You Must Help Him (from Earl Lovelace’s “Salt”)

In a land of competing cultures and peoples, how to create roots and idnetity, how to weld together conflicting visions? Earl Lovelace explores in an excerpt from "Salt"

  • Illustration by Christopher Cozier
  • Illustration by Christopher Cozier

She saw him on the shore, still eighteen, with the pathos of his pulled-down cap and his dark shades, his affected seriousness, and his muffled power. Beside him in the dream was her aunt Maisie whose doorsteps she had arrived upon when she left Cascadu and who had stood barring the way to her door, saying already, even before she shifted ever so slightly to allow her to enter, “You can’t stay here long, you know. This is really not my house. I have to get permission from Ely.” And who after Florence went past her at the door had turned and followed her sullenly, her face swell up already with accusation and reproach as if all Florence had come with was her short skirt, bare arms, innocent little hoity-toity country manners and the curves of her melodious body to arouse her envy and send up the blood pressure of the man she was living with, Ralph Ely, a lumbering heavy-set man with bloated belly and a careless belch, with the title of Road Engineer, who had made a name for himself in a Public Works department, faced with the impossible costs of repairing pot-holed roads, by coming up with the idea of painting a white circle around each of the shallower pot-holes on the roads and of sticking a branch in the deeper ones, so that motorists would be alerted to the route they ought to take in the effective navigation of the streets.

By diverting materials consigned for use on the repair of the road to sites of his own choosing, Ely had built three houses of his own, one in Belmont, one in San Juan and another in Santa Cruz, in each of which he had installed a mistress with whom, on a rotational basis, he shared his days; except for the Christmas holidays, when he had the delightful punishment of having to eat at least one meal at each house. To keep Ely’s presence ever before her, Maisie had photographs of him everywhere: Ely on the beach, Ely on the road with a gang of road workers, Ely posed in front his house in Santa Cruz, his mistress looking through the window.

Maisie was always washing or ironing his clothes or putting them on hangers or putting them away in presses, or sunning them on lines. All about the house was the smell of Ely, established by his shoes, his caps, his hats, his medicines, his purgatives, the Epsom Salts, the Andrew’s Liver Salts, the Eno’s Fruit Salts, his Vick’s Vapour Rub. The whole house suffocated with neatness, the cleanness of a museum visited by no one, not a thing out of place, everything used washed and put back in its place. You drink from a glass you had to wash it, everyone functioning as a servant preparing the place for an absent master that Florence had assumed must be Ely, yet when Ely came nothing changed. He too drank out of plastic cups and heavy shop glasses, while put away were the finest of mugs, jugs, teacups and saucers.

“Summertime” was the song Florence sang that year, in the be-bop style of Sarah Vaughan, as she washed and cleaned and tried to keep out the way of Maisie and her man.

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Florence awoke with “Summertime” in her head and with the sense of the past she had left behind her, with Alford lying asleep inside her, recounting in her mind those days in the city, the marches of Black Power, the sight of people marching with their flags, their tall hair, the scraping tramp of their feet, the noise, the voices trying not to scream at last, of people breaking a silence they had lived in, speaking of the astonishing insult they had endured all these years, this wondrous exhalation of freedom, as they sought to reclaim name and dress and colour and life. She couldn’t find a job, until — Praise God! — one day, coming back from another fruitless search, she found herself in front of this hairdressing place and was about to go past it when a vaps hit her. She said to herself, To hell with everything, let me go and do my hair and look nice and go to a fête somewhere. She had her last money in her purse.

“No,” said Bernice, the hairdresser, when Florence asked to straighten her hair. “No. Look at your face.”

“How I should do it, then?” asked Florence.

“Siddown and let me,” Bernice said.

When I get up from the chair and look in the mirror I see my own real face looking back at me, and for a moment it frightened me: That is me? That is me? she asked Bernice. That is you, Bernice tell her. And when I open my purse and go to take out the money, she stop me and ask if I know anybody who could braid hair, since, with Black Power kicking hell in Port-of-Spain, Blackpeople didn’t want hot comb in their hair. Black was Beautiful. If I know anybody what? And she got the job braiding hair. That was her beginning. She had a job; now she had to find a self to go with her hair.

In the beginning, she was not in no Black Power business, no fighting against Whitepeople or whatever ideology the people was talking. I just liked the style. It just suit me. Florence just find as how her nose and eyes and the colour of her skin all fit and flow.

That year, with the encouragement of Bernice and her friend Valerie and her boyfriend Roger, she played mas with George Bailey’s band, Egypt.

She really didn’t have the money, but when she see the Cleopatra costume the pores of her skin raised. She saw herself. And when she hold the cloth of the costume up to her body, Valerie look at her and say, Yes, that is you. That is you.

