Shelagh Plunkett: White girl


I was standing in bright sunlight waiting, once again, to shake a famous hand. Canada’s Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was coming to Guyana, going to land that day, and I was there to shake his hand, or hoping to at least. That shake-hand time I wasn’t there to represent a nation or a race, not there to be photographed as one of Guyana’s six. I was there because I was Canadian, and all Canadians in Georgetown had been invited out to smile and wave the flag at Timehri airport. That April day at Timehri we all were white, all one race, no shades of gold or brown, just pinkish white where we all stood behind a barrier. I was at the very front, the perfect spot to shake our Trudeau’s hand.

Asphalt shimmered black and hot. It had rained earlier, and afterward the puddles steamed. Soon they would all be gone. It was that hot. It was very hot, but we didn’t sweat because we’d been living in Guyana long enough. We’d acclimatized. They say in heat your blood thins, and you don’t sweat the same as if your blood was thick, thick enough for winter and for snow.

An honour guard of Guyanese marched past, forming lineups on the shiny black tarmac. Bright jackets gleamed white, red berets, red sashes, and black pants striped down the side in red. A military show. There were hundreds of them out there on the tarmac where the rising steam made everything waver. Water being pulled into the air, maybe to make shady clouds. No, not likely. It was just burning off. Out there on the tarmac, it was one race too, just like it was where we all stood. One race, not six, to represent Guyana’s past or future. It’s the present, and that shake-hand ceremony was a different kind of show, not like the show we did on Company Path for Julius Nyerere. All the faces there, out there in uniform, were black. The military show, Burnham’s power marching black on black.

My foot was cocked up on the lower rail of the metal barricade that separated the Canadians from the Guyanese. I leaned out and held my tiny flag ready-set to wave it when the plane landed. Red and white, red pants, white shirts, and cricket caps with Canadian flags sewn on; a cricket cap was not a thing to wear in Canada, but it was in Guyana. That’s what everybody all around me wore. I looked back at them behind me and saw that all together we Canadians were less than sixty people dressed in red and white and waving flags. That wasn’t very much and yet who knew there was even that many of us living there? Who were all those people? Engineers who mapped the rivers like my dad? What kinds of projects could have brought this crowd to this small shifting place? Maybe some were bankers, watching out for money loaned by Canada? What else, what else could all those people do in Georgetown, in that Co-operative, that newly minted state that then, already, was calling itself socialist?

My mother said, “Who knew so many Canadians were living here in Georgetown?” She said she wondered where they all had been when she and some others, Canadians we knew, were cooking doughnuts, drizzling maple syrup (smuggled in), frying bacon for the Canadian booth on International Day when all the embassies showed off what made their country special.

We all must have been Canadian though, to be there on the Timehri tarmac, because the High Commissioner had invited us to come. Later, in the evening, there’d be a reception for the adults to meet Trudeau. The Commissioner would host that cocktail party, and my mother and my father would be photographed, in black and white with Trudeau. Later, after that reception, Mom told us that she “fell in love” with Trudeau. She fell in love with him because, instead of coming through the big front doors at the High Commissioner’s reception, Trudeau entered through the kitchen, and he stopped and greeted all the staff and thanked them for their work. Mom said that showed Trudeau was a gentleman.

Mom also said he was a “playboy.” That was why everybody was excited, grinning, dressed in red and white, and waving flags out on the steamy tarmac. My father even liked Trudeau, but I’d heard him snorting when he read the newspaper just days before. He was reading about Trudeau’s visit to Venezuela. Trudeau’s wife had sung a song to Venezuela’s leader. My father liked Trudeau, he said, the man but not the politics, but thought that his wife, Margaret, was embarrassing. But we had learned that Margaret would not be there at Timehri. She wouldn’t sing a song for Comrade Burnham, not that day.

The Air Canada plane landed and rolled slowly down the asphalt runway. Heat waves made the maple leaf on its tail flutter like a flag. People all around me cheered, and then I heard my father say, “How soon we forget what they do to our luggage.” But that maple leaf was all it took to make some people teary-eyed. We leaned further out to show our pride, and the honour guard fidgeted in the steam. Then a tiny flag held in a hand poked out the pilot’s window. A tiny Canadian flag just like the ones we held. It was Trudeau, our Trudeau, waving at us as the plane approached. We screamed and yelled and cheered.

Photographers and cameramen and others with boom mikes rushed in and squatted on the tarmac facing us. They took photographs, and there I was in centre front. I wasn’t dressed in red and white, and I didn’t wear a cricket cap. Beige pants with wide bell-bottoms flared over my platform shoes, and I wore a madras cotton shirt with sweeping sleeves. My shirt was blue with multi-coloured embroidery around the neck. Beside me was another girl with long blond hair. She was my best friend, my new best friend, and we were dressed like twins, except her shirt was green. Her name was Annette, and I never called her Annie. She had picked out my clothes, had told me what to wear that day. Her green shirt was tucked into the top of her pants because she was thin, but mine was not.

Annette’s hair was long and feathered blond and banged. Her arms and legs seemed longer than they were, and that was because she was thin. She showed me, once we were good friends, how to judge one’s weight. She showed me, lying on her side, stretched out in panties and a bra one day when we were at her house and lounging on her bed. She said, “Lie on your side like this. See.” She hooked her finger underneath the waistband of her underpants and showed me that the elastic there stretched straight from her hip bone to the bed, where her other hip bone disappeared into the coverlet. “See. See, it doesn’t touch anything.” Her stomach was concave. The elastic didn’t touch it anywhere. If you can do that, she looked at me, then you are thin or close to thin enough, you are thin enough to wear your shirt tucked in. There had to be a hollow gap, a concave scoop, no belly there. I didn’t bother testing that by lying down right then and there. I knew I wouldn’t pass the panty-top test. I knew I wasn’t thin enough. She could tuck her shirt into her pants, but I could not.

Annette was Canadian, but I didn’t know that until we heard that Trudeau would be coming to Guyana. I thought that she was American. That’s what she’d always said she was. But, there she was that day, right beside me at the front. She even had a flag to wave. Her parents and her sisters were there too.

Annette was always talking about New York, where they had lived for years before they moved to Georgetown. When I asked her why she would be at Timehri, she said she had a Canadian passport. Her mother was Canadian, or Québécois, and so, she said, closer to a Trudeau-type Canadian than I was. I was from B.C. Annette told me she’d been born in Montreal. But, the U.S.A. and New York was what she always talked about, the place that she called home.

Her father was an engineer, just like my dad. Annette didn’t know why he was there or what project he was working on. She said that sort of thing was irrelevant. She just didn’t care. She didn’t care why he had dragged them to Guyana, to the boondocks. She didn’t ever want to talk about Georgetown. She liked to talk about New York. New York, she said, was where the entire world wanted to live. If they were smart they did. That’s how good it was. It was the place to be, she said. It was the place to be, and Georgetown, in Guyana, sure was not. She said her sister Barbara, who my brother took to movies, stopped traffic even in New York. Even there, where people were accustomed to that sort of thing, to that sort of beauty. Annette said that Barbara might be walking down the street, just out for a walk, and cars would stop, just stop, and everybody stared. That was how beautiful her sister was. Barbara always wore flowered dresses, ones that frothed and floated in the breeze, stirred by even little puffs of air. Her legs were long and tanned and smooth and always ended in platform shoes that made her feet, because her legs were very thin, look thick like horse’s hooves. That was something I never said out loud.

Annette showed me what her sister Barbara used to make her skin so smooth. Creams that melted hair. Annette said that sort of cream could not be bought in Georgetown, not in any shops. They had looked and couldn’t find it in any of the Georgetown shops. Annette told me that her sister had her friends back home send packages of creams to melt her hair, eye shadows, lipstick, rouge. They regularly mailed those packages to her. But I had seen makeup in the stores, in Booker Brothers and in JP Santos too. At Fogarty’s there even was a special place, a cosmetics counter full of bottles labelled Chantelle and Lisa Kay and even Avon too. When I said that, Annette looked at me. I’d seen that look. I’d seen the wives beside the pool look at my mother that way too. She looked at me and said, “That makeup’s not for us. That makeup is for dark-skinned girls and not for us.” All that I could say was, “oh.”

She was my newest friend and my only friend with skin like mine.

It happened, just like that, one day. One morning at St. Rose’s I was not the only white girl standing at assembly in the heat to hear Headmistress Sister Hazel speak. I hadn’t even noticed that another head was blond, another one was standing out among the heads of shiny black. I hadn’t noticed, not until her name was said aloud and Sister Hazel told us all to welcome Annette from the U.S.A.

That morning I was one with seven hundred others. I was with them all as we craned necks and nudge nudge nudged to see the new one standing looking strange and all alone among us there inside that high-walled room. I was one among the rest who started rustling whispers and who shuffled feet to get a better look. There she was, just two rows over, in her brand new uniform. Form 2, like me, but I was glad to see she wasn’t standing in the line for Merici House. That day I didn’t want another blonde to share Merici House with me. I didn’t want this new girl from the U.S.A. to join my friends and me, to work with us while we all worked together.

She was standing in the line for Lima House, and even I could see she didn’t look so scared as I knew I had looked on my first day. Not scared at all, and different, she looked different from the rest of us. Her eyes were pale and stared unblinking back at us. She didn’t bow her head when Sister Hazel said her name, she didn’t blush. She looked up and out and flicked her long blond hair. Her hair was not cut short for tropic heat, and she didn’t tie it back or pull it tight into a bun. She stared at us with pale pale eyes and flicked her hair, and then she looked away and we looked down.

I know we all felt something shifting in assembly hall that day.

At lunch when I sat down with all my friends, we looked around, down all the tables to see where she was sitting. But she wasn’t sitting anywhere that we could see, and we would certainly have seen her sticking out, the only other white, if she’d been there. June didn’t bother looking. She watched us stretching back to see beyond the other heads down the table, and then she told us that she’d seen that uppish new girl—“biggative” is what June said—she’d seen da gyal sashaying out the gates when all a we had tumbled in our pink and blue and green down the stairs to jostle into lineup for our food. “She takin’ lunch at home. She daddy driver com fah she.” Her driver? Oh, we thought, and bunched up closer on our bench, put heads together overtop our lunch, and didn’t speak of her again. Oh, but we wanted to. Farida, she and I, had questions then that only June could answer. Questions like, what kind of car, what sort of driver was it, was there anybody else inside, and did she speak to anyone before she stepped inside that car? Did she look back at you? Did you see her smile?

Uppish. Sure, she was, and later we all thought that that was fine. At least, I did, and maybe others did as well. She was uppish at St. Rose’s. She was uppish everywhere she went. She never ate with us. She never ate at school. She went home each day to eat. She later said, when we were friends, home was where she ate real food like peanut butter sandwiches. Curry, which we ate at school, she said it made you stink.

Curry. It was never cooked inside Annette’s house. Not ever at her house in Bel Air Gardens. That house was unlike any house I’d ever seen. Not Guyanese at all and not like houses I remembered from before Georgetown. Curry smells would not have lasted there. I think they would have fled that foreign place. I wondered if Annette’s mother cooked their food or had she taught the maid to make those peanut butter sandwiches, those dinners lacking curry, lacking spice?

That house was filled with everything brought from their home in New York State. They’d filled it up with furniture and carpets, lamps and filmy window covers they called “sheers,” photographs of their blond heads all smiling in a studio, and beds with covers that were ruffled, tucked, and flounced. The colours were all wrong, at least that was what I thought at first, all wrong for there, for Georgetown. There was no purpleheart, no dark plank floors like ours. Their floors were covered up with pale-pink woolly carpets. There was nothing Guyanese about their house, except that it was standing there in Bel Air Gardens and that was near the seawall out along the east coast road.

Oh, but you couldn’t keep Guyana out. Not there, not if your house was in Georgetown by the sea. Guyana came in through the windows and the doors even if you kept those closed and cooled the air inside with air conditioners you’d had shipped down to the country from the U.S.A. It seeped inside. Guyana found its way inside no matter what you did.

Guyana found a way into their house when seas were flooding high and sea walls weren’t enough to keep the water out. Then a snake came up the pipes and right into the toilet in their strange and foreign house. It did. And that was Guyanese true-true and never would have happened in a house in New York State.

At school Annette wasn’t in my class, but I saw her every morning at assembly and in gym class once a week. She was athletic, she could run and jump and even climb up ropes, and that was something hardly any other girl could do. My friends and I watched silently and stood with necks bent back when she scrambled up a thick hemp rope the teacher-nuns had hung down from the ceiling. We had all tried to climb that rope and we had all failed, but Annette climbed it right away, right to the top. It was the thing, the one thing, that she was really good at, or, at least, the thing she seemed to work at and do better than the seven hundred other St. Rose’s girls. Her marks, we learned, were not so good. She was often late and didn’t put in the effort that Sister Hazel said she must. And that was different too. She didn’t care. She didn’t care when Sister Hazel made her stand while all the other seven hundred of us sat and listened to her marks read out, listened while the days that she was late were counted out. She didn’t hang her head or shuffle her feet or blush. She didn’t even stand up straight. She almost shrugged when Sister Hazel asked her why her grades were not as good as they should be, or why she hadn’t managed yet to get to school on time each day. She almost shrugged before she sat back down. Oh my! We almost gasped when we saw that, and so did Sister Hazel.

It was sometime after that, after that assembly when the newest whitest girl had shown she didn’t really care and we’d all seen her almost shrug to prove she didn’t care to Headmistress Sister Hazel, sometime after that I started wishing she would stay at school for lunch sometimes. And it was after that that I began to watch for her when we, all seven hundred of us in our uniforms, were swirled inside those walls, inside St. Rose’s walls where all a we, they said, were working hard to be the people’s students. All but one were working hard. And it was sometime after that, as well, that I began to think of us as two and all the other girls as seven hundred. We were two. Two white girls then.

Two blondes in matching shirts that day at Timehri International when Trudeau was about to land. Sure, some were Canadians just for a day, but that was fine, just fine for me. The plane had taxied to a stop, and all the soldiers in their fancy uniforms were perfectly lined up. Red stripes in perfect rows. The metal steps came rolling out, and soon enough Trudeau was waving at us. We screamed and waved our flags and stretched to try to grab his hand. He came right up to Annette, right to the barricade where she was standing next to me. People pushed behind and squished me up against the metal barrier, reached overtop my head to touch Trudeau. Cameramen and diplomats and Burnham were all looking sombre and solid, but Trudeau grinned. He grinned at us and reached across and shook my best friend’s hand.



ShelaghPlunkett4 tweeksm

Shelagh Plunkett is an award-winning writer and journalist. She has been published in various Canadian and U.S. journals, including The Walrus, enRoute Magazine, Geist, The Globe and Mail, and the Vancouver Sun. Plunkett currently lives in Montreal, but grew up on the west coast of Canada, in Guyana, and on Timor, Indonesia.

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