“You can kiss your family and friends good-bye and put miles between you, but at the same time you carry them with you in your heart, your mind, your stomach, because you do not just live in a world, a world lives in you.”
– Frederick Buechner (cited in The Shack)
I carry my friends and family everywhere. Although sometimes it seems like my laptap is my best friend and closest confidante, actually, it’s just the main way that I keep in touch with those I call my heart. My heart is the people who love me. It’s the place that nourished my spirit, birthed my dreams, and inspired my adventures. It’s the kindness and acceptance and piss-taking by people who have made my life better in ways they do and do not know. That make me feel human.
Like Sam, who I always call my brave friend. She is also the white person who makes me feel better about being the black late one all the time as she’s usually later. When we were 15 and studying Latin, we had an evening school trip to see Lysistrata at a central London theatre. We were both late, and the group waited as long as they feasibly could (or so they said), before getting on the train without us.
When we met up outside the nearest McDonalds, where I’d been waiting for Sam who was even later than I was, I was ready to get the bus home together. We’d missed the train, everyone had gone, and we had no idea where we were going. Ready to wallow in self-flagellation (‘why am I always late?!’) and take the punishment I was. Sam however was having none of it. She marched us to the train station, and worked out the route based on vaguely remembering where we were supposed to be going ‘Goodge Street? Are you sure? That doesn’t even sound like a real place!’ I worried aloud, trusting only in her absolute confidence that we would find the theatre and watch the play. In Latin.
I cowered upon arrival at Charing Cross train station and the accompanying Central London Rush-hour Bustle. It was so big and scary without my mum or aunties at that age, never mind an actual destination. We were soon both comforted by the sort of sight that Londoners believe is unique to our lovely city; a man on a huge standalone treadmill in the middle of Charing Cross train station ‘running for abandoned children’ according to the sign.
It was an omen, we were sure. Confidence boosted, I went with Sam to ask grown-ups directions, cheering more and more outwardly as a wide cast of characters helped us to our final destination. We snuck into our seats minutes before the curtains went up. When the other girls, shocked at our arrival whispered ‘Where were you both?!’ in amazement, we shrugged nonchalantly ‘Went McDonald’s innit.’
I’d say we’ve been friends ever since but I don’t like to state the obvious. Sam is a friend who also shares my passion for travel. Having grown out of our respective debilitating fear of the unknown and faux confidence (replaced by real!), when I headed out to Thailand for a year aged 18, Sam had left a couple of weeks earlier for Australia. Whereas I came back, as planned, a year later and went to university, Sam is the only person who could get away with a four year gap year. Sam is my brave friend.
Natalie is my peaceful friend. She’s never late and rarely in a hurry. We met on our very first day at secondary school, as our dads worked together and mine got overexcited at the sight of another black parent, let alone a black dad he knew, at our overwhelmingly-white school. We didn’t see much of each other over the next three years, but we bonded about 15 years later on a 3 hour coach journey to the hen party of a mutual friend we’d both kept in touch with since school. True story.
Natalie is another ‘doer’ friend. She’ll organise a girly catch-up round hers when you’ve been out of the country a while. Or remember the date of the anniversary of your dad’s death, and send you flowers. She’ll also believe in you. Treat you like an artist when you’ve only dreamt of being a writer, gently persuade you to sort out the areas of your life that need attention but require more emotional energy than you have, and push you to get your admin straight.
She’s the friend who looks at you as if you as if she sees the better you, the one that you’re trying to be, rather than the screw-up who greets you in the mirror. Makes you feel like a wise woman, instead of a crazy girl. But she can still crack jokes, open a bottle, and shake a leg while singing along whether there’s a dancefloor in sight or it’s a living room-laptop-speakers kinda night. Natalie is the calm in my hyperactive neuroses. She feels my pain, whether it’s life with this genitalia, this much melanin, this little cash or this location. She knows, or she hears. Everyone should have a friend like that.
