Su-Su

Our telephone su-sued. Click, click, the call ended, but the noises did not stop. Be quiet now, and wait a moment more before replacing that heavy black receiver. I could hear it, a soft, sleepy-sounding breathy air that echoed carefully all down the line. A hollow waiting sound. Somebody’s out there. Someone’s listening.

– from The Water Here is Never Blue

One of the greatest joys in having a book out there in the world is hearing from readers. I’ve had people track down my phone number, search out my mailing address, and find me online.

Today another letter arrived in the mail, this one from a reader who worked with my father on Timor and who remembers me from that time. He confirms suspicions that Dad was “keeping an eye” on things in the many countries to which he travelled and reporting back regularly to embassies and to Ottawa – not, as he writes, “in the James Bond type category” but in a way that was considered pretty normal for the times. Call it what you will, a spy is a spy is a spy.

Let me tell you more. Here is chapter 7 of The Water Here is Never Blue.

Su-su

Oh my, this land is full of things outsized and over big. Creatures grow much larger than they do in other lands, much larger than they should.

Guyana’s marabuntas—those are wasps—grow big as hummingbirds, deep-black with yellow wings and three-inch legs that hang below their bodies, barbed and swaying side to side as they fly past. They fly past and shake up all the air around. They vibrate the air, and it thrums deep, low low, as they pass by. You hope they do. You hope that they pass by, because the story is a marabunta sting can kill, and sometimes you don’t hear those marabunta wings until the marabunta is about to land beside your head. Who knows if that story’s true. I never met a Guyanese who ever got a marabunta sting. But, just in case it is, in case it’s true, run run away when marabunta wings set air vibrating. Spiders too, the ones they call Goliath, spin their webs across streams and creeks. They catch leaping fish and flying birds. Like something from an Aesop’s fable, that Goliath spider grows as large as a dinner plate. My father told us he’d seen such spiders in the jungle, and there were pictures of them in our schoolbooks at St. Rose’s.

Rodents. The largest rodent in the world lives there, but it is not rat-like at all. The capybara comes in sizes like a Labrador, a dog, and wanders through the swampy forest on its two-toed feet. They call it water pig. Its nose is blunt, its ears are small, and it looks innocent. The labba, that’s a rodent too, with spots all down its sides just like a deer. The labba comes out only in the night, and the Guyanese will tell you that this creature is a special treat. If you eat the labba and you drink black water from the creeks, the Guyanese su-su that you will come back to their country. You will return.

“Su-su”—that means gossip, talk and whisper, spread rumours and tell tales. Spread rumours of one sort or another, tell tales about your neighbours. All sorts of things su-su in that strange place. Marabuntas. They su-su, su-su a warning of their coming. Buzzing just to let you know they’re on their way. Crickets too. Crickets racket up the air at night, competing with the Who-you birds that sing, but only in the dark. Frogs too. Frogs in all canals make deep drum calls from one to all the others. Dogs bark, bark out in pitch-black night from places you can’t see, but you can hear them barking in those hidden spots. Screen door slams somewhere and sets the dogs to barking, each one setting off the next down darkened streets and through the neighbourhoods. They wake you with their canine shouts. “Soft-foot, soft-foot! I hear you. I smell you in the dark. I know you’re there.”

Other things su-sued as well.

Our telephone su-sued. Click, click, the call ended, but the noises did not stop. Be quiet now, and wait a moment more before replacing that heavy black receiver. I could hear it, a soft, sleepy-sounding breathy air that echoed carefully all down the line. A hollow waiting sound. Somebody’s out there. Someone’s listening.

My mother told me with a little shrug the phone was fine. It was just somebody listening in on all our calls. She shrugged and said, “We’re being tapped.”

Tapped? I knew what that meant. Oh yes I did. I had watched Watergate. I watched the Senate hearings back at home in Canada before we left. My father told us history was being made (it is always being made), and he made us sit, day in day out, the curtains drawn to make a gloom so we could catch the details on our black-and-white TV. It’s true. We learned it’s true that people lie and others spy, and sometimes both get caught. And now we were being tapped. There was someone out there, somewhere in Guyana, who was breathing in our phone. I heard him breathing quietly. He was listening. He was spying.

What secrets did we have to hear? What secrets did he listen for? Listening to my mother make a bridge date or to my brother plan a tennis game? I thought, again, of Tiger Bay and women by the pool and other stories that I’d heard since then. Maybe that listening man was hoping we would talk about potatoes. We had asked the next expatriate who was coming down to Georgetown to smuggle in potatoes, just a few, because we missed them. We missed potatoes. Potatoes weren’t allowed in Guyana, because they wouldn’t grow in that hot place. Burnham and his government had ruled Guyana was a self-sufficient country. No imports, like potatoes, were allowed.Could that be why the someone out there listened to our phone?

