‘Sugarcane for My Sweetheart’ by Maggie Harris
This month's Short Story of the Month is 'Sugarcane for My Sweetheart’ by Maggie Harris which features in her short story collection Writing on Water.
Maggie Harris’ short story collection Writing on Water is informed by the Caribbean, where she was born, and Britain where she has lived as an adult, and through them, the wider world. Issues of belonging and migration feature, but alongside these are growing interests in voice, narrative, gardening and botany, music and family. There are both UK and Caribbean voices in these tales, told by children, migrants, mothers, grandparents.
Sugarcane for My Sweetheart
Maya is dreaming of kitchens. New kitchens. Not open to the air, wood-smoke kitchens; not kerosene stoves or coalpot kitchens. New kitchens. Kitchens of pine and oak and beech. Kitchens with solid wood doors and MDF shelves, kitchens with laminate and chrome, Mediterranean tiles, Victorian pulleys, cork and slate floors, quarry tiles.
In her dreams she enters those kitchens as she has taken to entering all those showrooms on lunchtime Sundays: with the slow excited steps of a traveller arriving. Eyes stray past customs, the loitering salesman, the swing doors past Immigration. Gleaming glass-fronted doors hold her gaze like shimmering tarmac. They draw her in like mirrors, framing the new arrival. Excitement is mixed with fear and longing, slowed by the shuffling progress of the queue.
Her kitchen measurements are clutched tight in her hands like a passport; over and over she checks them: the permit, the invitation letter, traveller’s cheques crisp and new in their plastic sleeve.
She has reason to feel afraid. On her return from the island the eyes of the officer had scalded Maya. They highlighted her like a spotlight, running her up and down as if they could see right through her. A chorus had risen from the queue like the tide, washing over her with a high Atlantic wave. In this dream her mother is by her side, her spirit hands even more frantic in death, fluttering a British passport that only Maya could see, tickets and boarding passes scattering on the desk like the plucked feathers of a broiling bird.
In her dream the showrooms stretch: long corridors of gleaming perfection. Miles and miles of shining flooring glide her on its conveyor belt, kitchen after kitchen smiling like models, preening their leaded light and bubble-glassed doors, their plaited cornices like wooden pigtails, their panels in Bermuda Blue, Nevada Blond, Pine Forest. Her dreams have kept up with fashion, solid pine and farmhouse oak that had once beamed their rustic Englishness, Middle England Agas nestling securely like the Cotswold Hills, no longer feature. Now chrome and beech and Shaker kitchens lure her, will her to run her fingers on their smooth fine grain, their granite and Corian worktops combining style and utilitarian twenty-first century designs.
The salesman disappears. Other dreamers have re-commissioned him; they sit in the conservatory-style office with their dream kitchen coming alive on a computer screen, Mr and Mrs Doggy nodding, car-window heads beaming. Their Cheshire smiles fill Maya’s vision and suddenly she is horizontal, being whisked along white corridors with ceilings of ceramic hobs, their halogen spotlights steaming her face like Granny’s Vicks. Perspiration is running down her cheeks, the small of her back. The steward has opened the aircraft door and Maya is descending. Heat washes over her like invisible rain. Tarmac ripples in the haze. The redcap boys run with their luggage trolleys. Water runs down her back. She is a dog in the shadows, turning over and over in the liquid heat, an insistent voice riding over the surf.
Denver is nuzzling his face into her neck. His hand rests on her hip. Her eyes flutter into a still-dark morning. She senses his body wakening. He is not yet, fully. In a minute he will be, and remember. He’ll turn away then, face his own wall, summon the energy to rise, get ready for work.
Beneath her the towel is damp and hard. Many washes in this limescaled water has wrung any softness out. She thinks of the towels in Uncle Danny’s bathroom, the white fleshy softness, her body cosseted, white tiles reflecting her face. There was no limescale back there. How she loved to hang the washing out then! Hook them on the line, watch them dance like kites in the wild wind, sing in a soft breeze. She had washed everything in sight, tea cloths, Uncle Danny’s clothes, her own. Just to smell them, feel them, watch them dry face up to the sun, unaccustomed in cold dank London.
