A Letter Not Posted

By Rabindranath Maharaj

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Dear Harold

It's now exactly two months since I moved to Islington. Does the name ring a bell? Remember the poem in primary school about a mad dog that had bitten an Englishman? I believe the last line may have been, 'And it was the dog that died.' Well, this is a different Islington.There are no mad dogs here and the only Englishmen are those from humid, dust-ridden countries.

The letter you posted to my old address in Etobicoke was rerouted by my relatives there, to this apartment. I stayed by them for eleven months and two weeks. They are the kind of migrant you see in movies or read about in books. Husband working night-shift in a factory, wife working day-shift in a packaging plant. Proud of their labour, ennobled by their sacrifices and humbled by their good fortune. They were both teachers in Trinidad.

They rarely spoke to each other or to me. When I stayed by them, I used to think that newcomers, migrants, from a lack of practice, might soon lose the gift of speech, but then, their two children, who were away at summer camp, returned and I saw how they wielded their accent like a weapon, frightening their poor parents. Still, I feel that the fright is a necessary prelude to the pride. I watched them cowering before their shrill, garrulous children, afraid of what they were seeing and comforted by what they couldn't understand.

Progress. It was the only word they spoke and the only thing on their minds. Over here, the word is not what we know it to be; new, ingenious definitions have been crafted. An act of involuntary suffering; a moratorium on pleasure; a postponement of life.

I know all of this sounds rather ungrateful and it has occurred to me that my assessment may be unfair. For all I know, they may be able to see things that I cannot. These same obsequious teenagers may grow into doctors or lawyers or engineers. Still obsequious, but rich. And their parents might be no different from those, who, a hundred or so years ago, were forced into the same sacrifices. Different land, same illusions.

But they depressed me with their tight, pungent dreams and for half the time I stayed there, I was planning my escape. I went out, studied the other foreigners, tried to start conversations, and then I discovered that there was another kind of migrant. Those who continually nourish their wounds, tear away the scabs, and offer their bruises for inspection. Such an elaborate preparation for sympathy, yet offended when it was given.

There were nights when I thought only of returning. I can't tell you the number of times I mentally packed my bags and headed back to Trinidad. But I couldn't return. I had burnt my bridges: resigned from my job at The Gleaner, told my friends goodbye, accepted their congratulations, made foolish promises.

I know what you are expecting to hear, Harold, but I'm not a poet or a writer

I could easily have panicked. Then, as so often happen in times of desperation, salvation was granted. Granted by Marsha, the mother of the child I was tutoring. English lessons. Can you imagine that? Me, with my thick West Indian accent, barely able to pronounce Etobicoke, an English tutor? But the mother was grateful that anyone, even at a price, was willing to direct some attention to her son, who, as it turned out, was as dense as a slab of concrete. She brought me to this place, spoke to the superintendent and acted as my guarantor. She brings her son twice a week, on Saturdays and Sundays, and while I'm struggling with him, she arranges the food she has brought, in the cupboard.

She believes her son is suffering from an attention-deficit disorder, which may be true because he fidgets and stares all over the room while I am tutoring him. It is very distracting. The mother also believes that I eat badly which is why, I suppose, she brings her weekly gifts of food. She is worried about me. I am worried about her son. The world is filled with worried people.

Marsha looks exactly how you would expect a Marsha to look. Nice hair, good teeth, large sympathetic eyes, prominent chin, and a bit of fat revealed only in the dimples at the sides of the lips and in the softness of the neck. Attractiveness and plainness positioned so closely that a simple shift of the face, a confession of light on some feature, or a shadowing of another, could propel her in either direction.

I know what you are expecting to hear, Harold, but I'm not a poet or a writer: self-delusion is not part of my armoury. If the opportunity presented itself, I did not view it as an opportunity. To me, she is simply the mother of the child I am tutoring. My bread and butter.

I still remember what I told you and Sandra at the airport's bar. That the world is what we make of it; our lives not just the excess of another person's dreams. I know that Sandra was deeply offended and hurt, but I thought it profound then. In any case, I was drunk from the beers and hours from leaving Trinidad.

I didn't know what I would find. In Trinidad, the only Canadians we knew were the exchange teachers who taught us at Mon Repos Secondary and the Presbyterian missionaries who came from Nova Scotia. I didn't know what to make of them; they could have been paler, plumper, quieter Americans. And now, so many years later, after one year in Canada, I'm in no better position to answer the question you posed, so innocently, in your letter.

To put it simply, I just don't know. Despite what we in Trinidad thought, they are not Americans. I could say that Americans are malignant and Canadians benign but I could be wrong. Small societies, bound to their longing and disgust and envy of bigger, newer things are easier to understand. Big countries are more elusive with their secrets.

I have realized, too, that we judge people from the perspective of our own distress and assign qualities which they may not really possess. Do you remember the mansion we passed in Charlieville on our way to work and the rumours that we shared, adding our own fanciful touch? A refugee in Canada about to be kicked out, winning millions in a lotto and a repentant Canadian government offering him immediate citizenship if he remained with his new wealth. But he had suffered too much, we said, been humiliated too often.

He took his money, returned to Trinidad and built his mansion. The rumours became more than rumours. They clarified our vision, offered superiority.

