On this, the penultimate week of the Longer Light Series, we offer you a piece by one of the most exhilarating talents in Australian literature today, Maxine Beneba Clarke. Read more
The house is closed up in preparation for my research trip: power points switched to off position, stray food tucked away in Tupperware containers, pot plants entrusted to friends, blinds pulled all the way across. A friend’s car is already packed and sitting in the driveway, ready to leave for the airport.
I decide to water the back garden one last time before we leave.
On Melbourne summer evenings the sun stays and fights. She is feisty, beautiful, determined. She beats against the encroaching horizon with white-yellow anger: fists of heat grabbing on to stay just a little longer.
Droplets from the full-force hose bear down on our ragged vegetable crop: pea-sized, still-green tomatoes; impossibly yellow zucchini flowers; dusty-red rhubarb stalks; almost-seeding kale.
Diamond light spins off the clear water stream.
When soaked to a rich compost-black, the January soil smells like fresh mushrooms.
I have asked several neighbours to water while we’re gone. Hopefully, between them, they will keep our small harvest alive.
The apple tree, which last year bore fruit riddled with some determined flesh-eating thing, holds rosy-green offerings on her myriad gnarled arms. They are crab apples: tart, floury, good for jam and desserts.
The kids are in the car: excitedly waiting.
The tree groans down at me, but there is no time now, to relieve her of the healthy crop she has so stoically borne.
As our ride pulls out of the driveway, I think about the fallen fruit. When the temperature climbs as far as forty-one degrees and holds there for four days in a row, the tumbled apples split their skin. Left to rot on the parched, browning grass, their sour sugar crystallises and bubbles. Sticky brown patches scar the fruit’s surface, black and heavy, like molasses.
To reach London, we fly backward through a day – silver plane wings slicing through logic and time. At first there is nothing but blackness, hanging thick and heavy outside the small, round-edged, rectangular window. Then there is dawn: the slow rising of light in the sky around us, clouds edged silver, glowing. The almost-blindness of being closer to the sun is white noise behind the eyelids. The brightness is almost too much to brace against, too intrusive to process. It is a bleaching of the brain.
The kids pick at foil-lidded meals, sleep fitfully in their seats, wake asking: Is it day or is it night? Is it dark or light?
Now I know how Doctor Who feels, says my discombobulated son. We laugh.
The early London winter is merciless in its deceit: convinces you it is bearable, then slowly creeps through the fibres of your coat, chilling through skin, then flesh, then blood, then bone. The bitter chill is a horror relatives mention in almost every interview when I ask them about travelling by boat to England.
They tell you bring your warmest clothes, that it is very, very cold in England. But you have lived your entire life in the Caribbean. And my God. My God, child, you do not know. You do not know, until then, what real cold is.
Parents opened suitcases, dressed their trembling-kneed children in everything they owned: six pairs of underwear, tights on top of that, then two pairs of trousers one over the other. Four t-shirts, then three thin cotton jumpers.
What kind of hell is this place, so treacherous and uncaring that the devil who rules will not even permit fire?
My children huddle in shock, despite thermals, woollens, and brand new Kathmandu coats their Nanna thought to get them before we left.
They did not know. They did not know, until now, what real cold was.
The English winter light is timid; it cowers behind clouds and buildings, unsure of its place. It sleeps in every morning until 8.30 a.m., lives a short day, retires in the early evening well before five.
The children sleep fitfully in their beds at my aunty’s house, wake asking: Is it time to get up now? If it’s morning, why is it still dark?
The train to Liverpool winds through green meadows, past brown-brick houses with square, white-rimmed windows, past straight-backed teenage girls in equestrian helmets, and quaint villages with spindly, skeletal trees.
A thick fog hovers over, holds.
The International Slavery Museum is down on the docks. We buy hot chocolate from the window of a small coffee van, warming our fingers against a coldness indescribable that creeps in off the still water. The woman who hands us our paper mugs tells us snow is forecast, shivers, asks why the children are not in school.
It’s the summer holidays where we come from, I tell her, wondering where we come from, and if it is really summer there.
Inside the museum, I sit the children on a seat facing ship models, hand them a full box of Skittles, take their iPad from the backpack, plug the headphone splitter in. Paintings of the plantations hang on the museum walls. By the artist’s hands, the New World light is yellow, stretching on forever. The Caribbean sun seems cocky, infuriatingly certain of itself. Smug, as if, if it wanted to, it could ward off the evening forever and prolong the miseries of the dawn-till-dusk cane-cutting day.
In the colonies, darkness arrived late and left early. Darkness never stayed for long. Darkness understood there was always work to be done.
A tall glass cabinet holds original instruments of punishment. They are not recreations.
There is a metal contraption that wraps around the bottom half of the face, completely covering the cheeks, chin, nose and mouth, and fastening at the back of the head. An attached metal plate pushes onto the mouth – locks down on the tongue. Metal spikes cut at the tongue if a talking movement is made.
This punishment was meted out to slaves who spoke out of turn.
The hot Caribbean sun on the mask heated up the metal. More often than not, the contraption burnt the nose and lip area plain off the face.
This contraption was generally worn continuously for a number of months, until such time as the wearer was thought to have learnt not to speak up for themselves.
The inability to close the mouth meant that saliva constantly foamed and dripped from the small circular holes drilled into the lip area
In one audio description, the voice of a plantation owner describes a punishment meted out to runaways.
I shackled him in wooden stocks, by the hands, neck and feet so as to immobilise him. He was taken out to the field and painted with molasses from head to toe. The runaway was left to lie there for several weeks, during which the flies and other various insects bothered and bit him no end.
This is the least of the many punishments described. This is, by far, the most lenient.
Outside the museum I hold my coat shut against the wind, urging the children to walk faster back to the warm apartment we have rented across the road from the Liverpool Municipal Buildings.
I wake fitfully that night.
Is it day or is it night? Is it dark or is it light?
What kind of hell is this place? What devil rules here?
I dream of home. I dream of heat climbing to forty-one degrees, and holding there for four days in a row. Of how tumbled apples split their skin, and are left to rot on the parched, browning grass, their sour sugar crystallising and bubbling.
I dream of sticky brown patches scarring the fruit’s skin: black and heavy, like molasses.
I have asked several neighbours to water the garden while we are gone. Hopefully, between them, they will keep our small harvest alive.
MORE FROM THE LONGER LIGHT SERIES
The Longer Light Series explores the idea that our personal rituals – from the mundane to the grand – tether us to special places and particular times. It investigates how our rituals are contingent on the places where we perform them, on the rhythm of the seasons, on the weather of any given day, on what we see and smell around us.
The 12 distinct works of the series detail, document or respond to some sort of ritual (as each contributor interprets that word) enacted during a week of summer days and nights. The works will be published in weekly instalments so that, in concert, they plot the arc of an Australian summer.
The Longer Light Series is supported by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund.