Place of writing: Ramsgate, Kent. More specifically, I wrote from my boyfriend’s garden and then later on, while editing, in my bedroom at the top of my house, where you can see a sliver of sea over the tops of houses.
When I was writing for Times Shifting, I was staying with my boyfriend because I wasn’t able to stay with either of my parents for a little while. I was trying to find little places and pockets of time just for myself, where I would be able to think clearly, undisturbed. I was feeling very paranoid and afraid of catching Covid19, so I was anxious about going to the shops or even going for a quick walk.
It was really important for me to write during that time because I found writing and having discussions was a way for me to analyse how I was feeling and compare that to what was happening around me. I could process the fear I held about the BLM protests, the fear of worldwide trauma, government neglect and insufficient healthcare provisions, along with my greatest fear: death. It was good to be able to put that somewhere.
* * *
… the sky is an ill-fitting duvet spilling out of its splotchy cover (courtesy of too many washes and half a cup of lukewarm tea balanced on a knee). Hopefully, soon, we can shake off the cover and be left to bundle up under a warm, white duvet. Back down – I skewer a cube of watermelon with my fork and pop it in my mouth.
Mum’s chopped me up some apple, kiwi and melon from the local greengrocers and left it in an enamel bowl in the garden. A push for me to get some fresh air after four straight days holed up in my room.
To the side – a lilac intrusion on the otherwise murky green garden. “Hey,” Gemma calls, waving from the side gate. She’s followed by Liv, whose silver cornrows outshine my tight ginger curls by a long way. I realise Mum must have invited a couple of my closest friends about the same time as she wrenched back my brown curtains and hauled me out of bed.
“Ah shit, Yvie, bleaching did not work well for you. It’s been what, two weeks since you dyed it?” Liv says, raising her eyebrows and clucking.
I let out a short exhale from my nose, which I hope resembles a laugh, planting both hands on the arms of my chair to hoist myself up and go hug them – I stop myself at the last minute, doing an awkward bum raise to welcome them into the garden. The world is in quarantine. Even though those two can’t see it, through the weeds and the jumble of chard and tomatoes and courgettes Mum is attempting to grow, the garden is divvied up into careful sections, so visitors can stay two metres apart at all times. Gemma and Liv dodge round where I’m sat by the vines plump with unpicked wine grapes, following the socially distanced trail like obedient, little guinea pigs. They march through the grass to avoid the odd cleared bits of ground. Mum’s set up plastic lawn chairs with uneven legs over on the other side of the garden, beside their own personal plastic table.
“So, how’ve you been?” Gemma asks. Gemma’s awful at filling gaps, but always tries anyway, filling those little silences between the end of laughs and the natural progression into a different thread of conversation with her painstaking ‘Soooo’s or ‘Anyway’s.
“I’m all good,” I say, running a tongue along my gums as I fish for something satisfying, yet vague to say to forego any further questioning. “I’ve been baking.”
In reality, I’ve been burning. Up by the slightly damp – Mum: “It’s dried now!” – ceiling, plumes of smoke rushed around the room. Whacking the temp up to 240 degrees to cook the Victoria sponge quicker was not one of my better decisions. Back down – two little caricatures of Mum and me waft the smoke alarm like two devout followers fanning our saviour, our prayers taking the shape of curses strung together more and more elaborately under our breath. Later, we’d salvaged what was left of the cake. I used a palette knife to scrape off the layer of burn and found there were little shots of black stuff all throughout the sponge.
Mum took one bite and said without any hesitation, “Oh no, love, you can’t eat that.”
This answer seems to satisfy Gemma and Liv, who nod seriously. If you aren’t baking, dyeing your hair, having an existential crisis, or learning Mandarin, then you aren’t doing lockdown justice. Productivity plagues the mind, as much as the virus destroys the immune system. Or weakens the lungs. Or breaks the spirit. Typing in Covid19 into Google produces a myriad of different sites all estimating to what degree this virus was expected, how to prevent its spread and whether it might continue in different spikes. It’s a minefield.
“What have you guys been up to?” I ask.
