Saturday, 24 March 2007

The German woman’s child.

I guess that fitting in was something I have done since a little girl. I was after all the German woman’s child.
All my life I have always fitted in with wherever I was, and being a good girl I have always wanted to fit in to be part of it all. Not to be strange or different or in any way or offensive to the place I was in or the people.
On a few occasions I have acted naturally and been myself I have been heavily punished. On the one occasion through male private enterprise and the other the male establishment.

How could I do anything else but fit in, this of course takes away experimentation and learning from mistakes. Learning from my mistakes was rare, I was not allowed mistakes I had to be perfect at all times.
If I asked a question I had to already know the answer, my dad would bark the question back at me and if it was a genuine question I would get really worried he always barked the same sort of reply go away and read up on it and come back when you know what you are talking about!
Really strange behaviour and attitude, not something I have ever seen anywhere else, everywhere else questions spark off long discussions but not at our house. Everywhere else kids were encouraged to come and talk and ask questions, parents were there for them.

I had quite a strict regime at home, it was all planned and laid out the only thing that never got planned or discussed was what would I be doing, how would I make a living. They never ever discussed with me what might be a good idea or how to get there.
Somebody once asked me about the parental support I had got during my teenage years whilst trying to make important life choices. She could not believe my response that I had never had that sort of conversation with my parents.
Somehow I guess I was to marry well, someone professional like a doctor or engineer or lecturer. Shame they did not think I could perhaps be encouraged to go to university and become a professional person myself.

I was lying asleep in my bed by the window having a wonderful dream about swimming very far out at the beach it was a wonderful feeling just me and the water and the sky and sun. The sun seemed to be getting brighter all the time this was when I gradually became aware that I was slipping out of my dream and that I was not fast asleep anymore.
The bright new sun in my dream was in reality creeping slowly in to my room despite the wooden jalousie which was still closed although the slatted bits in the middle were half open through this the warm morning sun was starting to penetrate and I could hear the sound of the birds all waiting on the fence for the aptly named bird bananas to ripen.

Today should be the day the bananas were ripe enough by the sound of those birds. With this thought in my mind I leap out of bed determined to be the first to pick a ripe banana. I jumped up and out of bed and hurried out of the room half way to the bedroom door I blink, and then blink again and shake my head very vigorously then as I look around and notice things, it all comes back to me again.
I am not in my old room in Trinidad I am in England and have been for 15 years, a while now. There are no little pesky banana birds lying-in wait to eat my favourite bird bananas before I get to them there will be no walk in the savannah no ride down with my father to buy roti’s or Chinese food no trip to Mayaro beach this weekend in short it was just a very realistic dream. Once again a dream fooled me into thinking I was back at home.

When I was in primary School my father used to tell me lots of stories about all sorts of things, some of the stories were about Trinidad. According to my dad at various times the ships of a whole bunch of countries had just sailed up at one time or another, invaded and declared they owned Trinidad, the first to take over were the Spanish then the Dutch had a dabble but the French became the new power and after them came the English.
That was the reason, why he said we now spoke English as the English were the last, he thought it was a shame that Spanish especially but also French was not widely spoken as he thought they were all part of the Trinidadian culture.

One time he also told me how and why Trinidad’s population was so cosmopolitan, it was he said, a story of pure practicalities, the settlers had practically killed off all the local Carib Indians with the common cold and other European diseases.
So when they realized workers were needed in the sugar cane fields and cocoa plantations, they were looking for cheap labour so first they had brought in slaves, mainly from Africa, this did not work so well, then slavery was abolished so then they had got indentured labour.
First Indian labourers, but as soon as they had worked their time and they had saved up enough money they bought shops and land and wanted to work for themselves, so then they brought in the Chinese, they also preferred to work for themselves and started restaurants and other businesses.

Additionally there was indentured labour from Ireland, England, and Scotland as well as a plentiful supply of convicts who were shipped off for life. As well as a good cross section of other nationalities who were looking for a new place to live.
Which included a large contingent of war refugees such as Polish, Hungarian, French, German, Dutch, Russian as well as people from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq Pakistan and many other places. Trinidad is a truly cosmopolitan island with a great cross section of people and cultures all mingling in one big delicious callaloo.

