Not Much Cheer!

December 23, 2020 — 8 Comments

Despite retail outlets starting their holiday season earlier and earlier, sometimes now even before Thanksgiving, it has always been The Nutcracker that heralded the start of Christmas for my family. Our dancer daughter was unable to stand still, so busy were her feet as she went through the various stages of the ballet to the sound of Spanish and Arabian dancers, mirlitons and sugar plum fairies in her head, and ours.

After Kate had flown away to start her own adventures I still went to the ballet. It wasn’t Christmas without Herr Stahlbaum, and his friend, the local councilman and magician, Herr Drosselmyer, giving Clara and her friends toys. One a magic nutcracker. And so, last night, a mere three days before December 25th, I wondered why I really wasn’t getting into the spirit of things, and didn’t realize why until my husband slipped Tchaikovsky into the CD player. 

And now it’s Christmas. A very different and distanced Christmas, and for many people around the world a horribly sad one as families have empty chairs around their table, and an aching heart from unexpected deaths that have riven their lives.

Lockdowns have sent people into a miserable frenzy of recriminations against their governments, but spare a thought for politicians – not something I am usually wont to do. Those in power – the ones who give a damn – are doomed to be vilified whatever option they choose. Raged at for not locking down, raged at for locking down. I imagine the best place to be, as a politician at the moment, is in opposition. It’s always easier to point fingers. 

If we were to carry The Nutcracker theme through, we could call Covid-19 the Mouse King and the reaching viral tentacles, his mice minions. The myriad of healthcare workers battling against them, globally, are of course the toy soldiers. 

My thoughts this Christmas are with them. Their exhaustion and despair, not just at the deaths to which they are witness but at the common stupidity of many fellow citizens who appear unable to self-regulate their actions. And to those others on the front lines of this pandemic who are supporting us, whether through keeping shops open, delivering packages and generally making our lives a little easier.

My thoughts this Christmas are with those in shanty towns, slums, favelas. Whatever name a country gives the areas where the impoverished eke out a livelihood, people are living in a crush of humanity, not knowing who is a Covid-carrier, who might be the next in the family to succumb, who might be dead in a few days. 

My thoughts this Christmas are with those who are isolated. Quite literally on their own. Whether young or old. Locked in small apartments. Empty streets echoing back their loneliness. Kept inside not only by a virulent pandemic but also the weather. Unable to share a glass of cheer, or a hug with a loved one, or even a stranger in the same position. 

My thoughts this Christmas are with those who might be locked in with violent partners, who are terrified a spouse or parent might, in an angry drunken rage, lash out at the children, or them.

And yes, my thoughts this Christmas are also with those disappointed by thwarted plans. But if you are not alone, whether you are with your immediate family or friends, or in a house shared with disparate people, you have someone with whom to share some cheer, even if it is muted.

A photograph, doing the rounds on social media, taken at Christmas 1914 shows the muddy trenches of World War I filled with weary soldiers. Not gingerbread or tin soldiers as in The Nutcracker but flesh and blood. They did not go home at Christmas, many never went home again. It puts disappointment at changed plans into perspective.

Perspective is something we need at the moment. Though it is not always easy to achieve particularly in the face of the flagrant disregard of some for the health of others. It astounds me that people seem unable to grasp the simple fact that masks help. If you don’t want to protect yourself, how about protecting others – grandparents, parents, children, your neighbour, your postman? 

Christmas is going to be different for many of us but let’s look to the future – look to the scientists whose achievements this year have been remarkable – then line up in our form-fitting, smile-hiding masks and have a vaccination, keep our distance a little longer and we too shall be able to join in the joyous party that takes place in The Land of Sweets. Where candies from around the world and Mother Ginger and her children, the Polichinelles, dance in jubilation that the Mouse King did not win the war.

There might not be much to cheer about at the moment but I’m going to listen to The Nutcracker again, and again, and again because good will triumph over evil, medicine will triumph over a pandemic, and we will share the magic of Christmas with our families – just not this year.

Cheers to a safe, distanced and subdued Christmas!

but phuck you!