I picked the phone up almost every time I passed it in the hall. I hoped to hear him listening as I listened back. Now I was spying on the spy. He’d been listening to me talk with my friend June, two teenage girls complaining up and down about our homework, complaining all about the nuns who never seemed to take a break from watching us. Listening while we made plans to meet up at the Astor to see The Towering Inferno? I wanted to say into the empty phone, after June had hung up at her end, I wanted to ask the listening man if he had seen the movie, if he liked it. I wanted to ask him what his name was, what he looked like,if he was bored.

Listening to listen just because you never know what you might hear?

It seemed that everybody listened in that town and everybody also su-su-sued. The man at JP Santos, where “one good tin deserves another” but all were dented and rusty, that man listened to my mother talk while we were waiting in the sugar line. That line was long despite the fact that sugar was grown right there in coastal fields. But sugar grown in coastal fields was not for Guyanese, oh no it wasn’t. Sugar grown in coastal fields was sold to sweeten foreign cups of tea. All was sold except a little bit that was rationed to the people who had grown the stuff. So we stood in lines to buy our sugar ration. Some people grumbled and complained, but all were careful to keep their voices low low low.

While we waited, that man listened to my mother talk, and then he sidled up, sideways shuffling, to stand beside my mother. He bent low and, after swirling round his eyes, asked her in a su-su voice if she would sponsor him to Canada. Oh Canada. He even knew the words. Oh Canada was where he wanted to be, not there in Georgetown, no no no, not there in that fresh country so recently released from its colonial ties, not there. Not in that place that then, just four years after independence, was already having new words like “co-operative” tacked onto its name. Co-operative, where everybody worked together to make everything the best. Where everything was shared. He didn’t like the sound of that. Things were changing up too fast, he said, and he wanted out. Here, he said, it’s all a mess, a mess and chaos too.

We’d heard that before. He was not the first. Everybody knew we were Canadian, and everybody wanted to ask—and some did ask—if we could help them leave their home. They wanted to leave that place, that place where parrots decorated trees and bananas grew on boulevards. They wanted to leave that place that had just become their own, and that was a thing I did not understand. I liked it there, even if sometimes some things were said at me with voices laced in anger. I did. I liked Guyana.

We’d heard that before, that “will you help me leave” su-sued at us by men we’d never met, and so my mother had her answer ready. No. No, we cannot help you move to Canada. Well then, he said, could he buy money from us? Cash? Canadian, American, or Brit, he didn’t care so long as it wasn’t Guyanese. Anything would do. He’d buy it all. Now that was something else we’d heard before, as well, and everybody knew it was illegal. It was illegal to own money that wasn’t Guyanese. Even I knew that, and my blue eyes were watching as that stranger man in JP Santos shook out his sweating whispered words, his hope for foreign cash, which everybody knew you were not allowed to sell or even carry in your purse or in your bag, can’t put it in a drawer at home or in a safe or in a box or anywhere. Can’t have it anywhere. We all knew that, and so I wondered why he asked. Why did he ask for something that he knew he could not have? What su-su stories would he tell if she said yes? Who would he tell? What would he say? Now I start to wonder.

Everybody su-su-sued. At school my friends and I su-sued. We talked at school while we ate lunch, oily Chinese noodles tasting faintly curryish. We sat outside, beneath the science wing, long tables in between the concrete pillars holding up St. Rose’s newest classrooms. We sat at tables spread with white paper-cloth, on benches lined by girls in pastel uniforms. Everybody there su-sued. Breeze blew and paper lifted and fell, our plastic plates were lightened as we ate our food, and in that breeze we had to hold things down or plates would fly and make a mess. We did that automatically while bending heads together, theirs all black and mine bright blond, but then I’d been there long enough that I didn’t think of that. These were my friends. I was one of them, and I’d forgotten how much my head and skin stuck out.

We talked, our voices low as any JP Santos lineup man. Things were changing. Change was what we talked about. St. Rose’s, some had heard, was being taken over by the government. What? That can’t be true! Oh yes, it is. The nuns, the Ursulines whose school it had been right from the start, from back as far as 1847, had given our St. Rose’s school to Burnham and his government. They had to hand St. Rose’s over. Farida said that they were told they must. No, no, said June. They gave it freely to the state. That’s what we all must do. The state, the people, that’s what that means, doesn’t it? The state, the people now, are taking everything: sugar fields, big big plantations,bauxite mines. I’d heard my parents talking about the companies that once were owned by Canada but then were owned by Guyanese. That’s what nationalization meant. Guyana was a Co-operative Republic, and all must work together hard to make Guyana’s future shine.

