The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Listen, the Wind: last impressions

Posted on: July 11, 2007

It struck me, more than half way through this story collection, that Mais’ fiction is prominently, even primarily preoccupied with the the idea of the inherent dignity and goodness of human beings and their claim to certain inviolable rights, with a stress on individualism, and a distinct detachment from the Christian God in the equation. The conflict is all the different ways the different parts of society, family’s and loved ones, the community and various power figures infringe or violate them. Natural rights, basically. This is not surprising considering that he lived in early twentieth century Jamaica when it was still a colony and its nationalist movement was gaining ground in the 1940’s. According to Kenneth Ramchand in the introduction Mais had been imprisoned for six months, convicted for “seditious libel” when he wrote against Churchill’s new constitution for Jamaica in 1944 that was a predictable attempt to keep its colony for handy exploitation until the end times.

In his fiction he laid things out on a smaller scale. His characters are men and women confident in or at least aware of the respect, love and good life that was their due, who have to struggle for all these things because of the tireless interference of neighbours, the tyranny of relatives, economic disadvantage, racism, the general indifference of the wider society. The story that got me thinking along these lines was “Gravel in Your Shoe”. We read the thoughts of a laundress during the course of a single day as she pondering her circumstances: her live-in relationship with her man, the financial situation, the general quality of her life, with which she seems to be content. The only troublesome part of it, for her, is the meddlesome neighbours.

She never forgot what someone had told her when she was a little girl, it’s not the mountains you’re climbing that wears you down, but the gravel in your shoe.

When the neighbours were bickering at each other, or gossiping over their back fences, she just smiled to herself, singing some of the time.

She recalls various trying past experiences with an accepting, matter-of-fact air. She refers to them as “little” gravels but it’s clear that her persistence source of discontent is her neighbour, Miss Matty. They each had a tree that hung over the other side of a shared fence, the ackee tree being hers, Miss Matty’s the custard. Being neighbourly the both pick from each others with permission and Miss Matty uses this as an in to not only gossip about everyone else but about the protagonist’s own partner, sharing her unsubstantiated suspicions that he gallivanted with other women. She feels this as a keen invasion on her privacy and wistfully considers cutting down the ackee tree as an indirect way of hindering communications. But she knows that this would only make matters worse.

If she only had the courage she would have got a man to chop down the ackee tree, and so put an end once and for all to their neighbourliness. But that she would never be allowed to hear the last of it. All the people in the lane would talk about it for months. They would build up around her such a legend of wickedness as she would never be able to live down. Never be able to hold up her head again among her neighbours. No one would speak to her. Such an act of vandalism would never be forgiven or forgotten. Their children would never be allowed to play with her children. They would be considered outcasts as long as they lived there.

This malicious pettiness can be found in all of Roger Mais’ novels. Bedosa, in The Hills Were Joyful Together, was a cowardly, insecure man who spread lies out of envy. The chorus in Brother Man was the passive, inconsistent community filled with busybodies ready to tear one down as soon as they lifted you up. In Black Lightning (officially my favourite of the lot) it was two old friends of Jack’s deceased father that sought to discourage Jack, a grown man, to abandon his art and his smithery for the prospect of more lucrative work. They have good intentions but they don’t seem to respect Jack as a mature individual who can look out for himself, and they certainly don’t respect him as an artist or his work. They represented the wider community in that little rural village who regarded Jack’s incident when lightning struck and literally blinded him as just deserts for making “graven images”.

Romantic relationships are another important element in his work. He loves to explore the highs and lows, the complications, misdirections, failure, and wonders of his characters as they each try to find that other individual with whom they can take on the world. For Mais it’s clear that after the individual, he is most concerned with the basic unit of society as he sees it, man and woman, and marriage is not needed to validate the union. So we get really sweet stories like “Look Out” in which a young girl is by her house gate at night, simply looking out at the moon and the clouds, thinking of everything and nothing in particular. A young man approaches and she asks him for the time. They hesitantly, awkwardly engage in conversation, each trying their best to seem aloof and indifferent. The girl makes no real effort to keep up her side of the exchange at first, and the man strategically positions himself close enough to the bus stop so that it may look as if that were his purpose all along.

