from BAN en BANLIEUE
75. “We walk through the rusted bracken to the lido, to the place where the Park Woods give way to a cultivated beach. The darkness beneath the trees is a treatment, something a person might seek out to modify other sensations. It’s a thick balm made from summer herbs and cooked in a pan. Comfrey turns the skin green where it sits. And if London, in turn, is packed inside the remnants of this forest, I can describe it only because I lived there and recall these themes, which are not themes. Returning, I change at Baker Street and take the Metropolitan line north. Where it ends I get off. Start walking.”
-- Ban, who lived for the first nine years of her life at 76 Lansbury Drive, Hayes, Middlesex and so cuts back one, revving, slipping on the wet grass, to begin. Will you give a hand to Ban? Do you have a sentiment, do you have class? Let me tell you before you extend yourself that Ban is disgusting. Let me tell you that Ban is a difficult person to love, full of transience. I could tell you things about Ban.
76. “Back at the house, there were some sugar crystals on the carpet. I knew I should hoover them up before they got ground in. My husband slamming doors, etc, banging around, you should do this, you should do that. My son threw in some white bin-liners. I was like – thanks? But later, when it was time to make something to eat, I’d lost track. I didn’t know whether to defrost the meat.”
-- Ban’s friend at KFC, during lunch on a plaza bench. Ban is pure sympathy, still in uniform, one of the girls. That’s something that’s come clear to me over the years that I’ve known of her, through others and finally, though it was too late, in person: Ban wants desperately to carve out her body from her body, to conceive herself with a human life in mind. Whatever. I can’t bring myself to do much more than tell what happened. Ban on a bench, passing, nodding, brushing the crumbs from the burger off her rough red skirt.
77. “We wanted to look for bottles, the tiny bottles we had heard were left in the roots of oak trees by elves. My dad said: “Be back by four.” And we leaped from the car into the rain. It was raining, but only lightly and we had anoraks on. I recalled the haystacks I’d once seen, at the very end of the park, where a gate was, and a white house with a thousand glittering windows. Once, in the private meadow edging the park, I saw riders in their scarlet coats. Their horses had coats. I’d shouted: “Oi! Over here! Yoo hoo!,” longing to touch the dark brown fur and feel the warm breath on my face. So I said to Thippy, come on. Thippy was a Sikh boy with hair down to his waist. Out of view of my father, he took off his pint-sized turban and let it fall. We said we’d say we were sisters, if someone asked, as we sometimes did at Balfours when we went to buy sherbet with ten pence stolen from the kitchen jar. It took two hours, that afternoon, to reach the haystacks and during our walk, we understood, in our hearts, that returning to the car would be just as bad as going back later. It was all the same. When we reached the gate, it was pouring and our hands were blue on the backs of them from the cold. A creamy mist had risen from the grass. From this mist appeared a horse, a completely white horse with mud-packed legs, and the rider tugged it so it came to where we screamed: “Horsey! Over here, horsey!” And let us pet it, forever, chatting, a man. When we got back to the car, we were terribly wet. We got into the car, a blue Ford Cortina dented silver from my father’s many accidents. We got into the car and in slow motion my father twisted from the chest up, from the driver’s seat, to hit my face so hard the side of my head hit the window. At this moment, I became Ban. When Thippy grew up, and his own father dragged him home from the school disco at Villier’s High School, and beat him on his legs and back, he became a Sikh fundamentalist. He’d grown a beard by seventeen, and refused to meet my eyes on the rare occasions his parents forced him to come to our house for a Friday night dinner. He wore a black turban with a saffron headband and when he completely grew up he bought the house next to his parents and they built a corridor between the two. But what I’ve left out is his brother, a boy I knew in childhood who also made me Ban. Not because he accompanied me; on the contrary, because he, too, made me weep. He wasn’t a boy. When we were eight, he was eighteen. When we were ten, he was twenty.”
-- A story of Ban’s childhood. Has Ban described the countryside well, as it extends from the immigrant township built on the slope beneath the Nestle factory, but above the canal, where children swam in summer? Has Ban described the pink azaleas against the dark silver background of the labyrinth, fragrant with juniper and other rotting things? Answer: No. Ban fails narrative. Ban fails portraiture. Ban fails life, which is color. It is “costume and valence.” It is something more than this.
78. “It’s getting dusky over the Makhatini flats. Last night, I told P. I did not want to continue seeing him when I returned to New York. I believe, in breaking up with him, I compared myself to a Safeway rotisserie chicken. I said I didn’t want to be one. Then I put down the phone and went back to drinking my rooibos tea. Yes and no. I should have asked her to make some coffee instead.”
-- In the mid 90s, Ban went to the Zulu Homeland, to visit a childhood friend from Hayes, a suburban girl of mixed race who married an Afrikaaner she met in Capetown. I can’t name that girl, or say why she left the suburbs, as Ban, in her phone call to another friend, the person I ultimately interviewed, didn’t go into details. In the notes I took, Ban comes across as a person with a soft heart, but what I slice off is the “she.” Who, in this day and age, refers to a person for the first time as “her”? Who is this “her”? Is Ban, a “black” person, using a mode of address she would not dare to in the United Kingdom? Is Ban black? Though now she is black. And flecked with silver. At the bottom of a river. “I have excellent clothes,” Ban once wrote to her friend, a letter I kept when it was given to me, not wanting to be rude.
79. “Mother of my soul.”
-- Towards the end of her life, in her early forties, still very beautiful despite her age, dark brown hair knotted with paintbrushes in a tatty bun above C7, the last bone of the spine as it goes down through the neck, Ban returned to India, where her ancestors were from, and lay down, as close as she could get, next to the border with Pakistan. A few feet away, under the gaze of a military presence, two guards a few feet away from the Wagah checkpoint, she simply did this (lie down), then stood up and with a long stick torn from a nearby tree, though the area is desolate, marked the outline. Then she re-filled it with orange and red marigolds purchased, earlier that day, from the Shiva temple of a village further in. It must have been a Monday. Then she sat down next to this body and placed a hand on the place where its chest would be, and another upon on her own. When I discovered this, I began to write on Ban. It was this writing that led me further in, to the place I did not want to be, Ban’s soul. “Mother of my soul,” she wrote in an early notebook, what in England is still called a Diary, “You’re so very bright.” What did Ban mean? My question was innocent. I was innocent. But Ban, in a sense, was waiting for me, in the darkness of the border, no longer proximal but centered, arms waving in a blur, waiting with everything that was wrong.