That was something we St. Rose’s girls could understand. We wore our pins. Those pins said “Serviam.” We were St. Rose’s girls and we all worked together, everyone for all. Farida, June, and me, we were in Merici House, green coloured to mean vigour, and our motto was, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” We understood. We knew how to work together, because we did that every day at school. That year Merici House beat all St. Rose’s others for points. We bested all, and that meant beating Breschia and Lima and Loreto and Cologne. We took a first in sports and also in the drama competition. We’d staged Odale’s Choice, and even though the curtain dropped and left the body, played by Kim, on view for all to see and all did see her wriggle-wriggle back beneath the curtain like no dead body ever has, despite that, we won the cup because the teacher-nuns all said we showed a spirit strong in teamwork. We understood co-operation, sure we did.

June poked her finger on our leader’s face. It was there, glowing in a halo, on our notebooks. Comrade Prime Minister Linden Forbes Burnham on every book that each and every student in Guyana used. Smiling all the time. June tapped her finger on his face and said he’d lead us all to greatness, but only if we worked together. Co-operative, she said, meant that everyone must share and share alike, and all things Guyanese (and things that once belonged to others like the British and the Dutch and even Canada), they would be spread and shared amongst the entire population. That’s what June said. It was our duty as St. Rose’s girls to work hard hard to help Guyana be the wonder it could be.

It’s not just St. Rose’s that is going to change. The government is taking over everything. Farida said that in her su-su voice. She said it right at June. But, why so hushed and secret sounding? That’s no secret. Socialist and socialism—those were words we read each day. Headlines big and black shouted: go out and spread socialism, says pm. Things will change, and Burnham said that change must happen fast. So every day we read that mines and corporations, banks and stores and farms, plantations growing sugar and rice, and smelters where Guyana’s bauxite was made into something else more valuable, all these and even things like schools could not be owned by anyone except by all. Share and share alike.

No need to su-su-su. The headlines told us: education must be tool for socialism, and we’d been told this face to face, right inside St. Rose’s walls. Comrade Reid told us. Deputy Prime Minister Ptolemy Reid—but just called Comrade since parliament had voted “yes” on that—came to our school and explained it all to us. We were the people’s students. He named us that. We were the people’s hope. That sounded like a title: The People’s Hope. His words wafted out from where he stood up front onstage, wafted out across our turned-up faces. We sat in straight-backed chairs neatly lined in rows across the floor in front of him, all seven hundred of us listening to him tell us we were Guyana’s biggest hope, or one of them at least. We had a job to do. We had a job to do in this new revolution. Revolution? We opened up our eyes. Oh yes, that’s what he said. He said “revolution” and said we all had a job to do. He said that we, St. Rose’s girls, The People’s Hope, would have to be courageous and determined. We, he said, would have to sacrifice some things. What? What would we have to sacrifice?

He said the way that things had been must be destroyed, smashed totally and replaced quick-quick with something new, with something different. He called it “the old order” and said it had to go. It had to be replaced with socialism, with everybody sharing everything. He said there was a struggle coming, a struggle up ahead, but we, The People’s Hope, we would lead the fight. We sat silent. Some were wondering what all that meant, and others knew just what.

I didn’t understand, at least not very well, and when I asked my father, he just snorted. He was sitting in a Berbice chair out on the balcony with breezes blowing smells from passion flowers growing on the fence below. Soon we would eat the fruit. Yellow globes with soft pink interiors. My father dipped his paper down and looked at me. I had interrupted him. He paused, maybe wondering if this question was a worthwhile one. His blue eyes were creased and crinkled up a bit, so I thought that he was going to tease me. I told him about the minister, about what Comrade Reid told all the St. Rose’s girls when he came to the school and said we were the people’s hope. My father put his paper down beside his chair, sat forward, looked at me, and said that legislating attitudes, passing rules to force people how to behave never works. Wind shifted the paper at his feet. I saw a headline there, something about China and a loan. $22 million to the Guyanese. Who do you think will spend that money on their own big houses and big cars? Who do you think will get to make the rules, he asked? I wondered about that. It was true, at school we worked together, we all co-operated, but we did not make the rules. Would people have to sneak and su-su-su if they all liked each other, liked the rules, if they all got along? Maybe that’s the sacrifice. He said, that sort of thing, that talk of all for everyone, was just a ruse. A ruse, I knew, meant a trick.

