The first time I found myself in the swamp I was eleven years old. I was on the Island, in my great-aunt’s sitting room. A room circled by chairs. Wooden chairs with rattan backs and seats, chairs with ornamental arms and feet, plantation chairs of the kind my grandfather and father would sleep on after Sunday lunch, legs stretched out. My favourite chair had twisted arms and legs. I liked the engravings on its back. My great-aunt would sit in that room, minute by minute, year after year. As long as I’d known her, she would sit in her chair beneath a disintegrating lithograph of Napoleon. My great-aunt’s hands were white and smooth and she would use them to fan herself or to edge her fingers along the rosary on her lap. The room was long and narrow. Its windows overlooked the Indian Ocean.
Now I live on another island. It’s my first year. Pacing my London flat, I push through the swamp. Earlier, forcing appearance, I had salvaged a grin, and performed a stride to the bus stop. Hurtling down the Finchley Road an argument explodes on the No. 13 between a man in a wheelchair and a mother jostling for a place to put her pram. One of the old ladies, grimacing like a hammerhead shark, draws in a mob in favour of motherhood and prams. I watch as the man in the wheelchair rolls himself off the bus. The shark shape shifts and smiles at me benignly. Her styled white hair wraps around Bakelite earrings.
I dream of the room in my great-aunt’s house. It’s late afternoon and the room is slightly dark. I hear conversations half in French and half in Creole, people stop and talk on the road outside. My great-aunt empties out a jar full of sweets from the local shop across the road. The shop was owned by a family who sold sweets and spicy fish samosas wrapped in newspaper cones. I would see wives and daughters on the verandah upstairs, snapshots of saris and long braided hair. Sacks of basmati rice would be weighed out and carried home in pink and blue striped bags. Tonight I’ll cook basmati from the shop down the road from my flat – fragrant rice with turmeric and star anise.
I suck on my great-aunt’s stash of sweets – fruity sweets shaped like bananas or strawberries and sherbet ones in pale lemon or lavender. In the sitting-room filled with chairs they would always be accompanied by orange squash mixed with ice and water. When my father brought us back to the island we lived with my great-aunt. My mother, accustomed to the suburbs of Johannesburg, tells me how she would find me chattering to an invisible presence in the room where we slept. My eyes focused on the thing she couldn’t see. Later, in the afternoons, she would dream of escape routes on her bed. Sometimes insults would fling themselves carelessly to and fro between us. The island was silent. Our thoughts would echo backwards and forwards inside our heads. And then they would explode like a house with a gas leak and a match.
There are many rules on the island. Rules about where I can go and rules about what I should do. I would rebel but my tracks would be stalked by my mother’s threats. On the way to the sea men would whistle and hiss. Ancient Creole ladies in hats would stop and ask me why I was alone – mopping their foreheads with handkerchiefs dabbed in cologne. Once I heard a story about how a girl was raped in the graveyard. The story whispered its way in amongst verandahs and cups of vanilla tea.
It’s evening in London – the end of summer. The air through the half-open window is colder. I’m somewhere in the swamp. My great-aunt’s sitting room moves back into view. I’m stretched out on a plantation chair listening to her and my father talk about their memories. After she died, I went back to the house with him, foundations crumbling beneath us. The chairs sat there just as they always had. Hers vacant beneath the portrait of Napoleon.
Yvette Greslé is a London-based writer, and art historian. She is a contributor to ‘this is tomorrow’; Apollo Magazine; Photomonitor; Art South Africa; Africanah and the blog of the International New Media Gallery (inmg).