Monthly Archives: November 2014

The punishment cells . . . (episode 49)

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November 28 1998

Castro Central Women’s Prison
Havana
CUBA

THOUGHTS IN ISOLATION

My mind crouches in the filth and darkness Mum. I imagine this to you, repeatedly, to keep madness away. There is no light and barely any water. I sit by the pipe, at the end of the cell, waiting for it to be turned on. My tongue bakes in my mouth. I have only been here for three breakfasts and, already, my thoughts chatter.

I pulled a guard off of Catalina; I saw his buttocks push above his trousers, the slick black of his hair. I heard her cry. I got hold of his rubber cane and whacked him across the shoulders. I have never seen a man’s face so convulsed, convulsed with its own power. They can do anything to you here. Nobody sees.

I have learned a lot in the time I have been here Mum. You told me that perhaps now, un-weighted by Austen, I would start to learn – start to think – and I know you are right. In the weeks I spent in the shared cell, I listened to Catalina talk. She told me things that you just don’t realize sitting about, drinking cocktails, in a hotel in Havana. She told me that, here in Cuba, in 1998, it is not possible to vote for a political party different to the one in power. And that, even as a school teacher, or as a patient visiting the doctor, you have a political file in your name. And it’s one which assesses your conformity to the ruling power. People are frightened to speak in case they are imprisoned for ‘enemy propaganda.’

She told me about ‘El Bloqueo’ – the blockade – which represents America’s determination to end the crushing of human rights in Cuba, by blockading free movements of trade. As things stand, not even food, or medicines, or medical equipment, can enter the country from the States. Ships can still come, from other countries, to offload these things in Cuba, but they can’t then call in at an American port for 180 days. And this must be why the water is cloudy, and swimming, with a life of its own. There just can’t be enough tablets to purify it.

I was shocked to hear Mum, that thousands of Cuban citizens tried to leave the country – on boats and rafts – as recently as 1994. They couldn’t leave by any other means because Cuba wants to keep its citizens in. Apparently, many of these ‘balseros’ died in the struggle to reach the shores of America. Their crafts were just too frail to contend with the sea. I hope none of this will be so in twenty years’ time, say, in 2018. I hope the two countries will agree on some quota for migration by then.

Other than that, I keep hearing cries through the blocks of cement. A woman is crying the same thing, over and over again. She is crying, ‘I’ll cut, I’ll cut, I’ll cut . . ‘ She was here before me. I could hear sounds coming through faintly. I have heard about this too. These are the sounds of a woman gone mad, a woman who is cutting herself, and who may go unheard, until it is too late.

I don’t think I’ll be here much longer Mum. I am a British citizen still, after all. And we live in a democracy.

Hasta siempre

Harriet

Something important . . . (episode 48)

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November 22 1998

401B Concrete Shacks
Wortlewell
CARPOOL C68 4VZ

Hello Auntie

Thank you for congratulating me on my efforts to make a new life for myself. I think any transformation of my self – and lifestyle – will take quite some time!

I did put my name forward as one who hoped to occupy the vacant position as Wortlewell town councillor. And, miraculously, I was the only one to do so. I even honestly stated that I was an active member of the British Indigent Workers Party! I am not sure this has gone down any too well with my new colleagues on the town council, but I am now a legitimate co-optee.

My first assignment has been to attend a meeting of the planning committee. And the subject under discussion was a row which has developed about the naming of a street (cul de sac actually) near the brick factory. It transpired that the property developer has wanted to call this stretch ‘Blossom Drive’ – having actually planted some flowering trees in a row along the pavement. However, the council has objected, on the grounds that there is no such species of tree known as a ‘Blossom.’ (How pedantic Auntie. I ask you.) Their suggestion to the developer was that they called the street, ‘Brick Close . . .’ The developer’s response to this, was that a street with a name such as this would be dull beyond comparison! Well, I expect you can imagine whose side I was on Auntie and it took quite some effort on my part, to restrain outright laughter! We did – eventually – agree that a compromise might be to call the street, ‘Cherry Blossom Drive’ and there the matter has rested.

