Friday, September 23, 2011

Excerpt from Thunder Above: Thunder Below

In 1997 we went to live in Angola for four years. I wrote a book about my experiences there:

In that first glimpse Angola whispers of home, with  its dry red earth and a scratch of trees spreading  lazily toward far horizons. It is not long before Luanda lifts her weary head from the waste of powdered sand, looking like some dusty spread of stone and wreckage, cast carelessly along an erratic coast.  Through the aircraft window it has the grainy look of an old and tattered photograph or a barely focused magazine image of yet another dirt-shrouded African city. 
It also reminds me of Bombay, with the same sprawl of thin-shouldered shanties huddling miserably around the swollen belly of the city. Poverty looks much the same anywhere but a closer look reveals that at least here the poor are able to  build in cement rather than cardboard.  
Luanda takes its name from an island that today forms part of the city area, Loanda, meaning ‘flat land.’ The island had no mountains and was originally comprised only of sand that shifted with the tides and the flow of the nearby Kwanza river.  It is this red sand , the musseques, that crumbles into unstable gullies when the rains come.  In that respect it is good that the rains do not come often, although when they do they are merciless, tearing through the talc-like soil with fierce, liquid teeth.     Not only homes but lives are sucked into that turbulent drench.
 The airport is noisy and crowded, a roiling mass of  exuberant greetings and raised voices. Again I am reminded of India, with the same damp-mould tang to the air and dishevelled appearance of the arrivals hall. But here there are less people. There are always less people than India, no matter how big the city and Luanda is not particularly big. A few million people, that is all, although numbers ebb and flow because of the refugees from  the war that still rages in the interior and the land-mine littered earth  which once they farmed,  but which now brings only a harvest of death.
Angola, one of Africa’s largest countries,  was once a ‘bread basket’ for this continent; a rich and productive land that was the envy of many.  But the war has put paid to that. Now most of the food is flown in, at two or three times the price, of course, for that is the way of war  and of supply and demand in desperate times.
We queue for slow, hot minutes that threaten to turn into slower, hotter, draining  hours. Water drips down from ancient air conditioners and the air is heavy with sweat and humidity.  The toilet door stands ajar and through it can be seen the grime of unwashed walls and pools of dusty water.   The voices are raised high, the queue through customs is long and the wait seems endless. Luckily, after only ten minutes,  someone comes to meet us and we are taken through almost immediately.
With bags collected we follow the creaking, overloaded trolleys through the door and then push our way through the clamour of the waiting crowd which crushes in noisy confusion against metal barriers. If I am struck by anything it is that at first sight the people look healthy. Once more I am making comparisons with India, where disease and malnutrition wreak ageless havoc. One thing I do notice though,  is that there are quite a few men, young and old, missing limbs; the legacy of  war. But I can see no beggars. Just looking at the faces I have a sense that these people are proud. There are many things that they would do before they would beg.
 Are they proud because they know how to survive? These are people who have only recently been able to believe in peace after enduring one of the world’s worst wars. They are also the same people who survived what was perhaps the worst war of all … slavery!  For it was from here that so very many of the slaves came, part of the human river that flowed  in that time of shame from Africa to the Americas.  This was the departure point of the Kwata! Kwata! … the wars waged to capture slaves. It was also the assembly and loading point for slave ships bound for the plantations of the New World.
But the Europeans did not invent slavery in Africa, they merely drew upon an ancient tradition which recognised a value in humans as a commodity. Whether captured in war, bartered for money or handed over as compensation, the slave was a resource for Africans long before the first Europeans arrived and no more so than in Angola. Sadly, in some parts of Africa, slavery still exists, but here it is only a memory, albeit one that is mixed with the still-raw wounds of colonisation and civil war.  
These are people who have been enslaved, conquered and devoured by civil war.  It has been this way beyond memory and now, for the first time since the Portugese arrived in 1575, and perhaps even before, there is a chance of peace. How much people believe in it I have no way of knowing. What I do know is that it is difficult to believe in anything that we have not experienced, let alone imagine that it may be possible.
There is little in the way of written history in Africa and Angola is no exception. Much of what does exist,  was written by the Portugese,  but then history has always been written by the victors. They came, those first pale people from the north, in a fleet of seven ships carrying a hundred families of colonists and four hundred soldiers. For those on the shore watching the rock and sigh of those alien ships, there could have been no way of knowing what would grow from such  a small, and seemingly insignificant  beginning. 
