Primitive Child | Jason Allen-Paisant | Granta

Primitive Child

Jason Allen-Paisant

1

When I was a child, I knew a tree – mango, coconut, guinep, breadfruit, star apple, guava – through climbing. And if, because of their size, they were unclimbable, I looked longingly at them. I stoned them to down their fruit or I would cut bamboo poles or tree limbs to pick something from them.

These were trees that fed us. We gave short shrift to the ones that bore no food.

I had respect for the large trees – the guango, of course, in the savannah-like fields on our way to grung. Grung was where Mama planted yams. The guango was massive and gave me a feeling of smallness, though not a humiliating one. It made me feel that there was something to aspire to, but that I shouldn’t aspire too much, like aspire to be like God. There was a sadness that it gave me, like being extracted from the flow of life. It brought me the knowledge of death. It was a dark tree: tall, fat and unclimbable.

As soon as you come off the brow of the hill and enter the vast clearing, there is the guango tree before me on my left. Under it the cows graze with gaulins on their backs. To get to the grung at the end of this track we pass just under the guango then turn off to the right, through someone else’s pasture. We go up through this pasture to the common mango tree. The grung is underneath – quarter-acre of land.

There was hardly ever anybody else besides Mama and me. Once a year, in August, men would come to do men’s work, like bringing sticks for the yam vines and planting them. They would cook a pot for everybody at midday and I would be with Mama and all the big people. The smoke would go up through the yam vines and into the mango tree. When the time for digging the yams arrived and the harvest was big, Mama would get a man from the village to help her, mainly to transport the yams back to our home. Otherwise, she would borrow someone’s donkey.

Apart from that, it was me and Mama. She did all the weeding, the mulching and the tending of the vines. Most times she would also dig.

And I would spend a whole day there. One whole day by myself around the mango tree, never roaming far away into other yam fields or into the woodland. Just there, playing with beetles, rocks and seeds of mangoes, while Mama worked.

I watched and dreamed. Imagined myself going up in a helicopter like the toy one my cousin, Sis Vads, sent from New York. I dreamed of being a preacher and preached to myself and the trees and the grass. I ate common mangoes and grew tired of them. Getting bored became a way of life, then it became enjoyable. It was in this way that I learned to love silence; to listen to the languages of other things, like hoes, like cutlasses. It grew into watching the vines until I could hear them, for if you watch anything long enough you will hear it – the chlorophyll being distilled in the stalks, and moving, the gaulins cry and the cows. The grung music, the grung life.

 

A different life started in Porus. From bush to small town. From Mama to Mommy. Second trauma. A place of machines, cars, whirring traffic, concrete. In Porus the only happiness was outside in the bushes. I talked to the trees. They were my subjects and my companions. My best friend was called Califf. We roamed the bushes and Mr Bailey’s land, the wrap-head revivalist whose property lay behind my mother’s rented house. What was perhaps a few acres seemed sprawling at the time, because on it he had all sorts of fruit trees, a coal kiln, a pigpen buried in the thickness of its interior. There were all sorts of avenues among the trees. It was exciting to lay a trail in a place that was wild. This terrain felt then like it belonged to me particularly, because only I knew it in this way – secret paths connecting different trees which Mommy and her friends chatting in our front yard would not even suspect existed. Being in Mr Bailey’s bush was to leave another world that lay just outside the canopies, close but far away. We roamed there, playing police and thief. Sometimes others would join us: Mr Bailey’s grandson Sheldon, his granddaughter Jamile.

What drew Califf and me together was a similar story of fatherlessness.

His land was bottom-side our house. It was ancestral land; ours was rented property. We would amble down into his back garden, among rows of coffee bush, smelling the sweetness of the berries, breaking open cacao pods and sucking the pulp-covered seeds: ‘sweeties’. We would walk with our slingshots, Califf pretending to identify the baldpates, to know a turtle dove from a ground dove. Never shoot a ground dove because a ground dove was possibly an ancestor returned to live on the land. A duppy.