And that was she. She played Cleopatra with George Bailey with her headed braids falling down over her forehead and after that it was hell. Because now she couldn’t go back to being nobody. And that is when her problems begin: because she really was this different person. Men watched her and none of them don’t know what to do with her. They find she was too picky, too demanding, like she feels she’s a queen or something; but she couldn’t turn back. It was not that she believed she was a queen really. It was not that. Is just that she was more person, more somebody who was not quite somebody, and she felt that the man she wanted would be somebody to help her hold on to that self. But where was he? Loneliness overtook her, but she couldn’t go back. And then she started on this search and waiting for the man who was to meet her on her sister’s veranda, sifting through the parade of males passing in the road in front the house until he came and saw her and out of her belief that he was the man in her future she had allowed herself to go for the lessons and write down the minutes of their meetings and wait for him to see her.

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His carelessness had set in almost from the beginning. All the tenderness was from her. He was busy. He had his politics to attend, the world to save, and he acted as if he was doing her a favour to make love to her, to hold her after their lovemaking. And she had put up with it, out of her own shame, out of her own hope, out of her fear that she would be seen as fickle, she waited, not knowing how to tell him that she was the woman he was looking for.

For nine years they faced each other with little more to link them than their lovemaking, undertaken with a sense of duty as something through which they could lay claim to whatever hope they saw in each other. Anytime she thought to leave him he would do something to open another window of hope in her heart, she to the possibility that she believed resided in him and he out of a kind of habit that had him constantly waiting also for her to change into the woman he wanted.

The call to politics in the National Party and his election campaign had kept them both busy and his victory left her shaking because between them so little really had been built that she began to think that she would lose him. It was not something that she wanted to show or to feel since between them, in place of commitment there was this sense of freedom: You do what you want, I do what I want, except that she was less concerned with her own liberty than with appearing to be imposing herself on him.

But suddenly there he was, the centre of all this attention, all these women circling around him.

“And you frighten one of them grab him up?” Valerie asked.

And, yes, that was a source of worry, but, more than that, it was Port-of-Spain itself. Alferd didn’t know the city life, the intrigue, the cleverness, the deceit, the bluffers. He didn’t know town. He didn’t know who was who. They would chew him up and spit him out, she told Valerie.

‘And why you don’t warn him?” Valerie asked.

She watched him enter his new position with his invincible smile and his country sense, making promises he couldn’t keep, inveigled into positions that upon second thought he should have abandoned but out of his idea of principle felt himself forced to honour.

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This new world mesmerized him. It was a place he wanted to conquer. It was a holy place he wanted to be admitted into. He wanted people there to like him, to acknowledge him at least. These were his challenges. All he had was the confidence in his own righteousness, in the virtue of his own goodwill.

She watched him, shy in the tumult of an importance that was new to him, performing before his secretaries, the press, the Party, trying without success to present the plans of a quickly fading and frustrated vision, the sense of action transmuted into possibilities that became more remote as he moved to make himself one of the amnesiac élite whom political power had made infallible and invincible. It was as if suddenly he discovered that he did not belong anywhere, not to the ordinary people who had voted for him, not to the corpulent wielders of power, not to the white people, the French Creoles they called them, not to the Indians nor to the Chinese. She saw him one day in the Catholic church among the white saints and Jesus, images that made him a stranger. It was ludicrous to see him speaking to a Chamber of Commerce where his was the only black face. Did he understand what was happening to him, into what milieu he had ascended? She watched him as he changed into striped shirts to enhance his appearances on television, as he put on his Nehru jackets, his Orisha dashikis, the better to relate to the racial diversity in the country, his hair cut in the latest fashion, with his party tie, his new gold ring. Everything new, everything changed, as if before coming to the House he was never anybody. His speeches which used to have, even in their confusion, a sense of wrestling with some truth, becomes easy, trivialized by the statistics that were supposed to make them more credible.

“He not doing nothing different than what the others doing,” Valerie told her.

“No, he is not,” she said. But she was afraid. He was not only seeking to change himself. He wanted to take her with him.

Unknown to him, she had visited Mother Ethel for help. There were potions that Mother Ethel could give her to give him. There were things she could put in his tea, things she could cook up for him to eat with his food. But this was a case where she had to watch him.

“Watch and pray,” said Mother Ethel. “Is the newness. Is the place, is the kind of power, it is the kind of power that they have there.”

“Is not another woman?”

“No,” Mother Ethel tell her. “The woman he looking for is you. But he don’t know it.”

“For me, the woman?”

“Yes. You must help him.”

Salt, by Earl Lovelace, was published in the UK by Faber and Faber on September 23 1996. This extract reprinted by permission of the author