 Up until that time the area had been home to no more than numerous scattered villages. They were called Libatas and  they  were ruled by a governor who was a subject of the King of Congo.  Even then the Angolans were not free, and it was probably little comfort that those who controlled them were neighbouring tribes.
The Portugese to that extent were no more than new conquerors with pale skin.  With plans to control the legendary silver mines of Cambambe the Portugese intended to stay and the settlements of Loanda and Sao Paulo grew quickly. It was the brisk trade in slaves however that brought more colonists and even faster growth.
By 1583 the Cathedral of Luanda had been completed, followed ten years later by the Jesuit Church and in 1604 the Monastery of Sao Jose. In 1605, the Governor Manuel Cerveira Pereira, conferred the status of city on the settlement of Sao Paulo, making Luanda the first city to be founded by Europeans on the West Coast of sub-Saharan Africa.  There are old men in Lisbon now who bemoan the loss of the ‘Paris of Africa.’
It is only much later when we walk around the city that we can understand the Parisian dream, seeing ephemeral glimpses of beauty in the now raddled face of Luanda. By the time that we left, some four years later, there was steady work on restoration of some of the most beautiful of the colonial buildings, and, since the end of the war in 2001 that work has continued at a satisfying pace. But such things are still in the future, both for us and for the city.
 Although held between 1641 and 1648 by the Dutch, at the end of the seventeenth century Luanda was a small African/Portugese town made up of an upper part, the Cidade Alta where colonial power, the Church and the bourgeoisie were based and a lower zone which began in the present-day district of Coqueiros, where a population of traders and often thugs,  made their living largely from the slave trade.
Luanda today is a heady mix of all that it has been. Nearly 220 years ago the two halves of the city were finally linked by paved roads. Before that the roads were of sand, that fine scarlet sand which both supports and dresses the city even now. It was slaves who carried the palanquins and frequently stopped in the middle of the road to rest. There would be no stopping in the middle of the road today for such a decision would prove lethal as we clearly see from the moment  that we drive through the airport gates and become locked into an erratic dance upon the stretch of bitumen that leads from the city, past the airport and out to the Brazilian compound, Gamek,  where we are to stay.
It is crowded and slow, a crush of trucks and cars,  many bearing deep and rusting scars. But there is also widening work going on along the road and plans, we are told,  for a bigger and better highway before the year is out.  This is a positive sign, as too are the few new cars seen along the way, generally unsullied, despite having  received the communal  christening  with  red  baptismal dust.
I see a woman walking by the side of the road, long neck arched, head erect,  balancing an assortment of parcels on her head. How I would love to be able to do that. She moves with grace, despite the load and despite the more than generous buttocks with which she has been blessed; a genetic inheritance that would have seen her ancestors survive the worst of droughts, and, in this troubled country, may still stand her in good stead today. They are certainly no cause for shame as they might be in the fat-obsessed West. African men still consider a certain generosity of body to be attractive in women.
 But she does not look completely African and this is not surprising for Angola has one of the most racially mixed societies in all of Africa. Even in the early days there was a mix of African and European, in churches, in marriages and in education, blending language and life into a rich mix of custom, culture, religion and race that is both unique and impressive. The Portugese as colonists may have been forced to leave after four hundred years but they left far more behind than could ever be taken, including a language that offers still an important bond between Angola and other Portugese speaking countries.
 Once through the gates of Vila Do Gamek, we enter an ordered although still dusty world. This is the compound built by Oderbrecht, a Brazilian company,  which has been working in Angola for many years. This is the sanctuary,  with a gate and guards at the entrance and barbed-wire fences all around,  where we will stay for the few days that we are here.
 It is not that it is so dangerous anymore, they say, just that it is sensible. It feels like a prison and I already know that I prefer the other Angola, the one outside the wire.  As the gate shuts solidly behind us it awakens old-new memories, of  days as a barely grown child and visits to the mental hospital to see my mother. It is her eyes I remember most clearly,  empty of everything including recognition, and always, the thud of a closing door and the turn of a key. But when I turn back for a final look through the back window of the car, it is not nurses in wide-shouldered white that I see, but guards in grey,  with dusty shoes.
 Our home for the next few days is one among the many that were built in this compound some twenty years ago. A monotonous pattern repeated in timber and fibro across the neat grid of streets. The only variation is  in the colour of the shutters and that is no more than a variation upon a theme of grey, green or blue. The shutters of our house are a dull, depressing grey and the white-painted walls are encrusted with scabs of peeling paint.  It is adequate but not particularly comfortable and furnishings are sparse to say the least.