As a kid growing up among such a mixed population I thought everyone knew people from all over the world. When I was a little girl I used to ask my father where I was from he used to tell me that I was a quarter Irish, a quarter Scottish, a quarter German, a quarter French, a quarter Spanish, and a quarter Indian, a quarter African as well as a quarter English.
He said that made me a real Trinidadian. That was interesting but I remember getting very confused about being told that I was made up of eight quarters as I had just learnt in school that four quarters make a whole so what did eight quarters make?

That must make two, but how could I be two people when I was only one person. A very strange story, just like a lot of my father’s stories which I really enjoyed and most of which I totally believed too, like the story about my two German aunts.
Tante Ida and Tante Mathilde who lived under a lake. This was a very long and elaborate story, which went on for years. When I finally met my two aunts I was massively disappointed to find that they did not in fact live in a house under a lake but in an ordinary house on a street in a town called Bad Godesberg.

They did however have a fruit orchard and they were always very busy making jam and preserves and baking just like in his story; and their large interesting cellar was full of these jars. Whenever they had visitors they would bake a huge amount of fruit pies, cakes and tarts.
When I was there I helped them and used to enjoy being allowed to make my own little cakes, which my dad ate almost religiously even when I dropped them fruit down on the ground in my excitement to show him my cake.

The two old aunts were once part of a large family but their five brothers as well as their beau’s had all been killed in the First World War. After that their parents made them stay at home and look after them until they died.
They stopped attempts by both of their daughters to leave the house, Tante Ida did meet another man years after the war and hoped to marry him, but she was vetoed by her parents who told the man to go away and stop trying to contact poor Tante Ida.

My mum did tell me the story about the poor old tantes, which rather excited my tender feelings, and I recall crying when I heard how cruel their parents had been to them. No wonder they were abit eccentric.
I thought they were wonderful especially my favourite auntie, Tante Ida whom I adored, she was such fun and so sweet, that the idea of this sweet woman being kept a virtual prisoner by her parents in that house really got my imagination working overtime. Tante Mathilde was also very nice but she was not my favourite mainly because she had a bristly moustache and gave very damp kisses.

Mum and Dad.
My life with my parents Erika and Pelham, two of the many victims of ww2, and both with massive personal problems was neither heaven nor hell but usually somewhere just between.
This opening sentence is nothing like any of the opening sentences which I have thought of and then invariably rejected for years now, as not quite right, not dramatic enough to capture all the ins and outs and ups and downs of our relationship, nor dynamic enough or even soulful enough or whatever to capture all the details of our strange life and relationships in one sentence.

It certainly was not romantic like that very famous opening sentence in Daphne Du Maurer’s novel Rebecca “last night I dreamt I was in Mandalay”.
At times it was downright confusing and painful but mostly it was just dull and ordinary. Although we did have fun together too and we did love each other, but this was all taking place in a sort of pressure cooker environment that we lived in and could be broken at any moment by the resumption of what can only be called a big black cloud, which would descend for what seemed like never ending lengths of time.

As quickly as the clouds came so they could go away too and it became quite a worrying as to when they would happen and why, because as far as I could make out the black clouds could descend at any time without any warning, life became very scary indeed.
I never could work out what caused them, as they would suddenly be there for seemingly no reason at all. When the black cloud had descended this usually meant that my parents would not speak to each other or only through me, unless there were other people present.
I hated this and would wish myself anywhere else but with them, especially at mealtimes when it descended into farce as my mother would say to me “ Erika ask your father if he wants some Brussels sprouts or more gravy” and he would respond by saying to me” tell your mother that I have enough”. Sometimes she would try to coax him via me, into eating some titbit she had cooked specially for him.

Food became a nightmare and mealtimes already difficult became pure torture and I would sit there dreading my mother giving me a bigger piece of anything especially meat as this would provoke some sort of reaction from my father, the explosion of anger would invariably be directed at me.
It was hell, the only small comfort during the times they were not talking directly to each other was that my father did not explode in anger and start an argument if I were given a bigger piece of meat than him or in any way favoured by my mother, this was seen by him as being favoured above him. I hated it and longed to be back in Trinidad.

While we were living in Trinidad my parent’s problems and behaviour was tempered by the fact that we had lots of people around us there. My dad’s family were large and he had a lot of friends, both family friends and his own, as did my mother and I, there were always visitors around either family or extended family, in Trinidad extended family also means friends of the family as the adults are always addressed as auntie and uncle by the kids.
It was a rare occurrence for us to eat on our own as there were always people eating with us, friends or neighbours or cousins from San Fernando who would drop by if they were in Port of Spain round lunchtime and eat hang and lime for abit and then depart.
Someone was always staying the night, there was a spare bed in my room plus two or three mattresses, which were kept propped up in my room. My favourite place to hide indoors during a thunderstorm was to sit behind the mattresses with a torch and a book reading with my arm around our Dalmatian dog Peggy until the storm passed over.

