by Monique Roffey
“Sucking a Mango”
an extract from The Fever Diary, (a novel in progress)
THERE EXISTS a mysteriously singular Samaan tree close to the centre of the savannah. Hermione has often wondered how it got there, most of the trees around are on the perimeter, a kind of exhibition of stolen seedlings from other continents grown tall, pink and yellow pouis, African tulips. But this tree hovers like a cumulus cloud over the centre of the large open play ground, and they’ve been meeting under it for decades, since they were school girls, since when she and Eris were first in love.
It’s their tree, their default meeting place, often in the middle of the day, or when Eris has knocked off work early, like today.
They have swiped a soft, big bellied avocado, a punnet of strawberries and a quarter slice of a watermelon from Hi-Lo (does anyone say Massey Stores?), and a large takeaway box from Pecco’s at Royal Palms Plaza stuffed with coleslaw, provisions, callalloo and rice. Eris is a vegan. Sometimes Hermione will eat fish. Even so, Eris castigates her all the time for touching, sucking, serving, let alone loving cock. How can you put that fucking thing in your mouth, she has yelled plenty times.
It is a clear, sunny, February day in Port of Spain. The car fumes from the stream of traffic driving round feel far enough away. These picnics are one of their many rituals. Hermione still thinks of her relationship with Eris as a thing that could get them expelled. Years ago, they were thrown out of school for showing it off. They were crazy kids back then, aged fourteen. Eris rode a motorbike to school, a recycled trail bike inherited from a relative. Even then, she was a provocateur, using words like ‘punani’ and ‘pussy’ and wearing cherry-flavoured lip-gloss. Hermione was the only white girl in class and Eris the only lesbian. It was the 1970s. They were girls trying to be women, trying to be Sapphic sluts. They didn’t know, let alone cared enough, that their liaison was ‘wrong’. They’d been hard to stop. Hermione considers it plain and simple, her and Eris. Like all the other infamous double acts, they had it then and now: Barack and Michelle, Thelma and Louise. Eris and Hermione.
Eris was the main one, though, the leader, and she, Hermione, was her foil. She would do anything Eris did or dared her to do. Anything. Once, she ate a whole jar of mango chow which had been sitting in a school cupboard for years, not months – just because Eris had dared her.
Booted out of school.
Ridiculed – and then parted by Harry.
“So,” says Eris, in her So-voice. “You had a crash?”
“No. Not really. I hit a man’s car. He was a nice man. A cool guy. I fucking totaled his car, because I’m such a shit driver.”
“Was he hurt?”
“No. Thank fuck. But there was a terrible moment when I thought I had hurt him. The car span across the road. Ended up backwards. It could have been much worse.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You sure you should drive?”
“That’s what Dad says. Maybe I should take a few lessons. “
“Yeah, maybe you should. How is ‘the madman in the attic’?”
Eris is scooping into the avocado, towards its stone heart. She delves in and surgically removes the globe, placing it carefully on a piece of kitchen roll. Hermione goes quiet. Harry. After the expulsion, he sent Hermione away, straight to a convent boarding school in England. The local school was called Bishops, the best girls school on the island, the school for smart, academic girls, not for audacious lesbians.
But she’d blown it, her school career, early on.
“Both my children are poofs,” Harry said, bitterly. Both. That is a school run by bitches for bitches, he railed. They turned you into a lesbian! Harry banned her from seeing Eris, ever. Even so, Eris was heroine-oic, hilarious, coming by the house to see Hermione whenever she liked in the holidays. Eris would pick up Hermione in her beat up pick up truck to go to the beach, early, most Sundays, her breasts squeezed into a tiny bikini top.
“Send him my big fat lovin love,” Eris smirks in her girlish voice.
“He’s smoking again.”
“The other day I was up there and I could smell burning. There were wisps of smoke coming from the waste paper bin. It started to fog up the whole place. He had outed a ciggie in the wastepaper basket.”
“That’s one way to let him go.”
“What, and burn us both to death, in our sleep?”
Eris is now eating the avocado like a delicious pistachio ice cream, scooping the soft flesh out into creamy green balls. Breeze blows across the tough dry savannah grass. Everything Eris does is sexy. Half her head is shaved; the other half is thin henna-coloured dreads, the dreads threaded with silver clasps. Her right ear is pierced with hoops and the inside rim of that ear is tattoo-ed with a chevron pattern. Eris has red skin and green-grey eyes; the eyes of a speculative lion. Then, there are the suits. Each one is sourced first at Jimmy Aboud’s cloth emporium in town, then hand made by a master tailor in Belmont. Today’s suit is a denim-look pimp’s affair, wide lapels, white stitching on the pockets.
Eris offers her a spoon full of avocado. “How’s your love life?” she asks, gently inserting the spoon into Hermione’s mouth.
Hermione eats the avocado off the spoon but feels too shy to flirt. Cut to the chase, Eris, so nonchalant, under the umbrella of their tree, in the heart of the savannah, at the centre of this City-of-Fools.
“Yeah, you, Miz Catastrophe.”
“You can talk.”