 There is a television set and a  worn vinyl couch in the living room but little else. The bed boasts one of the hardest mattresses I have ever encountered in all my years of travel and two little pillows that could double as large pet rocks if one were in the mood.  The Brazilians clearly have a spartan view of all bed activities!
There is water in the fridge but no food.  No coffee, no tea, no milk and anyway, nothing in which I can  boil water. It is expected that we will eat at the Mess but that is open only at stipulated mealtimes.  Self-discipline is clearly one of the lessons on my list and I am pitifully grateful for the cheese, biscuits and chocolates that we have squirrelled away from the planes.
 We will be here for three days and I rarely watch television anyway but that seems to be the only activity on offer. The channels include CNN, which is mind-numbing after half an hour, two French channels … a challenge for my basic French and two Portugese, even more of a challenge since I have not one word of the language. I am glad that I have brought something to read.  Books have saved me from boredom,  and many other things, for all of my life.  At this point in time I am more grateful to them than I have ever been,  for it seems that in Brazilian culture wives count for little and there has been no attempt to provide me with any sort of company or activity for the time that I am here. I was brought here to ‘have a look’ so I suppose I shall do just that … look!  
The best place for this soon proves to be the verandah that runs like a narrow smile across the front of the house.   Here I can sit and ‘look’ to my heart’s content,  although there is little to see other than the odd car, some children playing and a parade of mangy cats.  Still, it is peaceful enough and rather less oppressive than the uneven,  sickly green of the walls inside the house.    There are no curtains  inside the house and the echo-empty décor is depressing.  No-one lives here  permanently and the air of abandonment makes me shudder.
 But there is more at work than that. The dull, insipid green of the walls reminds me of the home where I lived longest as a child, through the years of my mother’s madness and my father’s grief. Those walls were bare too. I don’t know if my parents preferred it that way or if they simply had no money to spend on such indulgences as decoration.  As a child I would fill an old jam jar with yellow sour-sobs,  a weed to the world but the only flower to be found in our garden. Anything to make a difference.  I wish that I could do that here but there are no flowers … weed or otherwise. 
And there are ghosts in this house. It was the home of Mat and Sue for the three months that they were in Angola.  We had all lived together in Antwerp, some years back and became good friends. Mat had been so excited  when he rang me in Brisbane to say that he and Sue and their daughter, Nadia, were about to head overseas again.
 Now he is in a Perth hospital seriously ill with stomach and lung cancer. He is barely forty. It had all happened so quickly, surprising everyone,  for Mat was one of those strong, vibrant, ‘larger than life’ people.  Now he has been forced to face a new and unexpected enemy and that is why we are here. A replacement is needed and Greg has been approached to take on the job.
It is not how one would wish things could be and now, as I walk around  the house I feel as if I am stepping on someone else’s dreams.  It is yet another reason why the verandah is my favourite place.
 Sitting outside, on a cheap plastic chair,  I can listen to the maids at work;  watch the gardeners as they scrape with flimsy brooms, sweeping red dust from paths and road;  and  listen to the seed pods rustling in the trees. There are two large trees in the front of the house, and five spindly hibiscus bushes but nothing else, just bare, raked earth. One of the trees has long, honey-coloured seed pods that dangle like hard, flat beans; dry-scraping against each other with every touch of the familiar wind. 
There were trees like this in Brisbane, and many others beside that could boast a chaotic fringing of abundant life in the season of the seeding. It is as if in the tropics life demands excess in all things.  The other large tree that grows in the front yard preens with plump red and green leaves and  it too looks familiar, similar to those I have seen in far northern Australia.
 In another world so far away I can see that we are more alike than we know.  But then in aeons past Africa and Australia were once joined as that fabled land, Gondwana!  Finding that which we share, rather than that which divides is what is important in such alien space.
One thing is certain,  when we come back to live here I will bring seeds and plant them. I want to turn this into a garden. The earth is rich, I can see that by the raw and brutal growth that flourishes beneath the drip of air conditioners.  Small, darting birds begin a brief but beautiful song against the rustle of the tree-kissed wind and dance with delight in the drip of water from the air conditioners. They know the truth of such places, that with water, with the coming of rains, there is always abundant life.
I walk around the side of the house and see two pink and black feet poking out from behind a large cement cupboard which holds the gas bottle for the kitchen. On one side is an aluminium bowl with a few grains of rice. I tiptoe away.  When I go inside I can see that my feet are just the opposite of his, pink on the top and now, dust-black on the soles.