My mother was suffering from various traumas from the war and my father while not immune to all the effects of the war in Trinidad, was also fighting the effects of living in a colonial culture.
He found out very quickly when he was a young man, that he was white enough for most things but not quite white enough for others.
He could do the work needed by his colonial masters and their servants extremely well and conscientiously but he was not white enough to be allowed into the Country Club to listen to the Glen Miller orchestra.

Once he was in England years later he realized quite how not the right type of white he was, as none of the people he had met out in Trinidad wanted to know him or even us, my mother and I. Of course once we were in England I became quite used to being referred to as the German woman’s daughter.
That sounds either like the title for a book or a type of social or medical problem. This had happened on a rare occasion in Trinidad but it happened alot in England and was pretty unpleasant as of course by 1962 this type of racism was supposed to have gone.
One time in my job at the Post office I was called to the phone with the message” there is a Pakistani gentleman on the phone for you” this was very intriguing for me until I heard the well spoken English of my father’s voice. A Pakistani gentleman indeed

For years I have wanted to write about my life, and for years I have been speculating about the opening sentence. Which means that this lack of opening sentence has dominated my life for many years and for years now I have been looking for the perfect opening sentence. And there it was right there in front of me all the time.
All I need to do was write it like I see it. It’s so easy to tell a story and yet so difficult to write it all down, to assemble all the parts, put all the detail in that the others may be able to see the same story. Must remember at all times that when writing I need to write as if I were writing a script for a blind person to follow instructions how to leave a room for example. Difficult not to censor myself, and become my own worse critic by criticizing everything even before I have written it.

So writing is not easy, but even more so, when I take each idea and dismiss it as too fanciful or not enough detail or what ever hundred and one excuses I have ready for not proceeding with the project.
The fact that I can not leave the idea alone is obvious proof to myself that I should proceed with the intention to write about my life no, matter how worried I get at times that this may be just some other pretension of mine.
It would be nice for me to give myself the chance to nurture this and make it happen. As to it being pretentious to write about my life and myself well I only have the one life so cannot write about another and besides that I am well qualified by living through it all to speak and write about it.

In 1968 we had a real holiday, we were going to drive to Spain and stay in a rented apartment in a seaside town on the coast just down from Barcelona. It was called Calafel and was situated on the Costa Dorado.
I remember being very excited but also concerned would we really manage to have a nice holiday? Would the two of them argue or would all be nice and happy for a change? At nearly every part of the journey there was potential for horrible arguments and hours of silent driving with the two of them only talking through me. But luckily everything went well with only the odd moment of friction.

Once we got to Calafel all seemed to be wonderful, the apartment was nice, a basic holiday flat with all the usual amenities. Even unexpected entertainment when my mother on examing the kitchen, tried to light the cooker in order to cook our first holiday dinner and nearly succeeded in blowing herself up in the process because there was a gas leak.
Luckily she got away with a bad shock and her eyebrows were totally singed. I recall dad jokingly saying well that was ok then as mum always drew her eyebrows in with eyebrow pencil. She did not see it in quite the same humorous way as he did but she soon recovered once she had drunk some cognac.

The next day the sun was shining brightly and all was well. Until my mother got annoyed with the people downstairs because they were too loud and were always cooking on the balcony.
She asked my father what “ shut up you dirty pigs was in Spanish and he told her to shout ”hermosa” at them so she did this whenever she got annoyed by them, which was daily and was a trifle put out that they kept laughing and waving back at her. Very strange she thought but gave it no more thought.

Then a funny thing happened, the day the people downstairs were packing up to go, they came up to our landing and smilingly handed over a bottle of wine and some local dried fruits & nuts and a box of sweetmeats to my mother and father and said goodbye with much smiling.
My poor mother was totally bewildered until my father told her that he had not told her the Spanish for ‘shut up you dirty pigs” rather he had told her to shout hello you beautiful people” her face was a picture as this bit of information seeped into her brain.
Then she opened her mouth, to shout I thought but instead she started to laugh until she almost cried and then practical woman that she was, she proceeded to open and enjoy the bottle and the sweetmeats. What a diplomat my father could be.

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