In so many ways, Harold, the tyranny of the weak is more grotesque than the casual aggressiveness of the strong. And because of this, I cannot, at this point, give a truthful answer to your question. In any case, I'm hardly ever out these days. I leave once a week to buy my groceries and occasionally, I go to a free reading at the Harbourfront or at the University of Toronto Bookstore. A little over a month ago, I went to a reading by a very young writer who had published his first book. He read with bristling anger. The words fell like fire from his mouth. The audience was rivetted. At the end of his reading, they rose and applauded. An old woman standing next to me wiped her eyes. After-wards, in the train, I too felt like crying, because his writing was so horrible. But he had read so passionately that I wished it were otherwise. A week later, I attended another reading, this one by a woman who was either from India or Pakistan. She also was an angry reader but her anger was misdirected, scalloped, I saw her losing her audience. She became angrier, and in the end, it was all she had left.

Whenever I go to these readings, I feel extremely guilty and for the next few days I submit a number of applications to various newspapers. So far, I haven't received any replies and I worry that the little savings that I have, will run out before I get a job. Marsha advised me to apply for the position of a supply teacher but that too led nowhere.

And so, the days tumble over one another, while I, alone in my apartment, think of a well-respected journalist who had inexplicably left everything behind and I try to understand the reasons for his departure. I have come closer,

Meanwhile, time passes, and I have nothing. I am conscious of every day that goes by, all the scattered hours and minutes.

I think, to understanding Sandra's bitterness, but nothing else.

I have analysed my life here and I have concluded that it's inertia, not boredom, that punishes me. Boredom, you see, is a quality that we invite into our lives; it suggests that there are other things we could do if we choose. It's an aristocratic affectation resulting not so much from laziness as from a disregard for everything and everyone. But inertia is different. It stifles and paralyses and it draws your weakness around you like a dead fog that thickens each day.

In these situations, little distractions take on a romance of their own. I stopped shaving. Every morning I saw a lunatic staring at me. The beard itched and tickled but because it reminded me of someone I felt I hated, it could not be removed. Every day, I questioned the mirror. Three weeks later, while I was purchasing my groceries, I saw the young man, bearded, who had laughed when I spoke the name of a Trinidadian ground provision. I shaved that night. Small things rub me the wrong way. Romance dies easily in such situations.

So I spend my time waiting, not sure what I'm waiting for. In the stillness of the night, my appliances throb with the power of the alive. When I concentrate, I can hear the amplified heartbeat of the clock, the belch of water filling the toilet tank, the phlegmatic wheezing of the fan, the groaning of the fridge. I could think I'm in a sanitarium but my own breathing is melodious. Cavorting, thrilling birds rise from my nasal passages, crickets and grasshoppers from my throat. They have enlivened my suffocation, given music to my congestion. Maybe romance is not dead after all.

Meanwhile, time passes, and I have done nothing. I am conscious of every day that goes by, all the scattered hours and minutes. In Trinidad, I, you, wrote our articles about government corruption, the complicity of the police in the drug trade, about the bribery, nepotism and inefficiency which had embedded themselves in our culture. Our dreams were modest; we didn't change the world but we knew who we were and what we were doing. And we made enemies, the one sign of progress in Trinidad.

Over here, in my apartment in Islington (I still can't think of the name without remembering the Englishman) I look at television and I see wealthy and powerful men and women with gleaming teeth, speaking of the new world they are creating, and I see those excluded, fretting with an effete indignation. I watch the other face of progress and I understand how unsophisticated and backward, we, with our false notions of morality, are. I remember a time when the days were whole and the nights glistened with drunken discoveries. I remember when we closed the village bars and on our way home, half-jokingly discussed all we had spoken that evening, dismissed our concern for the dispossessed as the conceit of the colonial, but in the morning, shadowed by the guilt of our sudden sobriety, we wrote our minds. It was hypocrisy but it was sincere. I remember those times and I seethe at my own powerlessness because I am now denied even this modest conceit. I am an interloper in this place, Harold. Not because of colour or culture or accent or anything like that, but really because I am unnecessary. I am not needed. It is a horrible discovery.

On my grocery days, I observe men and women and children chatting and cycling and driving and smiling with perfect teeth and I think that their lives would be exactly what they expect it to be.

Sometimes, I'm afraid that I might grow into one of those strange, prying old men. The kind that you see in bus stops and street corners, unconcerned about their appearance, their sharp, oily eyes slicing everything before them. I can see you shaking your head and smiling while you are reading this, but I have changed in ways that I never thought possible. Innocence can be punctured in a single minute or it can be eroded, day by day, until you are no longer sure whether it's there or not.

I know that I have not answered your question and I wish that I could have ended this letter on a more positive note but I must finish here. In a few minutes, Marsha will arrive with her son and I must again be the diligent tutor, at ease with the world and smiling at my minor misfortunes.

She really told me that, using these exact words, smiling radiantly with her perfect teeth to show me it could be done. Perhaps there's the answer to your question. Canadians are people with good teeth.

Yours truly,

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Rabindranath Maharaj
Rabindranth Maharaj writes short stories and novels. His first collection of short stories was The Interloper from Goose Lane Press in New Brunswick.
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