There are men working in the street cleaning up and  I can only assume that one of them has taken time out for a rest.  The day is hot and steamy and I go inside to have a sleep myself. When I come back  the feet have  gone, and so too has the lush green beneath the air conditioners. He has woken refreshed and returned invigorated to the task. There are now only ripped and weeping stalks, where once there was lavish celebration. The wind whistles and a dog yaps.  The hours stretch on through what seems an endless day.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Grace and Favour

A short story.

The old woman had lived in the cottage by the sea for as long as anyone could remember. 
It wasn’t that she was so very far from the small town, but the old woman never visited and no-one visited her.  It was just the way that it was in the way that things can sometimes be.  
“ But why would anyone live like that?” they said, time and again over the years, cloistered in crowded shops and lingering outside church after Sunday service.  
It was the child who changed everything. The pale-faced girl who looked as if she hadn’t eaten in months  was the one who finally visited the old woman. The child had come into town barely six months ago,  clinging to the dusty fall of her  mother’s skirts. The two of them together, hands on either side as if lifting something precious from the ground, had taken down the To Let sign in front of the house before even asking Father Michael if they could have it. Of course he said Yes!
 He was like that, everyone knew it, a pushover for anyone needy.  He would have straightened his rumpled collar, tugged at the wrinkle of his faded jacket and given her that smile of his, as if to say, ‘she was in safe hands and all would be well.’
Grace, that was her name, the hippie woman, and her daughter, who had been given the ridiculous name of Favour.

The day that Favour chose to walk out of town was a hot one. Her mother was busy with the washing from the hotel. It kept them going, ‘kept the wolf’ from the door as Grace always said. Favour had always secretly thought that she would rather see the wolf  resting quietly at the door, than her mother, hanging row after row of tattered towels upon the line that had been strung between two gum trees.
“Take a hat Favour,” her mother called after her, as she walked through the tangle of weeds that claimed the back yard. “It’s a hot day and these towels will be dry in no time but it will cook you to a turn if you don’t watch out.”
The road that led out of the town shone white and hot , as if the day bared brilliant teeth. She had come upon it suddenly, as one does with such things, and it was some time before Favour realised that she was no longer doing a circuit of the tree-ringed town, but had left the whispering shade behind and was far along the chalk-dust road.
It was even longer before she realised that she was lost. It seemed, or so she thought,  a small thing to turn around and walk back the way that she had come, but in the forgetting of a sly, hot day, she had taken too many unexpected turns and now found herself upon a narrow, track that wound through silent paddocks where the grass grew high and summer-dry.
There was nothing for it but to go on. Favour did not realise she had made such a decision, but within the refusal to turn back, it lay content and determined. There must be something at the end of this, she told herself. 
And it was just at that time,  when the Sun laughed loudest, and opened wide its unforgiving mouth, that Favour turned what could have been a corner, or may have been yet one more moment of forgetting, and found herself looking down upon a small stone cottage, and, beyond it, the cool, green glitter of an endless sea.
The track wound down through hills that rose on either side,  the paddocks  beneath were neatly fenced with a line of wire and bone-white branches; a twisting of rust and bleached wood, each made humble by the suck of the sun.
At last she reached a wrought-iron gate that  hung in patient waiting beneath the shadowed arms of a huge oak tree. There was nothing to be seen, but the wash of brilliant sky and the roll of hill and paddock, that stopped, as she had done, at the small, securely bolted gate.
And there was nothing to be heard, well, not a sound that could be named as such. If she had really listened,  Favour would have heard the wind drag worn teeth through the silk of trailing grasses on the distant hills; if she had really listened she would also have heard the click and rhythmic rustle of the cicadas hidden in the roots of the tree; if she had really listened she would have heard the shrill keen of the circling hawk; and, if she had really listened she would have heard the thunderous beating of her own heart.
But listening is a skill that  human beings are encouraged to lose, despite the fact that when they are born, it is what they are best at,  and so, like all others of her kind, Favour heard many things, but knew little, because she was not really listening. 
Favour jiggled the lock, but nothing happened.  The rusted bolt had been shot fast and true. With less than a minute to decide if it was what she truly wanted to do, Favour climbed over the gate. If she had thought for a moment of turning back and taking the long, hot and known way home, she might have considered it. But she did not, and in the way of lost children, she jumped in an instant from one world into the next.
It was on the other side, beyond the reach of the brooding oak, that Favour saw what she had imagined she would see. The land dipped down, as if to hold the stone cottage tightly in ancient arms, and beyond, between the glitter of the sea, was an orchard, the branches of the trees heavy with fruit.