Califf reared pigs. On the way to feed them, we would pick mangoes in mango season. All was a kingdom of magic. The bush was the rhythm of our days.

Then one year, as we came out of summer, I learned about a French woman in our little village of Porus. It seems she had been there for a year, and the boys, my pubescent friends, had slowly awakened to the knowledge of her existence. Her name was Émeline. We learned that she was a French teacher straight from France, real France. And she taught at the all-girls high school in Mandeville, the capital of our parish, the place where the rich, brown-skinned people lived, and where I also went to school.

I can’t remember how I ended up at Émeline’s yard. Did I introduce myself? How did the first conversation go? What I remember was that Émeline had suddenly become the reason for my days. A new world. A dream.

I had a knack for French. A lot of people could see that, including Mr Alloggia, my French teacher, himself half-French (the other half was Italian), a priest who had somehow ended up at our high school in Jamaica. I had an obsession for the sounds of the language. I can feel that obsession even today, perfectly reproducing the sound of a language the way I heard it. I would never be satisfied with sounding like myself, a Jamaican speaking French; I needed to sound like Mr Alloggia, exactly. I dived in, and it was a joy, an exhilaration even. Learning a language is the closest thing to becoming somebody else. Without realising it then, I was fulfilling a need. So at thirteen going on fourteen, I was becoming French. It had started as a kind of hobby. I could already begin to feel myself escaping from my body. I had found something nobody else was good at – speaking French like a Frenchman, without the understanding, without knowing much vocabulary and grammar and meaning, but sounding pitch-perfect.

I was like this when I met Émeline. Home life at the time was not happy. My mother’s relationship had turned bitter, and she was left with a child to raise on her own, while the man formed a family with a woman he’d recently got pregnant. We were told how the other woman had worked Obeah on my mother, how this was the source of the acne that had suddenly appeared on her face, and which stubbornly refused to go away. (The most renowned Mandeville dermatologists were left puzzled.) We were told that this was the reason the man was guzzummed – no longer himself; the other woman had ‘tied’ him. And my mother, refusing, on account of her staunch Christian education, to go to the Obeah man to counteract the woman’s ‘work’ and win back her man, settled into a bitter life. I do not blame her for this. Now that I am grown I understand how hurt can turn you into someone you don’t want to become, someone you don’t even know. But the shouts were on the increase, the lightning eyes. The looks that say, ‘You making me think of your daddy.’ The point is that I was trying to come out of my skin. How clear it is to me now, that my whole obsession with language was this.

At twelve years old, I had not met my father. I know now what I couldn’t have understood then. That twelve years is really not a long time, not enough to forget the fact that your father has abandoned you, not enough to stop waiting, hoping, thinking that he might show up one day, that he should show up one day. And not enough, certainly not enough, to stop feeling angry that he’s still not shown up.

So here I am at thirteen years old. I now have a sister, and I am angry, because my mother is angry, and because I am looking for my father, though I don’t know it. Recently, I’ve wondered whether that was an early sign of autism. The internalised traumas and the inability to speak, the absence of someone who could hear me speak, caused me to store up many hurts, and I realise now how I had regressed emotionally, rendered lethargic by the anger and the silence.

I was looking for my father, but nobody ever really talked about him, or what he was like, or even that I had a father. The only thing they ever said was how good-for-nothing he was. Your wutliss puppa. And my grandmother stressing how she had me since I was one day old. It was me and you, over that hill, up that hill to Post Office, come rain or shine . . . And this grandmother, Mama, as I called her, bringing me to my mother’s when I was almost five years old, and leaving quietly while I was having a shower. I had lived with her from my birth and thought she was my mother. She’d said nothing to prepare me; she left without saying goodbye. I endured the shock silently. There was no one to tell.

I was all of twelve when my little sister was born and my mother was abandoned again, and the house was a place of terror.

