The lives of others
By Melissa Richards
Four Taxis Facing North, by Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw
Flambard Press, ISBN 978-1-873226-91-9, 191 pp
Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw. Photograph by Abigail Hadeed, courtesy Flambard Press
In the title story of Elizabeth Walcott-Hackshaw’s Four Taxis Facing North a “shade” (a creature with the gift of second sight) guides us through a future Trinidad in which an oil company has paved over the Queen’s Park Savannah. In her dystopian vision, the wealthy, “who just look like rich people during the day,” are transformed at night into jellyfish, and sleep “as still as dead fish” in the swimming-pools of their castle-houses. The poor are nightwalkers who live in “The Town of Gutters.”
There has been an unsuccessful attempt by the have-nots to claim what they believe to be rightfully theirs. Before burning the houses of the haves, “they looted and gutted the houses, they made the living room a toilet, they kicked the fathers, sexed the mothers, and made the children watch even though they tried very hard to cover their eyes and their ears with their tiny hands.” Our “shade” is the dead child of a family of haves (although lucky ones, for the have-nots let them go before they take what they want and burn down their house).
But you didn’t need a shade’s gift to see that the have-nots would want to become the haves, you didn’t need a shade’s gift to see it. There were signs planted all along the way but no one wanted to read them, so it was only a matter of time, dear reader, precious time.
The one fantastical tale in a collection otherwise rooted in a contemporary Trinidadian reality expresses an anxiety that runs through all the stories in Four Taxis Facing North. Walcott-Hackshaw’s book may be the first to attempt to chronicle that particular moment in Trinidad’s history in which society is so preoccupied with the threat of crime that, as the narrator of “Strange Fruit” notes, “we have all become detectives.” In these stories children come to birthday parties with their bodyguards, and when a father disappears without explanation he is immediately feared to have been kidnapped.
Although not exclusively, these stories are mostly told from the perspective of middle-class or upper-middle-class Trinidadian women, those who, arguably, feel this threat most acutely. Indeed, it is a range of “female” preoccupations that hold the collection together most strongly. The stories are told by sleep-deprived mothers in failing relationships, comforting their children with “imaged truths,” and eternally seeking or in conflict with their absent or dead mothers.
Despite being members of the new privileged class in Trinidad, these are women who see themselves as powerless. The stories reveal their vulnerability (not so different from the vulnerability of a little girl living in poverty in rural Point Cumana, or a boy from the wrong side of the Boulevard in Port of Spain, the characters who inhabit some of Walcott-Hackshaw’s other stories), or else the moments when these women attempt to seize control of their lives.
Her stories may sometimes succeed or fail depending on our willingness to be convinced of this powerlessness, but the fact that she presents characters who are at once insiders and outsiders makes for a complex and interesting portrait of class and race in contemporary Trinidadian society. Her characters are the high brown or the almost white, or else their wives (those, in the words of the more famous Walcott, “poisoned with the blood of both”), whose relationship with the developed world remains ambivalent, but for new reasons. They have been educated abroad. They can “tell jokes about undergraduate years in Boston, London, and Washington . . . compare Chinese restaurants in New York, or Indian restaurants in London . . . talk about museums in Paris and parties in Spain.” This adds to their social advantages at home. In “Strange Fruit”, in which elements of an extended family are brought together after an elderly father goes missing, our narrator acknowledges:
. . . those of us in the family who have studied abroad and not gone to the local university believe we have something that sets us apart from our cousins who studied at home. There is a feeling of superiority, whether justified or not. Some of us feel this quietly, other cultivate this foreign edge . . .
But this is not the whole story, for to leave the Caribbean is, in many instances, to leave the position of privilege, something that only Walcott-Hackshaw’s characters, as outsiders, will acknowledge. Thus the mother in “Here”, contemplating her daughter’s extended visit to her father in Miami as part of a shared custody arrangement, worries about how the child will be treated in Miami, because “although she looks light-skinned here, in America she will be black and will have to suffer in ways she would never have to here.” At university in Boston, the narrator of “Kite Season” becomes “the only black girl in most of my classes, even though at home no one would call me black.”
But Walcott-Hackshaw’s women are also more generally in conflict with the social group to which they are expected to belong. Their husbands are uninvolved (“The Longest Rope”), unfaithful (“The Party”), abusive (“Pine Hill”), or deserters (“Here”). Their mothers are unavailable to offer comfort, having themselves abandoned their families, or else are simply unwilling to take the daughter’s sides.
Despite this, Walcott-Hackshaw’s protagonists do not always evoke our sympathy, in part because they take so little responsibility for the situations in which they find themselves. The narrator of “Strange Fruit” turns out to know less about the truth of her family’s lives than she imagines, and she is not the only narrator whose version of events we are inclined to doubt.
At times the fault is that of the author, who sometimes overstates the case. In a story like “The Party”, the combination of shifting perspectives, complicated connections, and scrupulously drawn details conspires to rob the piece of its emotional force. The writing becomes illustrative rather than evocative, and the reader ends up feeling very little moved by the tragedy of a woman preparing herself to face a party of guests when what she wants is to leave her life.
In fact, rather than revealing the inner workings of the privileged class, Walcott-Hackshaw is often at her best when describing the fleeting connections between the lives of the rich and poor. There is a quiet resonance to her portraits of the city as viewed from the window of an air-conditioned car: a scantily clad girl, most of her tiny breasts and stomach exposed, entering a decrepit bar with a baby covered from head to toe (“The Longest Rope”); three boys who “skin and grin” as they walk Indian file along the highway, tossing nuts into their half-open mouths, the shells of which “flutter in the breeze like tiny butterflies” (“Here”).
In “The Boulevard” a young boy plans to cross the Boulevard of the title for the niece of the wealthy landowner who lives on the other side. He succeeds, if only temporarily. Ultimately real events overtake the elaborate fantasy that Tony has created. In a few strokes, Walcott-Hackshaw brings to life the relationship between the boy and the poor, uneducated mother whom he secretly curses for being a “stupid bush woman,” a woman who lets him sleep late then comes into his room with hot chocolate and fried bakes. “I pretended to be still asleep so she tapped my back lightly. ‘Wake up doudou, time for school.’ Sometimes she could be like that and I was sorry I cursed her.”
His grandmother’s death reveals that, on his side of the Boulevard, it is family relationships that are more important. The tale is beautifully compressed in the boy’s crick-crack story, which ends like the ones his mother tells:
Once upon a time I lived on a street so wide it separated the two sides like the sea separates two islands, and on that street lived a girl with eyes as green as Tobago water, and one day I would make my way to the other side, crossing over if only to get a glimpse of her. Crick crack.
But as Four Taxis Facing North reveals elsewhere, life on the other side is not without its own heartache.
Melissa Richards was born in Trinidad and now lives in London. She is a former journalist and is currently a desk editor at Hodder Education, UK.