My father told me that the government, “the Burnham crowd” he said, was playing tricks on Guyanese. That socialism talk masked dictatorship and that would make some rich and leave the others poor. It would not make them better off. He said that communism-socialism legislating attitudes wouldn’t change a thing for most. Guyana and the Guyanese would suffer for this change; this was dictatorship, it was the rule of fear. Don’t you see that? He crossed his legs, one sandal dangled at me from the end of his pale freckled toes. He settled into talk about corruption, about greed, about scare tactics, pitting little people against each other. He leaned forward, stared his clear blue eyes at me. I knew that look. I’d seen it on his face before. I remembered when he used to tease me, long before we left Canada, he’d tease me with that look. He’d ask questions that confused me. He’d ask me things like, “If no one sees the tree fall in the forest, no one’s there to hear it fall, does it make a sound?” I would answer back, “Of course it does.” But, that was not the end—of course it wasn’t—because you never really know the answer to that question. It’s assumption. That’s what he explained and then went on to where he always meant to go. He’d say, “When you’re in bed at night and in the dark, and nobody is there to see you, nobody at all, how do you know that you exist?” Long before we moved to that strange place, my father’s clear blue look and what always seemed to come with it would often make me cry. Not anymore. Oh no, I wasn’t five years old. I knew that look and didn’t cry anymore when I became confused. Sometimes, by then, I even liked my father’s tricky-teasey questions. Don’t be fooled. Don’t assume. And don’t take anything for granted. Think clearly, think the problem through, line up your facts in tidy rows, make sure the beats are even and don’t jump and jive. Use logic in the answer that you give. His crinkles smiled at me. Encouraging. You know you can. I said, “People want to leave Guyana. Some are scared. Not everyone believes the speeches.” That’s right. My father picked his paper up, leaned back, and flicked that paper open wide. Let him read in peace.There were headlines staring at me then: price control cops swoop down on city shop-owners. A crime was solved through operation silent witness.

Sacrifice. In speeches and in papers I saw “sacrifice” most often when I saw “co-operation.” June said that it was not a sacrifice if everybody worked together for the new Guyana. She said that was why St. Rose’s nuns had given Burnham’s government their school. June told us that meant there would be boys among the girls next year. What? Oh yes, oh yes, there would be boys. Why else, she said, was Mr. Sankat with his black beard and thick black hair teaching maths that year? No other men had ever taught St. Rose’s girls. That year he had joined the teacher-nuns and taught maths to girls about to graduate, the older girls, the ones who soon would head off to university where men, we knew, were common. They weren’t inside St. Rose’s walls, but June said that was a change, a sacrifice, that was coming soon.

In midday heat cicadas sang, droned high and loud. In Georgetown they were big as mice, big and grey and scaled but hardly ever seen. Their song started small and almost tentative but quickly grew to deafen and to shatter all your thoughts. They sang, it seemed, from right inside your head. It’s heat that sets them off. They sang loudest on the hottest days. It was hot right then. Farida and I sat in shade on steep stairs that led to open doors, wide and high and very bright out there, outside St. Rose’s walls. We were in the shade, inside the walls and looking out and waiting, surrounded by cicada sounds, waiting for our parents’ cars to pick us up.

She said in su-su voice that mixed in my head with insect song, “Nah all who go ah church house go fuh pray.” Not everything was as it seemed. I knew. Some people lie. She said, “I’m scared.” Her parents talked. She heard them say Guyana was a mess. The country was in crisis, and it was quickly getting worse. And now, and now she said, there is the National Service. Guns and mud and uniforms. No girl, no boy or girl, could go to university, not there, not in Guyana, unless they first marched in mud and wore an army uniform and shot a gun. Unless they spent a year or more in camps, camps far from home, far in the middle of Guyana where nobody lived. Far far away where nobody was watching. You’ve seen the photos in the papers. Yes, I have. A girl, fourteen years old, was marching with forty other girls who marched among two hundred and eighty others. They were marching then. The Great March, that was what the papers called it. Great Marching all the way from Kimbia to Georgetown, one hundred and sixty miles through swamps and creeks and forests that the papers said were “virgin.” That fourteen-year-old girl posed with a gun, a machine gun in her hands held up across her chest, her fingers spread and one was on the trigger. She didn’t smile, but that was okay because the march was serious and hard. The job’s important. Sacrificing for the greater good. She was helping Burnham lead us, lead Guyana, to our future. Far away. That day, the paper said, they would march from something called the Burnham Ideological Institute to someplace called Garden of Eden. Ideology and Eden. I thought that sounded nice. I liked the name. It seemed, to me, just right.

But, Farida whispered, “far away.” Those camps were far away. She heard her father su-su words like “rape” and “race extermination.” Those roots of discord run deep, but Burnham found a way, her father said, to shift the balance. Shift Guyana’s racial balance in his favour. Shift through sacrifice, through rape. Farida’s father said this in a quiet voice, but Farida heard. She heard and said to me she would not be The People’s Hope, she was not going to be a people’s student. Oh no. She is getting out. Her parents, they were looking for some place for her to go. She was leaving for some other place. It might be Canada. Far far away. Oh Canada, where Burnham’s revolution cannot reach.

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