I found the whole thing most taxing, I must say, and it is only the thought of the forthcoming (small) remuneration for my services, that is preventing me from jacking the whole thing in (already). In fact, I did go straight back to Concrete Shacks, rip the lid off a new tin of ‘Glustik’ and inhale deeply . . . I am a little worried about this Auntie, as my health does seem rather precariously perched at present, and – for one who is only 24 years old – my world seems to have become grey, and black, and white. How, I wonder, have I reached this point? I have gazed long and hard at the furniture I am ensconced upon and see that it is worn and greasy. I have gazed, also, at the forbidding pile of dirty plates which mound upon the draining board. It is hard to see a way through, or up.

Living at Concrete Shacks – with its attendant social issues – is not helping. The other day, while gazing over the balcony of my flat on to the car park below, I saw a group of youths kicking a football at the cars. The noise, and shouting, grew louder and I do admit that I grew shorter, in my attempts to gradually lower my head beneath this vista. Eventually, the police turned up in a single squad car. But the youths turned their anger on to the unfortunate cops and started to pelt even the police car with coins. I heard them radio for assistance Auntie, as who knows what destruction could otherwise have ensued.

I feel that there has been a ghettoization of the poor who, even in a democracy, feel at the mercy of the state. And this feeling that opportunity lies elsewhere, seems (in all societies) to turn into the anger and ugliness of the mass. I read the other day Auntie, that the richest one per cent in our society control nearly forty per cent of the economy – and that much more money is lost to the state by tax avoidance than it is ever lost by the so-called benefit cheats!

But here is where the point of writing comes in. For what is the point of writing if one doesn’t ever try to say something important?

Your loving nephew

Ralph

Operating a hoist . . . (episode 47)

mole

November 16 1998

10 Forsythia Grove
Outer Hamlet
CORSETTSHIRE ZY6 4GT

My Dear Ralph

Wonderful to hear pet (at last) of your new-found aspirations to make something of yourself! I will be looking forward to your accounts of life as a Wortlewell town councillor, should you be co-opted (or, preferably, elected) to such lofty heights. It may, however, be advisable not to mention your membership of the British Workers Party, as most citizens around town will be giving you a wide berth!

Meanwhile, I myself was recently invited to attend a manual handling class in the capacity of the person the rest of the class (a group of carers) would be practising on . . . Tea, cake, and an allocation of funds, was mentioned as an inducement to materialize on the day. I did, of course, accoutre myself in my best – black – Jane Bond-style outfit and a long string of magenta beads (I could not resist these dear). As one who is almost past her prime, it is naturally important to still make the occasional attempt to look enticing! I was a little discomfited, at the outset, when I was introduced – not as Evangeline Tankful (Dame Commander of the British Empire) – but as a lady who had recently had a STROKE! I don’t know pet. I myself would simply have mentioned it as a slight indisposition, short in duration.

Most of these carers looked distinctly stocky I must say, which did at least fill one with the confidence that they could cushion any fall from a hoist sling suspended at height (the hoist mechanism itself being situated on a long ceiling rail above the person to be lifted.) All that was required dear, was that I should drape myself upon an electric hospital bed while a succession of carers (in pairs) attempted to fasten a harness upon me and swing my inert form – on a pair of handles with hooks upon them – on to the commode situated by the bed. Now, as you know, I am not at all inclined to trust in the competence of anyone else at all – and so I craned my neck forward to get a better view of the multiple sling loops that had to be passed through each other and connected to the handles. I also craned my neck upwards. Do you think it’s quite right pet, when cracks are running along both sides of a metal ceiling rail?