I could go on and on about my sister-girls, but I want to give a shout out to my boys. Ed is my brother-friend. We met at church, he was new and I was feeling particularly friendly that day, so I invited him to the lunch the ‘twenties’ group at church had organised. He was in his twenties too and he seemed cool enough. Over spag bol (traditional Sunday fare) we chatted about life, faith and jobs and we bonded pretty much instantly. Because Ed is very cool.
Probably about 18 months later, our bond deepened when we both decided, separately, that our church was not providing the spiritual growth we hoped for. While Ed made the decision somewhat lightly, I wrung my hands a lot so our talks were invaluable to me.
Ed is also my favourite relationship co-counsellor. We’ve long had the brother-sister thing down, and also value and respect each other’s opinions, so we can talk really frankly about the men and women in our lives, and how we cope and approach relationships as young unmarried Christians who didn’t grow up in church. He’s always handy for a sensible sincere man’s perspective on my romantic dramas; as I know what he’s about, I know he wants the best for me. Even if that means telling me what I don’t want to hear sometimes, whether it’s about the dude who’s stressing me out, or my own behaviour.
In the years we’ve been friends, I’ve watched Ed grow tremendously in faith. I’ve seen him conquer identity issues that plagued him since childhood, as well as what it really requires to live like a man of God. He’s the friend who is always good for a real heart-to-heart, but who will also pray for you, and who really believes you are a special child of God. A great guy and an absolute gem of a friend. Also encouraging is that he’s getting married this year, which hopefully means that our relationship talks are bearing fruit!
I have not mentioned my family, in part because I’m not sure I would ever have the words to express how much I love and am loved by them, and in part because it seems too private. Suffice to say, my siblings, parents, their siblings and their offspring make my life better. In a big way. Whether it’s just knowing who I am and have always been, and loving that person unconditionally, or giving me jokes, wisdom, memories and love in ever-increasing measure as the years go by. My family really are my heart.
When I travel alone, these are the smiles I smile to myself. These are a picture of the many memories I carry with my backpack. When wandering through customs, immigration, unknown streets and busy markets, the experience of so many blessings in human form thoroughly convince me that there are even more yet to be encountered. The people in my heart are why I am not afraid to meet new people who look, sound and behave differently from me.
Despite our close respective friendships (they vaguely know each other by sight), Sam, Natalie and Ed are each different from me. Natalie, for example, is often quiet in a crowd. By contrast, I’m one of those people that get the comment ‘You’re a bit quiet today’ in place of ‘Everything okay?’ Sam is a corporate banking girl through and through, whereas I’ve never desired nor worn a pinstriped suit in my life. Ed and I have a theory of life in common, but we practice it very differently.
Nevertheless, when I was in London this summer, this was the love I returned to. Like the hit of humidity that comes with the opening of the cabin doors when I land in the Caribbean, it smothered me instantly, and healed some of the wounds of the loneliness and uncertainty that can accompany following life off the beaten path. This weekend, for example, is the first in many years, that I am not to be found dancing in the streets of London with the soca massive. It’s a national holiday = carnival! But not in Martinique.
The sensation of being known and loved, as opposed to the well-liked if token exotic foreign girl, was endlessly reassuring; there really was another, different land I called home, it wasn’t simply a defensive measure to explain my ‘difference.’ While I’d been looking forward to being a common-as-muck local again, I underestimated just how good that could feel. I’d also forgotten the adrenaline high of productivity, experienced via my social whirl. One day I managed to pack in lunch at 1, afternoon tea at 3, after work drinks at 5, dinner at 7, and late drinks at 9.30. Love comes with a lot of calories sometimes!
Somewhat bizarrely, I took unexpected pleasure in leaving the house without knowing exactly where I was going – because I could work it out via TfL’s online journeyplanner on the go, or ask at the station. I loved having a vague idea and working it out as I went along because at home, I have a map of the city in my head. Even though my Martinique geography is decent, respectable even, there’s nowt better than knowing your hometown like the back of your hand, with every shortcut and back alley as plain as the nose on your face.
I have no idea where this journey will lead me, but I’m black and I keep moving hence I keep writing. To God only knows where admittedly, but I quite like a surprise.