With the drawing of one deep breath the child stepped forth, intent now upon her only known purpose. It was then that the day opened wide its promise and within an instant, Favour was taken up by the rush and scramble and bark and roar of what seemed like a hundred dogs … or perhaps one dog with a hundred heads.
In truth it was no more than six, and they were of all different shapes and sizes which only added to the confusion that one small child can feel in a strange and possibly dangerous place.
Whether the wind chose that  particular moment  to  speak, high and shrill through sharp, bared teeth; or the hawk circled low and shrieked a new and more insistent warning; or someone whistled, clear and bright … Favour had no way of knowing, for she fell, into that place beyond knowing, where safety was assured.
When she opened her eyes it was to a new world.

The first thing that Favour heard when she woke up was the whistling of a kettle. At least it sounded like the whistling of a kettle, although higher, sweeter and somehow melodic, unlike the black-bellied banshee monster that her mother set upon the wood-fired stove at home.  The second thing that Favour heard was the slide and pad of something that sounded like large, feathered feet.  And the third thing that Favour heard was a little voice inside her head that kept repeating: ”Don’t open your eyes. This is a dream. If you open your eyes you will make it real.”
“It’s alright my dear, it’s quite safe to open your eyes.” The voice was clear and gentle and very real.
Favour was so startled that her eyes opened in an instant but  before she could see anything she pulled the soft, woollen blanket over her head and disappeared into a mist of lavender and rose.
 “You can know too much Favour,” her mother often said, folding yet another tattered towel. “It doesn’t get you anywhere, just makes life more complicated.”
“And what do you think you would find out if you let yourself know, little one?”
Favour gulped and threw back the blanket but it took quite a while  for her to open her eyes.
The old woman who stood smiling at her side, wore a dress of pastel blue, pulled at the waist and falling to the floor. Her hair was drawn like spun silver, into a soft bundle at the back of her head; the lines on her face were deep, but shining; her brow high and clear; and her eyes, they shimmered like the soul of a sun-kissed sea.
“Where am I?” said Favour.
“Where do you think you are?” 
Favour shrugged. The last thing she remembered was the gate …. No, it was the dogs.
“I’m lost.” Favour dropped her head and began to cry.
“There, there little one. No-one is ever truly lost. You just don’t know where you are and are frightened you won’t remember how to find your way back.”  The old woman took her hand and stroked it gently and then said: “Come, we will have some lunch and you can tell me all about yourself and we shall decide how to get you home.”
Favour nodded and wiped dusty, dog-smelling fingers across her tear-streaked cheeks.  She carefully turned back the blanket and sat up on the couch. Her shoes were placed neatly on the floor and so she put them on, taking a long time to tie the laces while she thought of what next she should say.
“My name is Rose.”  The old woman did not look at Favour as she spoke, merely smiled, in that slow, bright way that she had, and continued to set the table with what looked like more food than Favour could ever remember seeing.
“And my name is Favour,” the child replied, feeling better and beginning to think that after all, no matter how strange things might feel, she was safe.
“I know,” said Rose softly, “and what a perfect name it is for you too.”
Favour did not even think to ask how she knew, in fact, she didn’t really hear  the first part of what Rose had said. Perhaps it was because she was feeling very, very hungry, or perhaps it was because she was not really listening.
“Take something,” Rose said, pointing to the table.
But Favour did not know what to take with so much food from which to choose. Did she want the soft, white bread with its dry, crisp crust, or the fat slices of pink lamb smothered in chutney which she could smell with every breath? And then there was the cake, plump and moist and perfumed with cinnamon and almonds and what looked like a big bowl of peaches poached in vanilla and brown sugar.
“Choosing is the hardest thing of all,” said Rose. “That’s why it’s often better for people to not have too many choices. If you don’t know how to decide then close your eyes and let your nose tell you what you want. Your nose is never wrong.
Favour nodded and closed her eyes. She breathed deeply and found herself enveloped in peaches and vanilla.
“I’ll have the peaches,” she said, opening her eyes and picking up the bowl to hand to Rose.
 “What are you going to have?” She turned to take the bowl from Rose.
“I think it is a peaches kind of day,” said Rose with a lilt to her voice like a hidden smile.
“I think it is too,” said Favour, in between mouthfuls of cream-drenched fruit.
“It’s a special fruit the peach,” said Rose, setting her bowl down on the table and picking up her spoon. “It’s a woman’s fruit.”
“What do you mean it’s a woman’s fruit,” asked Favour, scratching her nose with the handle of her spoon.
“Not everyone knows it is a woman’s fruit,” Rose went on, as if talking to herself. “Jack, the motor mechanic in town made that mistake.”