My respect for the office of president is intact. There have been presidents since I was honoured to become an American citizen who might not have been my choice, who might not have believed as strongly as I on certain issues but they have garnered my respect if not my approbation. My respect for the man who currently holds the presidency has never been lower.

I am a hybrid. The product of an English father and an Australian mother. My parents met in Malaya and my childhood did nothing to stop their wanderlust. Thank goodness. Dad had stayed in Pakistan after Partition in 1947, one of a handful of British army officers charged with helping form a new army for a new country. Mum was a pragmatic woman, a nurse who experienced the horrors of World War II in both Singapore and Papua New Guinea. I was their only child. 

Discipline for minor infractions was meted out by my mother – after extreme provocation a slap across the thigh with a floppy slipper would be forthcoming. I remember it being red silk with delicate embroidery, beautiful and gave a decent sting.

Rarely can I remember my father being involved in non-compliance issues. And he never slapped me. But nearly sixty years after the event I vividly recall being sat down at the dining table and given one of the sternest lectures of my life. We lived in Nigeria which means I would have been no older than six.

The reason? I had cheeked Ali. I don’t remember how, or why but I have never forgotten the lesson I learnt that evening before my bedtime story.

Ali was our cook. Originally from Sudan and proud, whenever guests or a camera came into view, to change into white trousers and tunic over which he tied a broad red cummerbund. He would also don a red fez with a black tassel and, lastly, he would pin his medals across his chest attesting to his service in the East Africa Campaign whilst in the Sudan Defence Force. 

Any man who visited out home and who he deemed worthy was saluted. He knew to keep my father’s glass topped up. If Ali didn’t like a guest he would, to my mother’s chagrin, ignore an empty glass and parched throat. He was though a gentle man who adored my mother despite her propensity to gather orphan animals, and for whom he would cut up papaya and pineapple each morning. Something I’m sure wasn’t in his original job description. And Ali loved me, and I him.

It was a long time ago so I can’t remember the exact words my father used after my transgression and he would not have raised his voice but I do still remember the shame. His words would have been measured and along the lines of, “Ali is a dignified man who works to make our lives easier. Particularly yours. Who are you, a child, to dare speak to him in such a manner?”

I do remember being dismissed. I ran to Ali’s domain where I sat on the kitchen step with his arm around me and, crying, gave him my apology. It was probably the first truly sincere apology I had given. 

It is people like Ali, and Sam, our houseboy and others in other countries who worked for my parents, and later others who worked for me and my own family who have made our lives infinitely happier. Without a doubt easier and, once I reached the age of employing people myself, have given me insights into different cultures and countries that I might not have had without their kind guidance. A true privilege.

So why the title of this little story? Because the president of the United States has proven with his craven behaviours toward those who work to make his life easier, and certainly safer, that there is no moral line he will not cross.

I’m not talking about the political animals who serve in his administration – those in front of the cameras, those used to speaking the words people want to hear, those scrabbling to pacify the man’s every perceived slight, to temper his tantrums. I couldn’t care less about them. 

I am thinking of men and women who have worked in the White House, some I’m sure for many years and through many administrations. The men and women who change the sheets, who cook the meals, who dust the furniture and hoover the carpets. The men and women in the background who make sure the wheels of arguably the best-known home in America turn without a single crunch of a pebble. And while I’m at it, the men and women charged with literally taking a bullet for the president. What right does he have to disregard their health?

To flaunt his power by belittling those who are cognisant of the dangers of a virus that is devouring the country with rampant disregard to who it infects. To flout the mandates of mask wearing and spew his vitriol over those nearby. His braggadocio knows no bounds.

By all accounts his arrogance and hubris, his complete disregard for others are behaviours learnt from his father.

My father has been dead for ten years but his words and his actions as I grew up have never left me. Don’t ever forget it is the people, often behind the scenes, who make our lives easier, safer, more pleasant who deserve our utmost and unbridled respect.

So mr president, I repeat, phuck you!