So you’ll understand now the need for escape, and language was it. In my mind, there is a close relationship between language and landscape. Both are imaginary, yet physical. Language is place. I can feel its flesh. I can feel the thickness of language as I sink into it. I can feel a cool shadow as it shields me. I can feel the excitement of its foreign sound. I don’t know if we’ve had previous lives and why one person should feel such an affinity with a sound that is supposedly other, but for me it was like coming home after a long exile.

So somehow I ended up at Émeline’s, and I came home to a part of myself. It was at Émeline’s that I began to spend my Saturdays, evenings after school and some days during the holidays. Initially, she lived in a little lane along the Old Porus Road. The house belonged to her father-in-law who came and went mysteriously, Émeline’s husband was there. He worked as a bricklayer, generally in construction. He smoked a lot and so did she – weed. The first thing that struck me about Émeline was that she was bored. Initially a kept woman, she had come to the village from St Martin with Shine, who was at that time her boyfriend. They married at the New Testament Church of God, perhaps so she could get her papers. Whenever she addressed him, it was affectionately, but they didn’t speak very much. They never went places, and she must have felt frustrated to have been parked in this little backwater town, where the only thing that happened was people working Obeah on each other, counteractions of Obeah, thieving of land and disputed inheritances. She was bored. She lived for the stage shows, roots reggae and dance artists, local or near local or of larger fame, but she didn’t get to see those very much.

I went to her house often. She made a cassette tape for me, it had Jacques Brel; I can’t remember the album but I do remember being thrilled to be listening to music in French (at the time, I did also think that Brel was French). It was exciting to sing along to songs by Serge Gainsbourg, which she’d also introduced to me.

Shortly after we met she went back to France for a visit. On her return, she had a bag of gifts for me. The first was a huge Larousse dictionary. The second was a set of mixtapes marked Variété française with singers like Édith Piaf and Georges Brassens, and albums by Noir Désir, Renaud and the rapper MC Solaar. On many of my visits, she would allow me to play these cassettes in her tape deck, while helping me understand some of the more difficult bits. The third thing was a copy of Les Fables de La Fontaine. I looked at its front and back covers questioningly. ‘It’s essential, traditional French poetry,’ she informed me, ‘everybody has to learn it in France, so I thought, I must bring that for you.’

I sat in the cool of Émeline’s veranda, screened by a wall of crotons, and read the poems over and over, out loud. Émeline listened distractedly while changing cassettes in the living room stereo – Junior Murvin, U-Roy, Half Pint, Gregory Isaacs – and leafing through her books on Rastafari, Black Power and Santeria. As I memorised Les Fables de La Fontaine, looking up unknown words and deepening my knowledge of these rhythms, she was also being entertained. For her too, my company was a way of passing the time. As she sat there dreaming, smoking and listening to reggae, I felt the restlessness of her mind, the way it darted here and there, searching. She had left France on an impulse at eighteen years old. A one-way flight to Saint Martin, a place which must have conjured these images of reggae and Rastafari in her mind. We were fulfilling each other’s need to be somewhere else. But now, me sitting on her veranda chanting French poetry seems to me like destiny. I was surprised by her patience at the time, that for her it all seemed obvious. I was surprised by the exotic world in which I found myself, by the strange imaginary created by the language, though nothing felt more natural. I was better at it than at football. And as much as I loved being out and about in the woodlands bordering the train line, playing cricket in the street and raiding the fruit trees of neighbours in the backstreets of Porus, I enjoyed this more. I learned these fables by heart, straightened the sounds, navigated their edges.

Then they moved to a property of almost half an acre, just beside the train line. The house was unfinished and there was scaffolding all around. The inside had marl on the ground. In Jamaica, a person might mount the structure of a two- or three-storey house, while they ready two bedrooms on one side of the ground floor for themselves, their partner and children to sleep in. The house might remain in this unfinished state for years, if not decades, because there is something more significant about this state than the act of finishing. These unfinished mansions with their Corinthian columns symbolise, for their owners, the dream of property, a sort of reclamation of the poor man’s right to luxury.