Favour had only ever seen Jack once when he came to ask her mother if she needed any wood chopped for the winter. She hadn’t liked the look of him at all.It was the way he looked at her mother that upset her, that sliding of one eye to the side, a crooking of the head and a tongue, tipping the edge of thin, dry lips.

“But how do you know it is true?” her mother said from behind a muffle of ragged towel.
“She said it was true,” said Favour.
“Did she?” Grace took the peg from her teeth and pushed it down onto the ridge of green cloth.
“Well,” said Favour, picking up the cat and stroking its long, silky hairs as if they were thoughts, “not really, I guess. But it must be true or she would not say it, would she?”
Grace picked up the empty laundry basket and turned it upside down to empty out the crinkled leaves that had blown into it from the grapevine that arched across the side of the house.
“People often say things that are not true Favour and you must remember that,” said Grace with a sigh. “That’s why you must be careful what you repeat. Who knows what ears could be listening and what trouble could come of it.”
Just for a moment Favour thought she saw the pointed tip of a very pink ear behind the hedge that ran across the front of the house, but she knew that could not possibly be true. The only thing behind the hedge was her mother’s bicycle and the neighbor’s dog, Artemis, whose ears were long, floppy and the colour of ripening corn.
But there was an ear, as there so often is. This ear was not pink either, but rather scarlet in colour and quite hairy and it was attached to the balding head of Father Michael who had been coming in through the back gate to drop off the latest church bulletin when he had heard the child telling her story.
Father Michael was a sucker for a good story. It was one of the things that made him an excellent priest and such a terrible gossip. And don’t think for a minute that the two cannot work very well together. They do, or rather they can, until mouths run away with words and words run away with mouths.
And it was not that Father Michael retold Jack’s story with anything other than compassion, for he rather liked Jack, although he did not really approve of his lifestyle, nor his atheism. And it was not that Father Michael did not think that telling Jack’s story might be helpful in making others stop and think before they made the same sort of mistakes. It was just that he got so excited by the story and the telling of it that things changed just a little as the words emerged. Not much mind you, but enough to make the story a little different and much more interesting.
A story is like a wild seed that falls into fertile soil and before anyone can say, ‘but’ it has spread like a weed, infesting and strangling anything that opposes it, like common sense, courtesy or even truth.
It was Mrs Hardcourt who heard the story first. Her son, Simon, was turning a bit ‘wild’ and everyone was concerned. If anyone could benefit from the story, reasoned Father Michael, then he would.
There is nothing more powerful than a person on a mission, particularly when the person believes they are acting in a way that will be of benefit to others.
 “I don’t believe it!” said Mr Newman when Mrs Hardcourt took him to one side at the bus stop and whispered.
 “The Father himself told me so it has to be true,” she said with a narrowing of her eyes that dared Mr Newman, who was slender of both body and spirit, to challenge her.
 “Well, I never,” said Mr Newman, sucking his tobacco stained teeth and lighting up yet another of the full-strength Camels that were his only weakness in life.
Mrs Hardcourt stood, arms akimbo, the plastic plaited shopping bag dangling against her sturdy thigh.  She sniffed and said: “I always thought there was something odd about that one.”
Mr Newman nodded, even though he thought that Jack was probably one of the least odd people living in the town. He had his own business, a couple of nice kids, a jolly and energetic wife and he spent a lot of time working to raise money for the school.  But now, with this story about him, well, it was hard to say whether he was who he appeared to be.
“Well, I never,” said Mr Newman again, just for good measure, as he bent down and stubbed out his cigarette in a crack in the bitumen footpath.
And in no time at all, for, as everyone knows, bad news always travels fast, the whole town knew the story. About half believed it and about half didn’t, split in that way that human beings often are inside so that they can hold two conflicting views at one and the same time. Unfortunately, Jack’s wife was one of those who believed it and in no time at all, less time than it had taken the story to spread in fact, she had packed her two cream suitcases, and her two little girls and had gone home to her mother.
It was when she heard the news that Favour understood what the old woman had said as she walked away: “Words can change things. They are like a light which destroys shadow. Be careful.”

Monday, September 19, 2011

Excerpt from Prince of Devils

I think it  was then, sitting at that table, that I realised for the first time how  much I really hated him.  It was not so much that he had spoiled Sophie's story, but that he had spoiled something which was important to me,had yet again soured the sweet  milk of a special moment.  And perhaps it was the flirting too, sitting across from Gabriella, playing games with her, with his words, his eyes ... thinking  I would not even notice, or perhaps not caring if I did.