One doesn’t like to upset people however, does one – especially when they are strong-looking-types leaning over in a proximity that is practically nose to nose. I did try to secrete one or two loops of magenta beads over the handles, but these were (unfortunately) assiduously removed and I was told to keep my hands – and beads – to myself. Well, my Pixie crew cut, in honey blonde, was dangling over the ‘ropes’ at one end and my (slinkily clad) black toes were similarly dangling at the other. And then up went the whole ensemble, with one of these carers pulling at handles to my back and the other operating the remote control to move me to one side. I am relieved to report dear, that they did succeed in suspending me over the commode – and then to lower me on to it – without anything fraying, breaking, or generally seizing up. And I did, naturally, decline their invitation to actually engage in some ‘private’ efflux on ‘the pot’ – keeping my undergarments well buttoned and upon me!

I was also in receipt of a rather effusive telephone call from my (even older) friend Edith, who lives just up the road. Said Edith – who has been suffering from one or two memory issues in recent years – positively waxed lyrical on the quality of friendship that I have often offered, and invited me round to visit at my earliest convenience. It did occur to me that such a complimentary few paragraphs were suspicious, to say the least of it, as Edith’s usual telephone manner is characterized by extreme brusqueness and the frequent putting down of the telephone just as one is speaking. However, off I trotted to her demesne, and there she was – prostrated in a downstairs bed – having just been expelled from ‘No Return District Hospital.’
“Well, here I am,” I announced, in my usual chummy manner. “You sounded like I should come at once!”
Edith chewed the cud thoughtfully. “Do you know,” she said. “I have absolutely no recollection of phoning you at all . . .”

I have encountered the Cosy Old Sock, just once, in another local hostelry. In the year since his wife’s death (natural causes I think pet) he seems to have taken to the imbibition of one or two pints of a brew known as ‘Brown Stoat.’ And while recounting a story about the relocation of the door to their duck house, he told me that his deceased wife had been behind it. He characterized her as ‘she who must be obeyed’ which set me on the back foot somewhat – for it reminded me of my (also – thankfully – late) spouse, Sir Charmer Tankful OBE, whose predilection it was to describe me to his cronies as: the Memsahib . . .

Yours

Aunt Evangeline

Guantanamera . . . (episode 46)

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November 14 1998

Castro Central Women’s Prison
Havana
CUBA

Querida Mama

I have just had a bundle of mosquito netting (and a rather cross note from Ralph) delivered to our cell. He says he doesn’t know why you thought he might have such a net – and that he’s had to ask someone called Hortense to run one up from some, rather florally-decorated, net curtains!

The days wend by slowly here. We seem to spend many hours standing at attention, and in full uniform, out in the compound and I have seen women faint and simply left to lie where they have fallen. We have to recite endless communist sayings, whose intended effect is presumably to brainwash us into believing that the regime is good for the people and that all comrades will flourish. But I feel mainly brainwashed by the sight of the fronds of a distant palm tree skirmishing in the wind.

One good thing is that I have made a friend of one of the women in my cell. Her name is Catalina and she has been sentenced to 30 years imprisonment for shooting her husband dead while he was sleeping in their bed. This sounds terrible, I know, but she tells me that he had beaten her, and the children, for many years – and that both her bones (and her spirit) became broken over the years. She tells me that she simply could not conceive of a way out of it, for she had nowhere else to go, and that she became apathetic and helpless. It was only, in the end, when Juan kept on whispering – at night – that he was going to kill both her and the little ones, that she, dead-eyed, reached for the gun.

In Cuba, apparently, domestic violence is not a crime in and of itself. it falls under the broader category of ‘assault’ and penalties relate to the severity of the injuries caused. Catalina tells me that the issue of ‘machismo’ is a serious one in Cuba and that men may ‘want to acquire you like an orange, to be enjoyed, or thrown away . . .’ A man called Jose Marti – he is a national icon – came up with those words I think. Well I should know what that feels like Mama, shouldn’t I? After all, I was only ‘an orange’ in Austen’s eyes, for such a long time.