The first thing they tell you when you return is to tek it easy, you back home now. So fill your eyes with the coconut trees, the endless beach, the boats turning out to sea. Lone fishermen pushed their bikes across the sand, their dogs nosing alongside. And the sky, the sky! That brilliant cobalt blue, stretching a panorama between memory and reality. Tourists didn’t make it this far. Here it was too rough to swim, the waves still angry at history, guarding the wrecks viciously. Their anger had moved from scuttles to schooners and jet skis, to slippery fishing boats with secret cargoes. And you try and take it easy. Borrow that inherent ambiance, live one day at a time. But soon you realise that what you’re doing is waiting. Waiting for time to stand still. Time has stood still for Maya in this particular place.
Waiting. Watching the shifting blues, the white haze, the fisherman becoming a dot. The clothes on the line have dried, her swimsuit a kitten at play, relishing this now-time, this brief sojourn before being folded into a drawer, nestling in the dark like a hyacinth bulb.
Maya is always dreaming. Maya has always dreamt. ‘What stories!’ Her mother had laughed, woken by Maya crying about the cane-man. ‘There are no cane-fields here, you silly child. Here, drink some sugar-water, it will calm you down.’
Maya dreams of children. Tall, brown-skinned children, running in from the sun asking for limeade with ice, American Kool-Ade, coconut water cold from the fridge. Even now, even now, with no longer the slightest chance that such a thing would ever happen, she still dreamed of herself waiting to welcome them home from school, running into a clean house with the floor swept and polished, washing clean on the line, and in the kitchen, the up-to date modern kitchen, corn-pone and coconut cake smelling succulent and sweet right up to the eaves.
The first thing she had done after the operation, on the first clear day without drugs when the sharp pain had dulled, was to slide her fingers down there, checking to see if the stories were true. Her hand had bypassed her tender stomach with its new wound, slipped into softness, parting, investigating. So many horror stories: of surgeons’ knives slipping, cutting the nerves. Of women losing all sensation there. The night ward had been alive with women tossing in their sleep, nurses prowling, whispers. She had felt so guilty. She heard her mother’s voice screaming, ‘Maya! What you got your hand in you panty for, you nasty girl!’ But she had to know. Her mind had jumped to Denver, his mouth running down her smooth belly. ‘That’s what I love about you, baby, you’re always so ready for me.’ He could slide into her anytime, day or night. ‘Like a canoe through mangroves,’ he had whispered. Only Maya knew the real truth, that this was the only place she could not submerge, could not guard, could not disguise.
Everything else, she could have told him, was in disguise. The way she moved, spoke, borrowed a terrestrial space she did not own, was not hers. But touch her there, and she woke, jumped to the touch, indeed, never slept; like the washing on the line, somersaulting with immeasurable abandon.
He props himself up on one elbow, looking down at her. She can’t look at him; her eyes seek focus on the Gauguin print, on the drape of the mosquito net, bought for style, not purpose.
‘I didn’t know this was going to happen,’ he says.
She tries to answer but the words don’t know what shape to take. She is out in mid-Atlantic somewhere, flirting with the steward, feeling like an astronaut might do when reentering the atmosphere. The Caribbean accent is like whale-song, swimming deep inside her, rippling in veins, bubbling in corpuscles. Yuh would like to try the pan-fry chicken? The voice and the sexual banter count as a package. For the first time Maya thought about herself as a package purely dependent on hormones. About nuance, verbal foreplay, legs criss-crossing on a barstool. The teasing smile on a stranger’s lips when glances dance between you even when you both know it ain’t going nowhere, but is lava of life while it’s bubbling. For the first time, on that airplane seat, Maya start to frighten that her smiling time it done. That she ain’t got nothing to promise no more.
‘Fresh fruit, vitamins, oily fish,’
The doctor only glances at her briefly, eyes glued to his computer screen where ‘D’Andrade, Maya’, heads a page listing Miscarriages 5, Hysterectomy, (recent), and Post-Menopausal Depression now being typed in.
He slides a prescription form for anti-depression pills towards her.
‘We can’t recommend HRT in your case, so this is the only way forward.’