I didn't blame Gabriella, she was one of those women who respond automatically to any overtures which men make.  She couldn't help herself, it was a part of her nature to be the instrument upon which men played.  She didn't know anything else to be and  perhaps would not even  have called it flirting; to  Gabriella it was just a state of being, something one was in the company of a man.  I blamed Michael for it though.  He knew better and had recognised her for what she was and decided to have some fun.  I had seen him do it before, many times.  Whether he was serious or not about taking it any further I don't know.  I suspect if circumstances had been such that sex were available,  then he would have taken up the offer but with Michael the means were always more important than the end ... it was the game he loved, like a well-fed cat which torments a mouse before killing it, not because it is hungry, but simply because it is a cat and it has captured a mouse. Michael was like that with women.
Michael had a  decidedly sluttish nature and it surprises me even now  that I could have overlooked it for so long.  But we play with the pieces of truth which life puts in front of us, push them out of sight when we can, bury them if we have a chance and sometimes just refuse to see them, no matter how stubbornly they glare at us.  It wasn't even a question of loving him or not loving him, love is  something which comes and  goes, but  on that night I knew for certain  that I did  not like him,  not one single part of him and probably never had.
Something had told me even as I listened to the words of the priest that it was wrong but  few have the strength to walk out on their own wedding and so I told myself it would change.  But it hadn't, such things don't of course and that night seeing  him sitting there, somewhere different, seeing him out of our normal world, without the props of everyday life to confuse the picture, I could see him so very much more clearly. It was then that I recognised him for what he was... a strange beast who had captured and  held me prisoner for far too long.  In that light, within the embrace of the shadows,  he looked like some shaggy-headed creature with diabolical eyes and sharp-pointed teeth.  As he raised the glass to his lips  the red wine  washed in a blood-bright gleam across  his  lips. 
I watched him as if in a trance, as he sat there talking to Gabriella, pouring out his opinions in guttural rhythm, saw the real creature appear  from  the suddenly  unbuttoned  coat  which  I  called  Michael  and was transfixed as  he changed shape before me.  He smiled, but  not at me,  it was a smile for Gabriella and I thought I heard  the faintest  hiss whispering amongst the hairs on the nape of my neck.
That night  too the hatred made  its way out,  stood in  the insubstantial light  of the flickering candles and stared me in the eye.  That night I saw it distinctly for the first time,  could trace its outline, define its shape  and  when it returned to the safety of  its hiding place, remember what I had seen.  Why it should have happened that night I  am not so sure  but the fact that  it did means the night remained also wickedly clear in my memory.
 So long ago and yet I see him now, remember that air he had which was both repulsive and attractive, with narrowed eyes of light-washed  green, refined in shape and almost delicate above the sudden bursting of his large, aquiline nose.  I had thought him handsomeand no doubt he was,  but time  cast a hideous air to the strong, wide-jawed and fleshy  face.  He had wronged me too many times to remain beautiful.  I had married my prince and discovered him to be the beast.
I did not hear Sophie’s story until Michael had gone upstairs.  She served the coffee, drank hers in silence, watching him out of the corner of one eye  until finally he stretched, rubbed his hands on either side of his face as if something were itching and stood up.  He was tired, or so he said, had drunk too much in fact and completely forgotten about the story.  He was the only one who had.
We sat in silence as Michael clumped heavily up the stairs and it was only with the sound of the bedroom door shutting that Sophie leaned her elbows on the table and peered across, first at me and then at Gabriella.  When she spoke it was more like a gravelled muttering moving across the table,  the words confused by the heaviness of her accent  and so I too leaned across, both of us face to face in the centre with Gabriella moving her chair closer until we formed a half circle.  Two of the candles on one side gasped and sucked for  the last time and the shadows crept  closer,  bundling us up in  a blanket  of  darkness, candle smoke and whispered words.
There was a  man, said Sophie, who came to  the house on the night  of the  crescent moon.  Tonight  was such  a night and so the story must  be  told because  there was  another woman in the  house and such a man cannot  be met unprepared. He wanted nothing more than to hold the hand of woman and to dance  within the dream that she had made and it was important that the woman,  whosoever should be chosen, knew the truth of her own dream. Those who did not faced danger for nothing came in pure innocence.  Whatever is sought must be paid for and sometimes the pain of seeking is the only true price.