So, last night, the four of us women in our cell, sang the song ‘Guantanamera’ (Girl from Guantanamo) in the light from candles in the dark. And we ate the crumbs of bitter chocolate that one of them had received in a visit from her relatives. Catalina leant her head against my shoulder and her dark hair fell against my skin. I could feel her heart fluttering against my ribs, and I think this sensation will remain with me long after I (hopefully) am freed from this place and leave her still locked inside. I think perhaps that the sound of singing voices here, represents the sound of a woman’s pain.

I remember hearing this song sang by Jose Feliciano and it has always haunted me:

‘Yo soy un hombre sincero
(I am an honest man)

De donde crece la palma
(From where the palm trees grow) . . .

Con los pobres de la sierra
(With the people of the earth)

Quiero yo mi suerte le echar
(I want to cast my lot)’

Those aren’t such bad lyrics are they Mama? I think Marti had something to do with them also.

Hasta otro dia

Harriet

Mole intelligence: EPISODE 45

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November 7 1998

401B Concrete Shacks
Wortlewell
CARPOOL C68 4VZ

Hello Auntie

You were right. My refusal to engage in any more of the Government’s New Deal sorties to extract ragwort from the verges Up North – has resulted in sanctions. I have been threatened with the termination of my Job Seeker’s Allowance unless I sign up forthwith! I spent days cogitating over this problem and, having done quite some amount of research in the Wortlewell public library, I think I may have found an answer. It turns out that one can be legitimately engaged in ‘work’ as a Wortlewell town councillor – and be in receipt of the allowance paid for performing this service – without said funds being snatched back by the Government! So, Auntie, it has only required me to discover how I might be co-opted into the position occupied by such a person . . .

Last night, arrayed in an appropriately natty, navy blue suit and (polished) black shoes, I mounted the steps of the town hall to engage in a public consultation concerning the town plan. I must say Auntie, as one who has always avoided gatherings of the local Establishment with the maximum possible zeal, I felt a distinct degree of nervousness as I entered a very large room. Would I be recognized, I wondered, as that lout attired in Doc Martin boots (and a shaved head style of haircut) who frequents the tube station entrance with copies of the Anarchist Weekly for sale? There were any number of tables arranged around the room – each of which was labelled with headings such as ‘Employment,’ ‘Health,’ ‘Transport’ et cetera and the idea seemed to be that one approached with a view to making a comment.

Behind desk number one – subject ‘Employment’ – was a rather embosomed lady whom I have often encountered in the post office queue. I don’t know whether she has actually seen me having my benefit voucher book stamped at the counter but, in any event, she seemed more than ready to attend to my view on the recent trend to centralize the job centres. I could actually feel myself getting quite hot under the collar on this subject Auntie – as there are now far fewer of these establishments and they therefore tend to be at least a bus trip away for any unfortunate individual who is required to attend them. My suggestion was that a local service be introduced at The Government’s earliest convenience! In my considered opinion, it is counter-productive to apply the maximum quantity of monitoring, supervision, and control to the struggling benefit recipient – and it surely can’t be actually illegal to advertize local jobs locally!

I thankfully had time to calm down after this outburst (on a heart-felt subject) before I approached the table concerning itself with ‘Health and Lifestyle.’ A middle-aged male had been detailed to attend to public concerns here and he did, reluctantly it seemed to me, bend an ear in my direction. I said, Auntie – before I actually had time to reflect on the wisdom of such a remark – that, in my opinion, the people gathered in the room were hardly likely to form a representative sample of the population, for the probability of the indigent unemployed being willing to run the gauntlet of the town hall steps was virtually nil! And it further popped out of my mouth that such ‘members’ of the community would be very likely to see this venue as the very bastion of the local Establishment.

