Sunday, 18 December 2011

If He Were There

Our father liked to walk about the house barefoot. It should not have been something unusual for a man to do in the sultry heat of Guadeloupe, but with him it had become an obsessive caprice. The floor had to be clean. He instructed our mother firmly on this matter. She was to make sure the floor was well-swept during the day, ready for his arrival home in the evening. He had a particularly intimidating way of ensuring she did this.
As soon as he got back from the office he would balletically remove his shoes, whilst almost mid-air between the entrance and the inside of the doorway. Then he walked with his bare feet touching the tiles from the porch to the kitchen. Our father would do this, as he did most everything, completely silently. He had a particular way of walking; like a nomadic wanderer, lifting his feet in the sand. Perhaps it was the influence of our geographical antecedents; the pugnacious Carib, who defended our island against the Spanish colonialists so successfully for nearly a century. Or maybe that was just what my father’s tall, graceful build led my imagination to believe.
He stalked into the kitchen to deposit the shopping bags; as he did this, he felt under his feet for traces of dust. You could have sworn the air stopped moving around him as this ritual took place. It was a pivotal moment in the day, upon which the atmosphere of the ménage depended for the rest of the evening. If our father was satisfied, the family could relax and enjoy a jovial time with him; playing games and telling jokes. If he was not satisfied, he would return to the kitchen and with ceremonial dignity present the dustpan and its guilty contents before our mother. All this before he had even said ‘good-evening’ to any of us. 

As a result, for several days after, our mother would pay special attention to this duty and all of the children of the house would be inveigled into helping her in a last minute clean each night before our father arrived.

I returned home one evening, after a long, hot, lazy day at Pointe-a-Pitre fishing with my friends. We often spent our time in this way, not having to worry about food or money, as the fish we caught on the nearby beaches provided us with both. Otherwise we would cook the vegetables we had found in the forest on a wood-fire, eating them surrounded by fellow intruders: Iguana Delicitissima. By seven in the evening the temperature had dropped to only 77 degrees. Our father entered the house and began to make his journey from the porch to the kitchen. Once again, the air stood still around him; stiller than before and we knew something was amiss.
He moved as if traversing the breadth of the island. In a few swift steps he felt the mountains crumbling underneath him, he felt the moist earth below the tropical vegetation, he felt the desert and he felt the beach I had played on that day with its black, volcanic sand.
He swiftly began to sweep the house. From the kitchen our mother must have already been aware; did she hear the sweep-sweep of his furious brush? Sweep-sweep on the tiles. Maybe she just sensed it. There was something about the way she attended the calalou on the stove; her back remained turned. She seemed quieter; more pensive than usual. What crossed her mind? There was a still and silent communication taking place between our parents and all any of us could do was wait.
Then he appeared. Like ear-wigs jumping from a piece of rotten fruit, we scattered. The presentation of the dust was something we would settle to watch from a distance on this occasion.
One and a half metres in front of her he stooped as if to place the dust-pan on the tiles. He did this silently; without a word, as always. But something was different.
Did our father realise what he had done? Our mother realised it. Long before he even appeared before her, with every sweep-sweep of his brush her mind had been ticking over. Stroke, stroke. Another revolution took place; gained momentum from its foreboding. Invisible to us she had begun to tingle, not just with fear, but with angry trepidation.
We were still lingering on the edge of the scene. I pulled my sister behind me, taking a further few steps back. I was clinging to the doorframe now; and my sister to me. I was determined to be a witness, no matter how small; no matter how great my fear.
We were frozen. Our parents stood facing one another. Our father tall and slender; smooth and dark, like the Carib warrior that was latent within him. Remaining as still and stony as one of their zemi idols, while our mother seethed and smouldered like La Soufrière.
Our father’s hand continued to stretch out, unfalteringly offering the dust to her. And we were there: frozen.
A fly moved its way around the rim of the pot of calalou on the stove. Large, bulbous eyes occupied most of its alien head. The membranous wings twitched and its swollen antennae bristled. The raised layers of the circus formed a shield above the abdomen. And again, with wings twitching, filmy and thin; the fly suddenly parachuted into the air.
I felt the wood splintering under my fingertips and for a moment longer my attention was caught by the fly, spiralling into the garden where the rough scales of a gecko drew along the ground beneath a flurry of poinciana and hibiscus. Gecko doesn’t mind a bit of dust but he does carry evil spirits. The fly spiralled away from our sheltered grove within Pointe-de-Pitre towards each corner of our butterfly shaped island and then higher, above the two wings of Guadeloupe. Our parents had always been separated by the fact that they were from two different sides of the island but at that moment, as they stood facing each other- she from the mountains of Grande-Terre and he from the rainforests of Basse-Terre- the gulf that separated them was greater than the river that separates the two. I felt for a second that we kids were the channel that joined them together. Another fly moved around the rim of the pot.
“Reiver!” She made to knock the dustpan from his hand, but stopped and shouted instead: “You want your damned floor cleaned just how you like it, then get a servant!” Feeling the burn of her words which seethed at him like the sap of the poison Manchineel our father dropped the dustpan.
There was nothing else to be said. Our mother left the kitchen and wandered to the end of the garden, her muttering a furious fly-like buzz. Two pairs of eyes wandered after her through the open kitchen doorway, which left off the latch, slowly slid wide open. We surveyed our barefoot father standing in the dust for a moment, who, although unaware of our presence, was too sad to watch any longer. Curious of our mother’s whereabouts we slunk away; conceding, we knew who had won that battle.

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