Not long ago, but which in what COVID times seems a far-off galaxy, I lived in a small despotic West African country. It is a country run under harsh measures, with even harsher punishments for those who dare to question the ultimate authority – the president. He, it should be noted, came to rule through murderous machinations that removed his uncle from power.

And power is one way in which he exerted control. Switch the electricity off as the blanket of night falls and it is harder for the ‘common’ people to meet, to plot, to demand greater freedoms. It is a ploy used by many over the years – the plantations worked by the enslaved also used the tactic to lessen the chance of rebellion.

But even if the power was on many did not have the luxury of being able to afford it.

We had moved into an as-yet unfinished apartment. We had doors and windows, a floor and a roof, plumbing and power…. sometimes. I had been promised a generator but that was months away. Days after moving in, I watched the sun drift behind the hills beside us to leave the jungle a jumble of dark greens and greys as the frogs began their nightly chorale.

A movement caught my eye and I saw a flicker from a flashlight and what looked like a very tall man dressed in very little. In the half light of a brief equatorial dusk, it took me a moment to realise his height was unnaturally elongated by the fact he had clambered onto the roof of a dilapidated car that graced the entrance to our mud-baked and overgrown road. He looked to be hanging.

“Stephen!” I called down to our guard, a delightful Ghanaian who had about as much chance of saving us from anything as my dead grandfather, “Stephen, there’s a man on a car by the electricity pole.”

“Oh, madam, he is stealing your power.”

It took a moment to digest this information. And another moment to shrug. This was WAWA at work. West Africa Wins Again. The chap had no chance of getting electricity to his shack, so why not nick it from the house down the road? Good luck to him, I thought as our power winked off, on, then off again. It could have been deliberate, it could have been a malfunction.

Not long ago, but before these COVID times, we were fortunate enough to find another ‘in-need-of-work’ place on St Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands. We fell to renovating with a vengeance with the immeasurable assistance of Barry Allaire and his duo of merry men, Mingo and Easy. They made a somewhat daunting task very much easier. 

The plumbing wasn’t too bad but, oh my, the electrics were not good. I spent a lot of time on island by myself and as darkness drifted across the bay silhouetting yacht masts in a melange of pinks and mauves, I would turn on a light only when absolutely necessary, and never more than one at a time. Oftentimes a fizz would accompany the action. We rewired – thank you, Leroy – and my confidence grew.

However my new found belief in power was short lived. I came to understand another acronym, although not nearly as catchy as WAWA. WAPA is our Water and Power Authority. After nearly eight years of intermittent power or brown-outs – those rolling, blinking outages that cause permanent damage to electronics and white appliances despite having surge protection – the phrase “We’ve been WAPAed” has entered the family lexicon.

I fully understand the fragility of power services during hurricanes that are hurled our way at, sadly, more and more regular intervals. What I do not understand is why a power company in America is allowed to function badly, with seeming impunity, through continuing performance failures, compromises to payment and billing systems including the, almost, unbelievable loss of $2.7 million when invoices were paid to a purportedly legitimate vendor. A scam referred to by WAPA as a ‘Business Email Compromise’. I wonder if that scam will be found by the FBI to have been initiated in West Africa. In which case WAPA and WAWA are not so far apart.   

Why are heads not rolling at the continued farrago of an “autonomous agency of the Virgin Island Government” that does not deliver power? To the idle bystander it could be construed that local accountability has gone the way of federal accountability.  

Not too long ago and in these COVID times, in frustration, I posted a comment on social media. It read, “I have lived in 12 countries, a number of them considered 3rd world developing countries. Never, ever, have I had such a poor power service as I get here in the US Virgin Islands”. Comments flooded in. From those known and unknown. Comments like, “Have you lived in Nigeria?” Yes, I have. “Knowing that you’ve lived here in Thailand that is really saying something.” Yup! Closer to home people said, “And at such a high cost” and “The worst”. There were many more such helpful insights.

What they all failed to mention is that I do not now live in a developing country. This is the United States of America. 

Please, WAPA, power to the people!