“I asked you first. Talk, nuh.”
“I’m too scared.”
“Talk from your heart.”
Hermione slowly flips over onto her back and stares up into the alveoli-like network of the tree’s many branches and branchlets. She feels love somewhere, a thread of a pull: she loves Eris, the tree, Port of Spain and she loves love itself.
“I hurt myself over love. And I hurt others too.”
“Yeah. Men hurt. “
“Well, I’ve been telling you not to go near them for years.”
“I know, I know.”
“And is like you go back every time.”
“To heal, yeah I know.”
“Heal? Eh? Don’t you mean hell?”
“Both. I can’t help it. It’s some kind of deep programming. It’s not a sexuality thing. It’s like a call. Joe. All the men I have been with since, are like Harry. Bad like him. All the same type…”
“An you not healed yet?”
“Well den your Theory real crap.”
“We spend our adult lives seeking love from the kind of people who resemble the same people who hurt us, as children.”
“Das the Theory?”
“Yes. That is the Theory. If the love is requited we heal. If unrequited, we get wounded again. And again.”
“Look you talk a setta shit a lot of the time, you know that? How long you went to see that shrink? Like who you like. Fuck who you want to fuck. Take responsibility for yerself, your bones, your own pussy, your sexual health. Hurt no one. All is fair. Avoid straight men, at all costs.”
“I’m serious. You can pay me three hundred dollars now.” Eris holds out her hand for the cash.
“You were married. Joe was cool. But you ended it. You’ve had love affairs since, no?”
“Well then you’re lucky. But you always seem to throw these men back in the sea.”
“Yes. Harry was a shit father and you go looking for more Harrys to heal the Harry thing.”
“And what about that Harry split us up?”
Hermione’s eyes smart. This subject hasn’t come up in a while. It is still a hard one to talk about. Their break up, aged fourteen. Some times it’s a faded jumble of images; other times it’s sharp and painful and real. Heroic teenagers, driven apart by teachers and parents. Later, in England, age nineteen, Hermione discovered cock. An older boy at a sixth form dance. They did it in his dormitory bed.
Eris took this as a complete betrayal, of course; a ‘not only are you a spoiled rich white girl, but a Goddamn fucking fake lesbian too,’ etc, etc, and she railed and complained for years and yet somehow, also, always Eris understood, that their bond was true and real.
“But we never lost each other, Eris. You know that. We’re still here, under this tree. We outwitted him in the long term.”
Eris throws the avocado aside and springs across the grass, straddling her, pinning her hands down.
“Bullshit. You know that too. Did you get over me?”
Hermione stifles her thrill. She tries to struggle and then relaxes, caught.
“No. And you know that too.”
Eris laughs. Her face is animated and alive; she is yin and yang, a handsome beautiful. Her face is man-woman, Caribbean. Like the whole damn beautiful frigging mess of people here got fused and molded into one being. Eris named herself after the story of the golden apple in the story of Troy, the Goddess who sent the big queens squabbling over who was the fairest of them all. She was born with a simple old-fashioned name, Esme. She changed it when she read the story and ran away from her family.
“Not as long as I live. I never will. You make other people boring. You know you do, Eris.”
“Heh. I’m gonna tie you to that tree one day.”
“I’m so . . . sad.”
“Why? You have me in your Godforsaken hetero life.”
“I’m almost fifty.”
“What happen, your pussy drying up?”
“You having a vanilla hetero-ageing crisis thing?”
“Look! Don’t lesbians get this?”
“Not me. Not yet, anyway.” Then she leers close, taunting, like she might bite. She flutters her eyelids.
“I love you, Eris. Ours was a requited love affair. On and off, over all our lives. You know that too. Stop fishing.”
“Yeah. But according to your Theory, then, I must be like Harry too. Bad like Harry.”
“Of course. You’re a wicked woman! Like wicked-self. You got us into so much trouble and I seem to like troublesome people.”
Eris relaxes her grip.
“I healed you,” Eris says, and winks.
Hermione remembers the mouldy jar of mango chow, the time Eris showed her the majestic marihuana plant she’d grown in her bedroom; six foot tall. They dried it and bagged it and smoked it and sold it for weeks. “Yes, a bit. And still.”
“You’re still shy with me. Like you still haven’t worked out if you are straight or not. Is that why you left Joe?”
“He had an affair, remember? Anyway, why should I have to work it out. Leave me alone.” A silence descends; nothing is dead between them.
“Have I healed you back? Just a little?”
Eris frowns. “No.”
“Because you’re a fickle cock-lover.”
Hermione goes quiet, she has thought about this a lot: what she is. “I’m a gay woman with a straight pussy,” she blurts.
“Maybe you’re just plain mixed up.”
“So, Eris, I’m not one of your healers?”
“I was and still am a disappointment.”
Eris groans. “I accept you.”
Eris makes a face.
“Did you get over me?” Hermione dares.
Eris looks puzzled, like this is a stupid question.
“I never got over your father.” With this, Eris dismounts and flops down beside her; the two of them stare up at the amazement of the samaan tree. It is five pm and the day’s heat has worn thin. It is their tree, their love affair mostly happened here, under this tree.
