A tale of two women


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Category: Women Date: 17 Sep 00

Last year she was going to go to Switzerland and waitress there to support herself while she spent her spare time painting, and also use her easy access around Europe to take her where she wanted - into churches with dark interiors and frescoes, to pick little wild strawberries at Andorra la Vieja, the winding road down Seo d’Urgel and Spain, eating truffles in Perigueux, taking the bus over the Alps down into Susa and Italy.


She conjured up for us, images of ski slopes and huge, white mountains, and cups of hot whipped chocolate and pine trees. She would live the Bohemian life by night, serving drinks to ruddy men in a dress that cris crosses prettily in the front.


Then she decided she would buy a plot of land in Couva and paint all day long. She even took me to see the land where soft breezes would blow all day long in the open, plain wooden house, and the little garden outside would yield fresh, hot peppers and oranges slightly sour, cherries, guavas and green mangoes and pommecythere for chow and all kinds of sweet smelling fresh herbs for soup. She would paint to the sounds of the birds, and heavy rustle of trees, cook a bit, clean some, make supper for the children, and paint some more.


The evenings would be swallowed up by an olive and navy landscape and sky and the staccato chatter of birds and insects or a sudden welcome sound of a friend’s car coming up the long narrow driveway.


That was before she visited England. She called and said she wasn’t coming back. Not for anything was she missing out on another burnished autumn, where the sun glowed warm and soft between a thicket of trees, where you could still pick the last of summer’s raspberries and cover it with a thick lashing of clotted cream.


She wouldn’t have to cook because of Marks and Spencer’s delicious pre-cooked imitation Cordon Bleu dinners. Not to mention, the lovely comfort bread pudding and creamy custards for those days we all have when the hollow feelings inside need to be smothered in comfort food.


She would work part time she said, in her father’s stationery store, and paint the rest. On weekends, there would be the plays in Stratford and exhibitions in London, and cozy book and teashops in Oxford on cobbled streets with a view of students wobbling around on the bicycles with baskets weaving in and out of their baroque colleges.


No, she wasn’t coming back. She went on to spend a freezing New Year’s in Sarajevo to meet her friend who was working there, re-settling refugees, and came back with hilarious stories of UN policemen and hole in the ground toilets, strong, bitter, tiny, cups of Turkish coffee and driving around the breathing, taking mountains in freezing temperatures she didn’t know existed.


Because, come back she had to, for practical reasons, and any number could play. Now she’s moving to The Hague, stretching our dim memories of tulips and square, flat houses, and vague notions of a country where drugs are legal, and the men are tall and blonde.


She may stay, of course, but there’s a good chance she will go. We, her friends, know that the odds are, out of a dozen dreams, at least two will come true, and that’s enough to give them extraordinary lives.


We will, at her funeral, have a thousand nuances to remember her by, and we will celebrate her life for as long as we live.


The Realist


She is a highly-driven, practical workingwoman married to a well-off man. She pays her mortgage, and enjoys driving a nice car and going away (Miami, maybe?) “to shop”. She attends cocktail parties and is reasonably well-connected to have ambitions of power and wealth. She never dreams of living anywhere else, hot or cold; besides, being a big fish in a little pond is like a drug - ask her husband and all the big fish in our little pond. And besides, big ponds are scary because you might not be noticed there.


Her morning wake-up call is often the inchoate, illiterate abuse of an angry drugged or drunk man screaming obscenities in front of her house. Or a couple threatening to shoot one another.


At her workplace and nine out of the ten people she encounters do barely enough or less to get by. Her employees and colleagues have so little self-esteem, they think they are commanding respect when their services, be it, secretarial to administrative, are delivered in a grudging, half-hearted manner. They have no incentive to do better they say, because they are so badly paid, and the only role models they have are people who’ve made it big on the hustle.


She is ashamed when she takes visitors “down town” because it looks more like a slum than anything. All the historical buildings with delicate latticework are run down while dilapidated and ugly pretentious new structures dominate.


The busiest parts of the “city” are like a dump, a freeway for discarded fruit and candy wrappings and fly-away, torn newspapers. She visits the cemetery for some quiet time at the graveside of her mother and encounters yet another swearing man who tries to intimidate. She sees vagrants crawling out of the tombs, overgrown grass, water collecting around gravestones, a breeding ground for disease.


She comes home to be told five of the teachers in her son’s secondary school didn’t come out to work today. She visits a friend, to be told that he was held up in front of his house in a so-called respectable area in the West at ten in the night, while seeing some friends off. At the gate, everyone shrugs. The rich and elite don’t complain too loudly for protection because they know they perpetuate poverty with their miserly salaries.


And the poor and aggressive respond to charity by demanding more of it, sometimes with threats, sometimes with guns. She knows  both sets are hustlers. Merit, discipline, integrity, are passe old-fashioned words buried with the last century.


But she takes comfort in her steadily rising bank account, new house, and wears red to all the football games, plays “mas”. She, like her friends, doesn’t ask for or expect accountability from the Government, or trade unions or business, or any other profession.


Why speak out against a system that keeps her comfortably off and affords her fashionable Caribbean voile gowns? That’s the realist in Trinidad, and what she sees is what she will get. One day, many years hence, many important people will attend her funeral. Her children will fly home from their jobs abroad. They will say nice things about her. But it will all be very ordinary and very forgettable.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur