Yamba

‘Driven like Cattle to a fair,
See they sell us young and old;
Child from Mother too they tear,
All for love of filthy Gold.’
(from The Sorrows of Yamba; or, the Negro Woman’s Lamentation by Hannah More, 1797)

I wasn’t going to say anything, my dear, but you’ve been crying for the best part of an hour down there. I’ve been trying to turn a blind eye – or ear, I suppose, in this darkness – but really, you should pull yourself together. It is always darkest just before the day dawneth and all that, but you’re not going to last five minutes in here if you show your weaknesses. After all, my dear, you won’t be here long, and as you told me yourself you deserve it. Not like some of us, who’ve done nothing wrong. There’s no end in sight for me, but I don’t waste my time with pointless tears.

            You’ll learn, my dear. Personally I’m happiest at night, here in my bunk. It’s never quiet, there are always clangs, and footsteps, and someone somewhere shouting, but after a while you stop noticing. I like to forget where I am, and disappear into my dreams. You know, some mornings I wake feeling as if I’ve only just closed my eyes. When I feel like that, as if I haven’t dreamed, it can simply ruin the whole of the day ahead. I feel cheated, to be quite honest. Some of the ladies are surprised that I prefer the night. They say to me: ‘Viv, if your story is really true, then aren’t you terrified at night?’ So I point out to them how safe we are here. It’s so modern, all concrete, strip-lighting and wipe-clean surfaces. No turrets, candelabras or antiques in here. No mystery. Of course, I’m forgetting dear, you don’t know my story yet, do you?

            You’ll meet the other ladies in the morning. Do forgive my frankness, but I’m sure you’ll fit right in. They’re much more your type than mine, you see. I stuck out like a sore thumb when I first arrived. But I stood firm, kept myself to myself, and in the end they left me alone. I’ve been here so long now I’m simply one of the fixtures and fittings. Lady Vivienne, the girls call me! James would’ve found that rather amusing – his family always considered me rather middle-class. Silly really, my father had much more money than the Failands did, but he was a self-made man, and they were old money.

            You’re from Bristol, aren’t you? Then you will know Sneyd Court. It’s the house with two tall symmetrical towers at the top of the Gorge, overlooking the Downs. That was James’ family home. We had to sell it in the early ’nineties. Upkeep and heating and so on were far too much for us to cope with, and we had the boys’ school fees to think about. We’d sink all our cash into sorting out one problem and then another part of the house would start to fall apart. I was quite happy to sell the old place. I always found it rather intimidating. All those dark panelled rooms, endless corridors, portraits of pompous ancestors sneering down at one. James was terribly upset though. His family had been there for generations, and all their history was there in that house.

            So much beautiful furniture, and exquisite collections of silver and porcelain. Lining the staircase were portraits of the direct male line of Failands, from the early Barons onwards. James was the oldest male in his generation, and as I looked at those pictures I could trace a likeness all the way back, despite the fashions and styles imposed by the painters of the day. The Failand men all had that long straight nose and rather close set eyes with thick eyebrows. Not exactly handsome, but exuding confidence and superiority. My sons had the same features, still do I should think, although I haven’t seen either of them for a few years now. One of the finest portraits, painted by Jonathan Richardson in around 1705, full length and life size, showed Edward Failand as a middle-aged man, wearing the long wig and robes of the time. His eyes are dark and stare out at one. His mouth is set in a hard line. It used to make me shiver. We donated that one to the Bristol museum. It was far too big for our flat, and Edward Failand was a big name in local history, having spent much of his fortune on building almshouses and founding schools.

            His fortune. Strange we call it that. It may have been a fortune to Edward, but the many thousands of slaves he shipped from Africa to the Caribbean were anything but fortunate. Of course the Failands didn’t really like talking about that side of their family history. They much preferred to view Edward and his sons as great charitable figures, examples of Christian liberality. But if the truth be known, the Failands were leading figures in the slave trade right up until it was abolished in the 19th century, and I’m sure Abolition was all that stopped them. Edward even kept a slave woman at Sneyd Court, working amongst the other servants. Her name was Yamba and she was from Sierra Leone. She had been captured and brought to England, and the rest of her family taken to the plantations. Her youngest child had died on the voyage over, whilst she was still nursing him. Yamba worked hard all her life, but apparently barely spoke and never smiled, which is not surprising really. She even died working – she was found slumped in a fireplace with a hearth brush still in her hand by one of the other servants. They think she was in her forties, but apparently she looked twice that.

            The other notable fact about Edward was that he was the first in a long line of Failand suicides. Or so they thought. Despite his religion, his wife found him in bed with his left wrist slit and a knife at his side. And this was a pattern that repeated itself again and again, roughly every other generation of Failand men. James and I used to joke about it before our wedding. I’d been told these men were always found by their wives, so I told James if he ever had morbid thoughts he must wait until I was away from home before acting on them! We laughed at the time. If only we’d known. The last before James was his grandfather, Thomas Failand. Now of course the Police have forensics, and scepticism, on their side. My husband was the first Failand suicide they subjected to all that. People nowadays think science will explain everything. Well here I am, proof that it doesn’t, if only they’d listen. Science will never explain Yamba.