This man will be as much of a ghost as you wish him to  be, said Sophie, but if he should come to you and you wish him to be real then that will also be done.  What you ask of him, then he will give, but only if you can offer him the truth of your own dream.  If you have nothing to offer, then he will leave, but he will not leave empty-handed, he will take something of his own choosing and there is nothing you can do to stop him.  But if you give him what he desires, then he will leave you a gift, it may be small, but it will be precious and you may not know it for what it truly is, but you must treasure it all the same.
When Sophie finished speaking she smiled at me and took my hand. Her skin felt warm and dry to the touch and there was something sure and safe in the way she traced the lines on my palm and nodded her head up and down. “You will live long,” she told me, “and you may regret much, but it does not have to be that way. The gifts are many and they are yours for the seeking.” When she patted my hand and put it down gently on the table I felt as if something rare and precious had been placed in front of me and had to look carefully to remind myself that it was no more than a hand, my own hand.  Gabriella gave a small, joyful laugh  and reached out a hand to each of us and we sat for a time, holding hands across the table, the candles fluttering in a wilful dance and Sophie smiling warmly behind small, mouse-white teeth.
When I walked up the stairs to bed it was on light, moon-woven feet, as if I had become spirit and would soon take flight. It was the sound of Michael’s snoring as I opened the door which brought me down to earth and it was then I began to think about  Sophie's story. In the cold, darkness of the room, sitting beside Michael’s humped and boulderous shape,  it seemed to be too silly to take seriously and yet Sophie was deadly serious in the telling and Gabriella had nodded in sober agreement as she talked.  It made me shiver, both with fear and expectation, for a part of me wanted to see this strange apparition,  for that was all it  could  be,  some  lost, tormented ghost,  and yet  another part of  me wanted  to see nothing, to remain in ignorance, without offering or gift.
When I climbed into bed, rubbing at the blue chill of my hands, I was glad for once to huddle into Michael’s back if only because he was warm and he was flesh and whatever  I thought or felt about him,  he was known and familiar and therefore safe.  Safer at least than the company of  strangers  and  phantasmal beings.  It was because  I believed  in  such things  that  I  buried myself under  the blankets and  crept as close  to Michael  as I could  bear to be.  I knew all about ghosts, had my own to contend with, and had no  desire to meet any strange new ones.  And from what Sophie had said this particular ghost gave nothing without taking something away and I had nothing I was prepared to give.
 I fell asleep straight away and would probably have forgotten the story if I hadn't had the dream and found the devil's button, that pure shivering droplet made of mother of pearl and carved all over with tiny flowers.  I found it on the floor by the side of my bed when I got up in the morning and recognised it straight away.  I'd seen him wearing it in the dream, or what I thought was the dream.
Sometimes it comes to me so vividly that  dream, as if I'm living it and at other times  it's all faded and blurred and  I can't quite make out  the shape of it. It's like that now but it will come back to me, it always does and then it's so real, my grandmother's voice, because she was there too, she was in the dream,  and him, looking so  tall and beautiful in that suit of shining pale blue satin buttoned all down the front  with those small, glistening tears.   It  was finding the button  which made me believe it was  more than a dream.  Such a small button,  but sitting so brightly on the faded weave of the old woollen mat which took barely a breath of the chill out of the cold slate floor.
I had picked it up immediately, not expecting it to be real, thinking it would just disappear in front of my eyes, but  it didn't and I rolled it around in the palm of my hand watching as it caught the light from the morning sun.  Michael saw me doing it and asked what it was and so I told him I had found a pretty button and would keep it for my collection.  He had laughed and said only I would be crazy enough to collect buttons on holiday and anyway, we had more than enough rubbish to get home as it was and I had more than enough buttons waiting for me when I got there.
When I told him this one was different and anyway it wouldn’t take up much room he had just grunted and said if it made me happy then why not. I was surprised to find him being so nice and for a moment thought the button might be my lucky charm but knew in my heart it had more to do with the guilt he felt for flirting the night before than any amount of luck or charm. More than anything the button was something real from a night that was already fading into dreams and  I had thought it would be nice to have something to remind me of that farmhouse and Sophie’s strange story. As it turned out I didn’t need it, because while I took something with me I also left something behind. Things were never the same between Michael and I after that. I don’t think either of us knew it as we drove away, because we were both laughing at nothing and everything, joking with each other and watching the dogs which ran on either side of the car all the way down to the gates, an escort of wagging tails and rioutous barking which saw us off the farm and back into the real world. I was surprised then at just how happy I felt and it surprises me a little even now, looking back, that such joy can be found in death. But whatever had been between us, and it wasn’t much, died that night and was left behind on the floor of a cold, damp room in Cornwall; a thin and milk-skinned corpse with stare-startled eyes.