This is where I would go to see Émeline. I do not think I was in love with her, but I had a fascination. She was in her early twenties at the time, perhaps a mere twenty-two or twenty-three, and in the summer of 1996 when this began to happen, I was almost sixteen, a young man filled with blood. My mother made hints about the fact that she was not good company, about how she had corrupted Paul, ward of one of her colleagues, and a neighbour of theirs at the first house. On the school bus, Paul boasted of sexual exploits with Émeline, but the report from my mother’s co-worker was that the boy was taken advantage of. But going to Émeline’s was a necessity and I would disobey my mother’s orders. Eventually, my defiance won out.

The scenery was rustic, primal. The old train line added a certain mystery to the place. The air of something that once was, as if something from the past was still present. A sense of wonder that this isolated corner was a place of transit connecting so many things. By this time, it was only bauxite being transported on the line to Kingston. Time back then was based on activities like going down to the river, which was near Émeline’s house, or roaming along the train line, or hanging out somewhere far from home. Time was bush and woodland. The vegetation was thick and dense, nearly uninterrupted green, a nest: a silence so full it was lonely. No neighbours around for about half a kilometre, only the train line and red dirt tracks down which people might make their way to a field; few people at very few times in the day.

Behind the house was an orange grove fenced off with barbed wire. One could hear the birds, see donkeys in the field on the opposite side of the train line. A shower and toilet were outside the scaffolded house. The water was cold; the place had its own microclimate.

For two years I’d continue to visit this house by the train line, sometimes combining it with a trip to the river with Califf. Sometimes both of us would stop off at Émeline’s, but more often than not it would be just me. I started bringing my compositions from school, the assignments from my French teacher. I sat on a concrete block or on the bare concrete wall of the veranda under construction and practised speaking French with her. Émeline would make soup and we would eat together. Hopeton, Shine’s cousin, would be around, and he would eat too.

Those days were marked by inactivity, go-easiness. Émeline had by now quit her teaching job at the school in Mandeville, finding the atmosphere too constricting and conservative. All that was left to do now was chill, smoke weed and wait . . . for something. There was a kind of sweet idleness here, of the aimless, languid passing of time.

By early 1998, Shine had gone back to Saint Martin to work for money to finish the house, and Hopeton was always around. In my mind he was just taking care of the house, looking out for Émeline, offering male presence in this isolated place. But he was also offering company. I didn’t understand just how much company until the September of that year. I had spent the summer in Madrid on a scholarship to study Spanish. When I came back, I found a letter from Émeline explaining that she’d had to leave town; she’d fallen pregnant by Hopeton. Shine was on his way back. So that was what the company was all about. Émeline sleeping naked on the bed in the middle of the day was not just Émeline being French; there was an activity, a romance, a different life I was unaware of.

Perhaps I had been a nuisance to their romance, coming every weekend, every day during holidays, stopping off on my way to the river. Perhaps he asked her to send me away, but she never did. She recorded more and more cassettes of Brel, Gainsbourg and Édith Piaf; I had those on replay through the summer. Stopping off at the house under construction and scaffolding, I exercised my new tongue on the verses of ‘Le plat pays’, ‘Ne me quitte pas’. It was like magic: the tongues sank into the body, the body sank into the port d’Amsterdam. I was another self, right there on the train line and going down to the river, singing and twisting and flying. There was something of me that I could only find far over the waters, I thought. Where my father lived – some indeterminate place. My mysterious father.

All this, then, this search for father had to do with language. Somehow this fascination with language was a search for lineage, for roots. This was beyond some idea of Africa. My roots seemed to be in the ocean; the ocean being symbolic of my absent father. First trauma. Somehow this too is a landscape. Fatherhood too is a womb that brings us into this world.