Gemma launches into something similarly vapid, which is a relief. She contemplates whether to copy Liv and go for silver box braids next time, or just go for the rainbow variation of Fulani braids she’s always dreamed of. Liv tells her to go full rainbow. I tell her to go silver just to rattle Liv.
“Fuck off,” Liv says, grinning. Gemma and I share a look – “What? Oh, you can both fuck off, you are NOT getting silver hair” – because if she did dare to go silver while Liv still had her hair in those cornrows, Liv would go batshit. She’s not a superficial person. She adores poetry, both reading and writing the stuff, and is fascinated with the surreal, the sublime, the diaspora – but she also loves her tattoos and her hair. One time, Gemma had to comfort her after sobbing for three hours straight over a tattoo of a fruit tree, because the message wasn’t entirely there. We’d made sure to tease her mercilessly at a later, less sensitive date.
The conversation turns to what Liv’s been doing. “I’ve been reading a lot,” Liv says, just as brief as I was. She turns her head to me. “How come I didn’t see you at the march the other day? You said you were coming.”
Back down – the ground is broken and cragged, with dandelions and grass stubbornly tearing out of it. Mum has taken a lot of time planting new bits in the garden and drawing up endless grids, significantly more than she’s spent on general upkeep. It stops her mind from ticking onto her listless daughter, who takes a trip down to the loo or the kitchen cupboard where the biscuits are stowed away for “cheat days” every eight hours or so.
“Yvette? Hun, are you alright?” Liv says, tilting her head to try and meet my eyes.
“Yeah, yeah,” I say automatically, “Sorry I didn’t make it to the march. I had really bad cramps.”
Really bad cramps loosely translate to me heading out all in black, hair wrapped in my plainest headscarf, fit with a placard screaming “TRANS BLACK LIVES MATTER” and again being curbed by what has happened and by what continues to happen every time a young black woman giving birth isn’t given the right attention, every time a CV gets cast aside because of the non-white surname. Mum helped guide me back in. She held me until the panic died down.
“Mm, really?” Gemma says, staring at me and twiddling a box braid in between her thumb and forefinger. “You know, we’re always here for you.”
I affix the appropriate smile onto my lips. Rocking forward on my deckchair, I hammer apple slices onto my fork and force myself to swallow them slowly. “I’m all cool, really,” I say. I prefer having my friends at this distance sometimes, a couple metres away.
Up – the sky tosses and turns, unable to rest easy. Back down – my two close friends perch on their rickety chairs towards the back of my garden. They’re hemmed in on one side by unruly hedges scattered with holly, on the other by tall grass and patches of upturned soil where new veggies start to grow and, of course, by me. Liv’s brow is furrowed, lips parted; she is on the edge of asking me something. Propositioning her care in a small enamel bowl, offering me something to nibble on.
Gemma often doesn’t have the right words to reach out. Vulnerability makes her itch. She prefers gestures, like spending a day and a half braiding my hair when I was consumed by the state of western capitalism at 15, or when we were both 9, drawing me my favourite Pokémon character, Lucario, when I was deeply upset with her for not including me in her new group of friends. Now, she uses hugs, her favourite Jamaican dishes and sewing.
“I find it hard to get out of bed sometimes, thinking about it,” Liv says simply, as if she were describing brushing her teeth. “Wondering whether I should have children, knowing the odds are stacked against them to even finish school, let alone survive past that.”
Gemma stays resolutely silent, picks at the hem of her lilac top. The air starts to rustle, a slight disruption. It is unsettling, how up, down, everywhere, all I can see is Gemma shot while she’s out on a jog, Mum choked to death at a bank, Liv shoved against the floor on her next fight. Like the credit reel at the end of a film, I can see how their deaths would be justified because Gemma started running away quicker and it seemed suspicious, Mum had missed a couple of rent payments, so she was a criminal anyway, and Liv had acted out when the personnel pushed her. It’d be OK, because their existences weren’t really valued in life either.
I match Liv’s even gaze and arrange my face into an origami smile. “I don’t think like that. Gotta stay positive.”
All writing, all images © The Imagining History Programme UK