The Masked Lady

June 12, 2020 — 4 Comments

US Virgin Islanders have been fortunate in the management of COVID-19. Our Governor has listened to health experts, instigated common sense practices and after a period of lock down has been opening the islands up in a measured manner. There is a strict mask policy, with shops stating in large letters, No Mask, No Service, No Exceptions. Big burly men comply. Children over the age of five comply. There appears little reason to not comply. Our islands have had some deaths but nowhere near the numbers seen on the mainland, which has allowed our hospitals to withstand the stressors of treating those seriously infected. We wear our masks!

I, along with everyone else, am learning a whole new way of reading people. Are the eyes crinkling in laughter or distaste? Is a slipped mask a sign of belligerence, or just a slipped mask?

I don’t go in for public shaming but I did feel moved, after dancing around a young man wandering the aisles of my local supermarket, to suggest that wearing his mask across his chin was as much use as a condom on his big toe. His girlfriend, suitably masked, burst into laughter and dug him in the ribs. 

“I told you,” I heard her chortle, as her beau got caught up in his gold chains in his haste  to protect himself. And others.

I was encouraged to encounter them again, this time at the cashier, and see his nose and mouth was suitably covered. The girl grinned and waved.

My weekly outing revolves around the supermarket. Actually three of them. The only way I am able to gather all the items on my list. On Monday, as I tied my mask in timely fashion before approaching the ramp to the store I was surprised to be haled by a tall, masked woman I did not recognize. 

“Wait!” she called. “I want to ask you something?”

Her tone was peremptory. I am, by nature, suspicious of unknown, over-friendly people, dreading a monologue on the glories of Jehovah. But what the hell? In these days of isolation and fear a brief encounter might help ease someone’s day. Mine included.

“Sure,” I replied, waiting by Otto, our truck, as she ferreted around in her handbag.

“Which do you think?” She waved two strips of paint swatches in front of me. “I can’t tell the difference. They’re both grey. And that,” she jabbed at a duck-egg blue square, “is meant to go with both.”

“Um,” I replied. 

“My decorator said I must decide.”

“Well,” I said, pointing, “that grey has yellow undertones which is why it’s a bit murky. And that one has blue tones which makes it sharper.”

“How do you know that?”

“I was an interior designer.”

“Hah! And I find you in the parking lot.” Her laughed trickled around her mask.

“So it would seem,” I said, hoping my eyes reflected my amusement. “What room are they for?”

“Kitchen and lounge. Together.” 

“Have you lots of windows? Lots of light?”

“No.”

“Then I’d go with the blue grey.”

Her brow wrinkled above her mask – a clue I took to mean she wasn’t relieved at my profound judgement.

“Um…” I said again, dithering in the blistering heat as to whether I really wanted to continue the conversation. “Do you like the colours?”

“I’m not sure.”

“That usually means you don’t. If I were you, I’d get some more samples. Good luck.”

We parted ways, she to her car, me to my trolley. My mask hid my smile.

Scanning the shelf for ginger cookies, my sole reason for being at the store, I was surprised to feel a tap on my shoulder.

“Oh, hello,” I said to the woman, again noting the intricate braids and marveling at the patience required to attain them.

“Are you still a decorator?” She asked.

“No,” I replied, hoping my tone was firm. “I haven’t practiced in twenty years.”

“I don’t know what to choose? Or which paint. Sherwin Williams. Behr. Benjamin Moore. Who?”

“Why don’t you get your decorator to put together another storyboard with different colours, a different theme,” I said. 

“Storyboard?”

“Oh,” I said, and explained. “Look, the colour should reflect you, not your decorator or what she deems is in vogue. Do you have favourite plates, dishes, or a sofa or cushion you can take a colour from? Something that ties the walls to your things.”

“Huh,” she said, looking again at the two strips of paint samples.

“Then buy a small tin of a couple of colours you like, brush a bit onto each wall. Each wall will show the colour differently depending on the time of day and night. But ma’am,” I said, “It must be something you like, not something someone else thinks you should like.”

“I’ll tell my friends I found a decorator in the parking lot?” She laughed, and patted my arm. “Thank you. “

“My pleasure,” I assured her. 