 

2

I’m walking through Roundhay Park on my way to the woods and the sun bears down. The burning on my skin is all the atoms of Coffee Grove, childhood village, place of the grung. Time lives in the leaves of these woods; I’m back in that mountain village walking. We walk to the postal agency, my grandmother and I. She has been carrying me to her workplace since I was one week old. She reminds me of it almost every time I see her, and the occasions are rarer the more I grow.

I am eighteen and I am at university, having left hurriedly and eagerly from my mother’s home in Porus. I am twenty-one, just earned my first degree, and teaching French at a high school in Kingston. I am twenty-four doing my master’s in French at the University of the West Indies. I am twenty-seven, a teacher of English, French and drama in Freeport, Grand Bahama. I am thirty, and have migrated to Montreal, Canada. I am thirty, almost thirty-one, and have just earned a scholarship to go to Oxford to do my doctorate. I have come back from Montreal and I am preparing to go to England. I see my grandmother for what will be the last time.

We are walking, my grandmother and I, she leads me – she has been carrying me since I was one week old. It is a dry road, under scorching heat, but the rains come often enough; nobody complains. It is also a rainy land. Abundant, green. The crops grow, the farmers work. Percy werk. Mama told me that that was my first sentence. Brother Percy is working. And I roll the tonkit: my word for the shrivelled, dried coconuts that fall along the roadside.

The red ground runs beside us. Potato slips, tomato beds, carrots, cabbages. Long red ground under the sun, backs bent, heat parching skin. This is a farming land. And at three years old, I walk the whole uphill climb to go to Post Office, Mama’s work. It must have been two miles, or two and a half. But it was long for my little feet. I must’ve been heavy for Mama by that time.

Imagine her carrying me every day, in her arms, on her back. A heavy baby. No choice. All love. No questions. Hard life. Joy and love. How did she manage this weight that I was on her ageing body?

The landscape is her life. Hard but also abundant. People work hard, they live off the land and their words are tender to each other.

 

So the sun makes me go up again, up the hill, over the hill, through the fields, through the cows, over the bumblebees bumbling the dung, and the gaulins flying from cow back to cow back. The daily rhythm of walking and saying good morning to everyone, to the man who works his field, to the woman cooking the pot, to the children going to school. The heat remembers the little boy sweating, complaining Mama, I can hardly go . . . The little boy crying inexplicably. Mama not knowing what to do any more. Mama discovering a fattened tick between big toe and long toe in the night. Poor child. What a mama. At sixty-two years old.

The sun helps me to write my story. All the elements carry feeling.

 

3

In the Roundhay woods, in Leeds, England, the sun splashes on the trees, their exposed skins glisten. The evening glow penetrates me and I move into it. Inside me a living thing is swelling and ripening. In this month of December when night falls in early afternoon, it is a struggle to get here. And now I see it; I was made to live.

There is a sadness that returns, for the boy I once was, growing up in Porus. What was my poverty? To go far might have been just to enter the woods behind the house. But there was a wall separating me from it.

The pigpen is there, so are the ackee trees, and the mango and guinep. And there, I can walk in peace and take my time. But I never took my time. I never knew that time could be taken, that our lives were entitled to time. Even as a child you internalise that. That your life was less deserving of time than the lives of others. That for you, time was never ‘to be wasted’. That your life was marked by doing, working. And at a certain point this word begins to hover above you, around you. You hear it on television, you learn it as a concept, you can’t remember when you’ve first heard it. Leisure. Only certain people have it. Do they have it because they can name it, because they decide to christen it, the way Westerners christen ideas and turn them into money?

Our parents also had internalised this lack of time and we learned it from them. They were always hurrying, always had no time to waste. And we, then, had to learn to not play with the security of kids who had ‘leisure’, the kids entitled to time.

