains which were her handiwork to keep Britain at bay. Still he could see the skip outside and knew it was his life he was seeing sentenced before him.
What he wanted now was not a new country but a return to the old to try and find a self he'd left behind somewhere in the village.
First we become our parents and then our grands. He couldn't explain it not even to the few friends he had and with whom he came together over music. Even they couldn't understand why he'd want to leave and go back home to live.
"You talking Christmas?"
"No, I mean go back now"
"Bwoy nothing go so. Nothing no there for you now. But how you could do that? Have sense, man. Buy property and rent out so money could come to you hand while you here. What you go do if you catch sick down there? What you going back for?"
He didn't want to die in the rain of England. He couldn't explain it to those who had known nothing else. And why it had to be now if he was leaving. A feeling had come on him in the early drizzle of dawn and he knew it had to be now or he'd never leave. He didn't want England to eat him.
But could he really settle back with those he'd left behind? He didn't even know if he could fit in. Here, he could still find work but was the money worth if it couldn't buy back time? Thirty years had vanished. Where had it gone? When they saw him all they saw was an old black man crossing the road. Even his own children. Where did he belong? He'd come to England to do a job of work, well, he'd done that. Even the Englishman had said he was the best he'd seen at it. He decided finally to leave and come home.
Home to what? This island of half-foot men and their women who mostly cared and sometimes buried them. Women whose bodies had turned mannish with age, while men became children.
When he'd left it was by the leeward leaning sea. He searched to find his face amid the faces but it was only the sea which was the same. All else had changed and so he knew he had too.
He wouldn't have known how to explain what spell had held him this thirty years away. He was glad that he wasn't made to because they knew his story better than he. Still it bothered him, Uncle, that none cared enough to ask.
He'd stepped out on the sea trying to escape. Had gone abroad in search of the Phantom of Liberty. Now this same sea had brought him back and he was glad of it. And even the Silk Cotton Tree bending close, like a mistress watching her worker.