The masked lady went down the ramp and I wandered along the aisle in search of ginger cookies. My heart laughing and my smile broad behind my mask.

No mask, no service, no exceptions taken to new dimensions. 

‘Hope’ is an invigorating word that should be high in every writer’s lexicon. Hope that an agent, then a publisher, then the reading public will like their story. ‘Belief’ is another sustaining word. Belief that after countless hours at a desk that same agent, publisher, and public will indeed revel in the story woven from the writer’s research and imagination.

I have been working on a novel which was to be the first of a trilogy – the second and third are written and published – Fireburn and Transfer. Thank you, OC Publishing, and thank you for believing in me enough to agree to publish the next – with a working title of Emancipation. A hopeful title. It was only later, when I envisaged three spines standing side by side that I realised they would read EFT which, depending on how one’s mind works, could be either a juvenile newt or an electronic funds transfer. Neither very catchy for a boxed set, but I hoped readers would get over that.

Emancipation started with the Portuguese royal family’s arrival in Brazil after fleeing Napoleon’s encroaching army. It told how Anna Clausen’s grandfather accompanied the Prince Regent to Rio and how, as a consequence, he came into his fortune which, in turn, lead to Anna’s Fancy, his sugar plantation on St Croix in the Danish West Indies. It was a hopeful book because it revolved around the ‘rightness’ of emancipation. On reflection, I should have called the book Manumission. I don’t think there is an anagram for MFT.

The title is however a moot point.

I knew I could write about freedom. I know I can write about violence. What I hadn’t realised was that I would struggle to write about sustained cruelty. Graham Greene said that in order to write dispassionately, “A writer must be able to retain a splinter of ice in the heart.” Barry Unsworth in Sacred Hunger was able to delve into the tragedy of slavery and write a riveting book. Marlon James did the same in The Book of Night Women. Whilst not putting myself into the same lofty realms of either author, I have found that Apple Gidley cannot retain that splinter on certain subjects. Part of me is pleased. I don’t want to become inured to horror.

My books are character driven. As I research, characters form. Their backstory becomes part of the plot in minute ways. For example, Anna’s favourite colour is yellow because it reminds her of the glow of the Caribbean sun, or the centre of a white frangipani, and it brings her joy. The character’s foibles, their idiosyncrasies, make them real to me and, hopefully, the reader.

Every story needs tension, so not all characters have to be likable but I have to care about the majority of them. The coffee mat on my desk, courtesy of my son, reads, “Please do not annoy the writer, she may put you in a book and kill you.” It’s true. I had great pleasure killing off Anna’s husband, Carl, in Fireburn, but I can’t murder everybody – I’d be writing slasher novels and not historical fiction. 

And that brings me back to hope. Emancipation was truly a time of hope but the more I wrote the less hopeful I felt. That could be a product of what is happening in America today. I’ve been immersed in writing about the issues of racial inequality 200 years ago, and here we are in 2020 seeing how relatively little has changed and it has made me sick to my stomach. I am well aware I’m not alone in that feeling. An email from an African American friend has been churning in my head the last couple of days. After the outrage in Minneapolis he asked, “Where is God when you need him?” He then asked me to excuse his rage. He is indeed a gracious man, always, but particularly in the face of current events when hope seems hard to come by.

That all sounds pretentious. I don’t mean to be. The Swiss-born, British philosopher, Alain de Botton, says “The difference between hope and despair is a different way of telling stories from the same facts.” I was at the despair stage.

So, this morning I wrote to my publisher and said Emancipation is no more. Then I filed all my research notes and put away reference books that have been stacked on my desk, sticky tags in varying colours forming a frill on each book. Usually the process makes me a little sad. A year invested in my characters, my imagination, shelved, but today I felt relief. 

I have failed in a way but hope is once again returning to my lexicon because now, as I think of Langston Hughes’ words, I am smiling at the thought of the next book to be written.

"Hold fast to dreams, 
For if dreams die 
Life is a broken-winged bird, 
That cannot fly.” 

Words we should hold close in these seemingly hopeless and difficult times.