‘Oh really?’ drawled this male behind the desk. ‘Do you really think that?’
‘I do,’ I asserted. ‘In fact,’ (I lied) up to very recently I was unemployed myself. So I feel like that.’ To his credit, Auntie, he did actually get out a ‘Comments’ card at this point and write down my further expatiations – to the effect that consultations should also be held near schools, supermarkets, libraries, doctor’s surgeries et cetera – if there was to be any realistic hope of a public consultation actually being just that.  And, do you know, he looked straight at me and said that he felt the community needed people like me. ‘Would I be prepared to get involved?’  So, you see Auntie, maybe this effort on my part will pay off and – not only may I eventually receive a small remuneration – I could redeem myself both in your eyes and my own.

Back at Concrete Shacks I must say that conditions are presently quite grim. It is very cold, for one thing, as I rarely have even 50p available for the meter. And, instead of being able to watch TV, I have spent several days watching (apparently) the same two house flies flying round and round. I must be feeling quite lonely as, last night, when I inadvertently seemed to smother one under my lumber jacket – I heard a Bzzzz which did not later resume – I became quite frantic. I actually ransacked my armchair looking for the corpse and, although I could not find it, I spent quite some minutes wondering how its partner would survive without it and, indeed, without love. Do house flies feel love do you think, Auntie?

Toodle pip!

Ralph

Our own encoded dream . . . (episode 44)

mole

November 1 1998

10 Forsythia Grove
Outer Hamlet
CORSETTSHIRE ZY6 4GT

My Dear Ralph

Thank you for your very informative – not to say thrilling – account of your week spent ragwort-plucking on the verges of the M1. I hope you were able to save some remnants of your clothing from the ravages of fire and that, at the very least, your favourite cap was safely stashed in your rucksack? Will you be able to exempt yourself from further sorties Up North do you think? Or would The Government impose Sanctions?

I myself have been much exercised on the plight of poor Harriet, who is still immured in a Cuban women’s prison. Would you be able to bundle up a mosquito net, pet, and despatch it to her at the Castro Central gaol? I have just sent her about 100 candles and several tubes of antiseptic cream. But, in the course of telephoning our consul in Havana, it was clearly established that one can only send non-perishable items. This is a little limiting as it would not be much fun to be in receipt of several packets of cream crackers. And, indeed, these may well arrive as cream cracker powder . . .

I have been having one or two thoughts about this political regime over in Cuba. I know you may well disagree with me dear – as one who is wont to talk in terms of ‘comrades’ and ‘brothers’ – but it does seem to me that it is in the very nature of a communist state to enforce the kind of levelling of opportunity and attainment that runs counter to the grain. For while the human animal is doubtless capable of a level of co-operation, s/he is also equally capable of (indeed requires) a level of conflict. We are not, and can never be, the same. We each aspire to enact our own – encoded – dream; indeed we are driven to enact it.

Meanwhile, in discourse of a more personal nature, I had my third meeting with the local Cosy Old Sock I may have described in a previous episode. Whilst perambulating the pavements at a distinctly early hour this morning, it occurred to me to drop a note through said Sock’s door, inviting him to partake of coffee at our usual hostelry. His house drive seemed an unduly long one and I scrunched, on tip-toe, through the gravel. I was afraid, I must admit, that the Fonz – his standard Poodle – might actually be able to discern my approach and start to emit a loud barking! But, no, there was a deathly hush even as I unsnagged the rope holding his front gate shut. I must say pet that, if ever a premises was in need of a gardener, it is this one! A most unruly range of shrubs positively stretched their thorns across the path and I had some small difficulty detaching myself from their embrace. Nevertheless, I succeeded in sneaking open the letter box and, dropping my missive therein, I retraced my steps.

He evidently received my note because he was stationed in The Cloud hostelry at the time mentioned in my note. And, during the course of our encounter, I certainly learnt quite a bit about how to recognize an upside-down Union Jack should it be appended to a flagpole in this manner. He did, I am relieved to say, seem grateful to have received my invitation and we have now reached the point of exchanging actual phone numbers! Perhaps a trip out to Gorilla Valley might be a forthcoming destination?

Take Care now Ralph. Should both you and Harriet be confined in an institution at the same time, who would I have to write to?

Aunt Evangeline