It’s harder for the girl to maintain her end because her older brother will soon return from work. She was sent to the city from the country to help his wife with the baby. It did not turn out as she expected for the wife appears to be mentally unbalanced, to what degree no one can say, and her brother is a controlling guardian who keeps her locked up in the house at all times. Still her own interest and the man’s charm manages to lure her out of her shell temporarily and he asks her out for a walk “some other night”. She refuses, hears the wheels of her brother’s bicycle and quickly rushes him along. The fact that it’s her brother and not a husband reassures him that there is something “tacit, and implicit” between them, so he’s content to leave with a “Be seeing you”. Predictably her brother bustles her into the house, inexplicably angered and suspicious at finding her at the gate, “standing out here…for nothing”. But she has had a taste of something different, intriguing, even necessary and she is not cowed.

She moved slowly to do his bidding. As though it was his will not hers that moved the muscles in her body. That moved her legs along. But her mind. That was not his. She looked up at the face of the moon. Last night it was in eclipse. Tonight it was restless and driven, with great black clouds driving across the face of it.

There’s a similar, more triumphant moment in “Red Dirt Don’t Wash”. Adrian is a gardener at the house of a city family. He’s from the country, has little education but a love for the red dirt of the mountains, the people there, the rural love. He falls in love with a “city-bred” girl, a lady’s maid who befriends him and is clearly attracted to him but is not seriously interested. She asks patronising questions about country life but he is too enamoured and too proud of his origins to detect the mockery or care.

“They say,” she remarked, twinkling up at him, provocatively, “that all the people are red — like you. Is that true?”

He just grinned back at her for answer.

“Even the dirt is red. All red dirt. They say the people’s skins take its colour from the dirt, if they live there long enough — all their lives, I suppose.” She frowned a little, flicking soapsuds from her forearms and hands. “They say the red dirt gets on them, and even inside them, under their skins, and just stays there.”

She looked at him quizzically.

“Don’t know ’bout that. I ‘spects it’s so! Never give it no thought before.”

“It’s true. For no matter where you meet mountain man you can always know him. I guess it must be true — that red dirt don’t wash.”

You can see where this is going. He wants her for himself, undeterred by her usual choice of sophisticated city men for dates. He asks her out to the movies but she takes one look down at his bare feet and starts to laugh. As a country boy he was not used to shoes and saw little use for them in his life. He had own pair that his grandfather gave him when he was younger but they felt uncomfortable and he sold them, and used the money to buy a goat, which had now multiplied into six. “Boots wore out and got old so you had to throw them away. But a goat gave you more and more goats.” But he was undeterred, his resolve strengthened when she said she wasn’t laughing at him but that…oh he just didn’t understand girls. He was mystified enough by women, and city ways in general, to be satisfied with the preposterous answer.

He buys a pair of genuine “goat skin leather” shoes appears at her door Saturday night but, of course, she laughs in his face and refuses to go out with him in public, suggesting that they go for a walk tomorrow night to “a place we can go where nobody’ll be around…That’s a promise now.” Her point that he looks awkward in the shoes and will “always” look so may be right but it’s not for the superficial reasons she holds. Adrian heart and home is in the country and its simple ideals; he has little tolerance or even an understanding of urban materialism and all its trappings.

He turns painfully away from her hollow offer, initially fixed on breaking in the tight shoes no matter what. After walking a distance though he stops in an isolated spot and becomes indignant at her treatment, unwilling to go out with him on a proper date, but unwilling to use him for sex in private. He pulls on the love and pride of his home. “It was clean, the red dirt of his land, the place of his birth.” He took off the shoes and cut them up with a grin on his face.

It’s that pride, self-knowledge and love of self, work and home that is the source of courage for Mais’ characters, the base from which they reach for an independent, secure and happy life.

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