 

A bird glides slowly and touches down on the green in Roundhay Park, and people ribboned in darkness look up at the light. Ahead, a grackle walks; jet roads criss-cross in the sky. A dog sprinting after a tennis ball forms a circle around me. Time makes holes in the skin. I dream the red sun of Coffee Grove in this pink sky, to see a bird gliding in the milky wave of yam vines, a bird whose name I’ve never seen or wondered about, gliding slowly to perch on the common mango tree, while I go for the goats in the field, hear the machete scrape of a lazy walker, the bellow of the goats, the prancing of their hooves on the rough asphalt. And I smell the dark burnings of kerosene oil in the evening air, as Home Sweet Home lamps are lit.

The bird is comfort, a conversation going on between me and all I see. This is me. And that silence, that light that makes me stop, their walking on the green, the fresh grass giving off burnt scent of honey, the light above, the cold lines from aeroplanes. How can I name it, this me walking through the park in Leeds?

 

A woman is coming through. I hear the clinking metal of her dog’s leash and I slowly start to walk away. I am doing what we have internalised for centuries. Create space for the white lady. I’m anticipating that I will scare her, make her uncomfortable. I know I will. I don’t know whether anyone would, but I know I will. I’m wearing a large winter coat and it’s buttoned up to my nose, almost like a balaclava. I know that will bother her. And who stops and stands looking like this under a tree? Round here. Doing nothing. And in fact, I do make her uncomfortable. She shifts course and goes off a different way. It gives me pleasure. I like the power I have.

It’s this thing about not being expected round here. It’s the anticipation, the way I begin to regulate and police my own body, to create space. In the middle of nowhere, the Black man making space for the white lady. It reminds me that landscape is created; it’s what we put there. It’s the way we tell stories about the space; it’s the way we place our stories within space and say there, there is our landscape.

In Yorkshire I’ve come to meet a landscape I saw all the time as a child, through my education, in the books we were made to study at school: daffodils, squirrels, the heather, the moor. And I feel the sadness coming on again. Sad about having had to live in another person’s landscape, sad thinking that their landscape was better than mine, sad about desiring their landscape more than I desired mine.

But I’m also here because of a landscape that I have constructed. It’s the story of me and Émeline that allows me to realise that. The bridge between Coffee Grove, with its yam fields and farmlands, and Oxford, with its dreaming spires, between peasant me and current me going for walks in a park in Leeds, runs right through her. This is the future. This is my ‘indeterminate place’.

I’ve a nice job now and time on my hands, so I sometimes go walking in the middle of the day. The green pulls at something inside me. Trees, barks, plants, mushrooms, leaves, bird calls. Walking among them, I am also reacquainting myself with my childhood landscape. It’s all very different, of course. I do not know the names of flowers and have only just learnt to identify a few of these trees. I stroll through the woods with an app on my phone, whipping it out at the site of a curious-looking one whose shape fascinates me – a fern-leaved beech, a blue Atlas cedar, a towering black pine. I’m fascinated by the patterns of the barks, their complex textures. In May, as flowers suddenly appear from a landscape of grey metal, and trees slowly create magical canopies and bowers, I summon my app to tell me who these creatures are.

In the hillside village, I didn’t know the riches I had. I did not know that thirty years later, I would hunger for the spunk of chlorophyll in chocho and yam vines. For rain battering zinc roofs, for games of police and thief, and gun war in Mr Bailey’s bush. For kung fu in the roots of the cotton tree. I never knew that time could be taken, that our lives were entitled to time. But right now I’m here, standing, taking my time, owning space.

 

Photograph © Andrew Jackson, from From a Small Island

Jason Allen-Paisant

Jason Allen-Paisant is a Jamaican poet and non-fiction writer based in the UK. He is the author of Thinking with Trees, and of the forthcoming memoir Primitive Child: On Blackness, Landscape and Reclaiming Time. He is also an Associate Professor in Aesthetic Theory at the University of Leeds.

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