            I didn’t know much about Yamba until we sold the house. There was a small oil painting of her in one of the bedrooms in the west wing, a fairly drab thing, so dingy you could barely make her out, and rather badly done, although once your eyes were accustomed it looked as though she was staring straight at you. I’d lived there several years by then, but had never even noticed it before.

‘We’re keeping that one,’ said James, when I took it to show him.

‘Oh James it’s hideous! Where on earth will we hang it in the flat?’

James was quite insistent. I didn’t understand why, even after he’d explained her story to me. I thought he’d want to put the family’s shame behind him. We’d agreed to keep only the very best pieces, things that would suit the Georgian flat we were moving to. It was a large flat, but would seem small enough after Sneyd Court, without cluttering it up with excess junk. Oh I loved that flat! I was so happy there. The rooms were light and airy, with high ceilings and enormous Georgian sash windows, that looked out over Hotwells and the river at the front, and the Downs at the back. How I miss the Downs. I miss having a view of any sort. You can only see upwards into the sky here.

            James hung Yamba’s picture in his study. And the strangest thing happened. I didn’t venture into his study very often, but I swear whenever I saw that portrait Yamba seemed to have aged some more.

When it happened, both boys were away at school. James was at home with a streaming cold, and was behaving like a bear with a sore head. We’d had several petty arguments already that day, and in the end he had taken himself off to bed with a glass of whisky and ginger wine. I was sitting at the kitchen table working out a menu for a dinner party we were hosting the following week, when I heard a crash from James’ study. I ran in, and Yamba’s portrait had fallen from the wall and was lying face down in the hearth. I decided to check and see if the noise had disturbed James, but when I tried the bedroom door it was locked. I knocked several times, getting increasingly more annoyed, but could get no answer from James. Back to the kitchen I went, but when James still hadn’t surfaced an hour later I found the spare keys and unlocked the door myself.

            James was in our bed, and our bed was scarlet with his blood. His poor savaged left wrist lay on top of the covers, and next to his right hand was our bread knife. It was the most awful thing I have ever seen, and to this day I can see the scene as clearly as if it were a snapshot. A single body contains an awful lot of blood. I was hysterical at first, but I pulled myself together and called an ambulance, and when they arrived the police came too. They said it was suicide. I don’t remember what order things happened in, but the flat was like Clapham Junction, people coming and going, different police officers asking me different questions. Over the next few days I tried to make funeral arrangements, but the police wouldn’t release James’ body. They said things didn’t add up. More visits and more questions. It seems James had an awful lot of sedatives inside him, besides the whisky and ginger wine, and the police felt he would have been unable to even lift the knife, never mind slice through his own wrist with it. And then there was the small matter of the bread knife. I had used it at breakfast, and it was covered in my fingerprints, but not one of James’ or anyone else, for that matter. Well of course not. I told them over and over again, I did all the cooking in our household, James barely knew where the kitchen was, and Yamba didn’t have fingerprints. It was Yamba, I told them, Yamba did it. More questions. And then the evidence of our downstairs neighbour, terribly vulgar nouveau-riche young woman who had been at home all that day with her baby. Nobody had used the communal entrance all morning she said, and she had heard our rows, heard the crash. Heard me running around, and then nothing. Nothing until the ambulance and police cars arrived. Because it was Yamba, I told them, Yamba, Yamba, Yamba.

            People nowadays don’t believe in ghosts. I didn’t either until I had to. Even those who go to church refuse to accept there may be supernatural forces we still don’t fully understand. I happen to know the prosecuting barrister attends church regularly – he was a member of the Merchant Venturers alongside James, so we often met socially. I couldn’t get any of James’ friends to defend me. I found a lawyer eventually, and he did his best, but he kept advising me to change my story. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t! I was telling the truth. However, it seemed the jury didn’t believe in ghosts, and neither did the judge.

Here in prison I think about Yamba a lot. I long for Bristol, the Avon Gorge, the suspension bridge, but to Yamba Bristol was a prison. She was torn away from her children, and I have been torn from mine by their hatred and disbelief. In my dreams I often fly like a bird over the coast of West Africa. I fly across high mountains, and through dense tropical rainforest. I fly over white sandy beaches, fringed with palm trees, across small plantations into coastal villages. And I find Yamba, sitting in the doorway of her hut, preparing fish, nursing her baby, or laughing and singing with her sisters and her children. And I feel it is my responsibility to keep her there in my dreams, safe in her village for as long as I can. Because if I don’t, my grandson will be the next one she punishes.

            So you see, my dear, how important the night is to me, and how important it is that I sleep well. So we’ll have no more of this crying please. Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to the girls, and show you the ropes, so do try and get some rest while you can. Good night, my dear.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Prose

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s