“So. We both hate Harry,” says Hermione.
“Man, you should exhibit him, before he dies.”
“I serious. Dat man no joke.”
“He has Chikungunya.”
“Yes. But it’s not killing him. At all.”
“Harry is unkillable.”
“Maybe I could kill him, if you like. Then we could put him in formaldehyde. I could round a few of them up, as they die off, some of his bridge buddies. We could film them talking about the good old days, before Eric Williams, and then maybe pickle them all. The Last Colonials. An Early 21st Century Curiosity.”
Eris laughs. And then her face becomes serious. “If only it were so simple. This thing called hatred.”
Hermione looks upwards. The trees branches show a pattern she has seen in a human lung. The tree and humans have the same design. The earth is one big salty ocean, Harry once said to her. Our bodies are one big salty ocean too. It is the only wise thing her father has ever said to her, ever. Aged nine. Harry arrived here by sea, a trip he’s never forgotten. Six weeks sailing south out of Southampton to Port of Spain. He met Carolina Marinelareña, on board, an ex-beauty Queen, a runner up to Miss Venezuela. Harry has asked her to shake his ashes from a pot into the Gulf of Paria. And she will do this for him, one day.
Hermione reaches for Eris’ hand and tears well. She should become a nun. She has loved over and over again. And yet, her heart isn’t healed. If only she could be innocent again, like before the boys in the swimming pool. Start again. Where would she start? With Eris: then they could run off, on her trail bike, live in the hills of the Northern Range like feral teenagers. She curls up in a ball on the savannah grass and stares at Eris’ sexy ear.
“You know that man I crashed into?’ says Hermione.
“I rang him up.”
“I don’t know. I felt compelled. His name is Isaac. He lives up in Paramin and I got the impression he didn’t like me much.”
“And so you rang him?”
“Isaac? Wait, nuh. I know an Isaac up in Paramin.”
“Is he a very good-looking black man with long dreads?”
“A bit chunky in the backside?”
“I know him.”
“Oh God, Eris, who don’t you know in the city?”
“I know his mother, Solange. She does work for us from time to time. He been up there a year or two now. Living in some ol broken down house. Growing food. Running two or three women at once. Usual thing.”
“Yep. He’s some kind of academic. Ph.D. and thing. I haven’t met him, but I like his mother. Good woman. She tell me about Isaac all the time. She want to find a good woman for him since his wife leave him and horn him.”
“His wife horn him?”
“Of course. Right here in Hornidad.”
“Hornidad, in truth!”
“Yeah, man, HORN-City.”
“Port of Horn.”
They both crack up even though it really isn’t funny. “Well, you can go back for more pain or healing or whatever you call it.”
“Nah. Something else going on with this one.”
“He don’t like me cos I’m white.”
“Great. So go make him like you! Take Harry with you, nuh.”
“You see, this is what I meant. I should retire. I feel too old for all of this.”
“Well if you don’t know how to suck a mango by now, you never will.”
“Yeah, maybe I don’t know how to suck a mango.”
“Well girl, that is the art of love, with straight people, here in Trinidad.”
“Sucking a mango?”
“Yeaaah. Especially a Trini man. You hadda suck long and slow. And then pick all those strings outta your teeth, girl. Suck that man-go sloooow and good.”
“Spit out what you doh want.”
“I hear de mango sweet. It jus stringy too. Take your time with it. Eat it slowly.”
Eris is now laying on her side and behind her the green hills of Port of Spain seem far away and quiet.
“And, you, Eris? You happy?”
“Yes. I’m happy.”
“I like Nathalie.”
“How long you been together now?”
“Four years. We want to get married.”
Tears spill from her eyes. Hermione cannot stop them. “Fuck, Eris. Really?”
“Soon. This year, hopefully. That’s out plan.”
“All this chat about me, and you had this to say?”
“ Yeah. I wanted to tell you, here, under this tree.”
Silver streams run down her face. She feels a twisted up dread in her gut. “I’m so . . happy for you.”
“You are?” Eris laughs.
Hermione nods. “Yes.”
Hermione wants to get up and run. Betrayal isn’t the word for it. It’s the end.
Hermione nods. “No.”
Eris’ face has taken on a flinty expression.
Hermione wants to kiss Eris, smother her sadness; Trinidad is a hole in time.
“Will you come?”
“I’d like you to be there.”
“I’d like that too.”
“I want you to be my bridesmaid.”
“What about best woman?”
“Okay. I’ll be that. Anytime.” Hermione blushes, wanting to cry. She goes to hug Eris and Eris pulls away, and gives her a don’t get mushy look, and then hugs her back and it feels warm and awful in her arms, like Eris is suddenly a stranger. She fights the urge to throw her off but they stay wrapped in each other’s arms under their tree. Hermione senses a shift, bigger than her.
“Hmmm,” says Eris, after a while.
But Hermione is lost in thoughts of another era, this monster of a tree, gazing upwards, imaging who they would be. This love for Eris is the only real love she has ever had, the only love that has ever lasted.