Maya leaves the surgery, walks along North Road on a cold November day. Enters the house she shares with Denver, the dark cheerless kitchen, and lines the tablets up on the worktop. Speaks to them:
I an know how fa start telling Denver these things. Is not easy like pulling up a chair and saying, Denver man, some things are happening bodywise that making things a bit difficult. On the whole my Denver is an understanding man. What other man would let his woman recuperate in the Caribbean? Swan off, ketch a plane, siddown on Uncle Danny veranda for six whole weeks. And come to that, what kinda women in her right mind would want to step back to that ’nother country? That ’nother country of sugarcane and heat?
Maya knew there was plenty she put to the back of she mind. Denver think he know her. Love she for ten years hold her hand through every baby lost.
It was Denver who had stolen her call-name, re-christened her his Sugarcane Baby, forced her into his crotch through love-play. ‘My own piece of Caribbean ass,’ he would grunt, lured as much by her history as by her. How she gon tell Denver he sugarcane baby now dry up like cane-trash?
She did never see Denver so vex with her in all she life. Is ‘no’, she say, ‘no’. He did fling the tickets them right across the room. Ranting and raving that all the time she does talk about back-home, all the times she moaning how England hard and cold, now when she have an opportunity to go home is no she say, no.
‘I don’t know what you want, girl, I can’t help you. You gotto help you own self now. Don’t even ask where I get the money! And you know how much trouble it take to find you mother brother? How much time I spend going through your mother things what you lock up in the attic? I thought this would be a surprise! And look at the thanks I get!’
She had had no choice but to go. Re-enter that world she had left as a child. Walk down those roads. Remember them dogs coupling in the backyard? Stuck together, back to back for hours sometimes, tongues hanging out in the heat? The neighbours would fetch water, throw. Chase them out the yard and down the road still lock together, the bitch yelping. Maya did yelp once too, but nobody din hear her.
Maya dreaming ’bout sugarcane. She dreaming she out on a farm road, the heat rolling ahead of her like waves.
A man is pushing a cart by hand, no donkey, no tractor. The cart is pile up high with fresh cut cane, green and shining, their limbs hanging down sad over the cartwheel. The man cutlass is hanging down too, strap to his trousers by a piece of nylon rope. Maya get frighten because she on her own on this road and she know the man can do what he want, is she one waiting on this lonesome road. Then the man stop he cart close by Maya trembling self and throw she such a sweet smile Maya cry with the sweetness of it. His smile belying his actions because at the same time his hands reaching to pluck that cutlass from his makeshift belt and slice through the air so fast that she dint have time to know what happening till that piece of sugarcane is lying in her hand. And suck she remember to suck, even though in the dream Maya know is a dream and is years since she suck sugarcane. But she suck and suck cos she thirsty and the man disappearing down the road. Suck till is only the stalk lef, fibre, dry like string. From nowhere, as is the style of dreams, water come; and Maya looking in a pool and know why the man dint bother her. For this wasn’t Maya true self staring back at her but some old crone with a mash-up face and naked gums. Again she wake up wet and crying.
Uncle Danny, when he step out on the veranda, is a old man. His mouth mash up, he got no teeth. He has shrunk too. His grey eyes are opaque in his walnut skin, crinkled at the edges from years of squinting at the sun. He entertains her with local gossip, the fishing boat caught just last week with thousands of dollars worth of marijuana, the oil spill, the Williams boy back from Toronto building a house. Then he falls into his old man routine, nods off halfway through an anecdote. Sleeps, eats, rests. Not once in all those weeks is he anything but an old man, breathing in the pattern of sleep and wake, stumbling intermittently round the frizzled vegetable patch. Only when time comes for her to leave and the hire car waiting, does he place his skeletal arms around her and press something in her hand. A piece of fresh sugarcane. The season coming to a end now, his says, through pink gums.
The season coming to an end. Maya dreaming of kitchens. Bright clean kitchens with smooth gleaming worktops. There are windows everywhere and electric light shining. When the sweats wake her she rises, and begins to clean. She scrubs the walls, the floor, each corner where the shadows linger. She sprays ant killer in every crevice where a cockroach or centipede might hide. She rinses Denver’s lunch box out from the bleach soak and makes him sandwiches without crusts, in perfect triangles. If Denver rises, and tries to put his arm around her, she becomes wild, screaming, ‘Y’all dirty dawgs, hise yuh tails outa here! Now ah gon have to clean this whole blasted place again before the children come home from school!
‘Is children season’, she sings, as she cleans, ‘is children season.’