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The White Woman on the Green Bicycle

by Monique Roffey

'The carpet-bagging mediocrity' is not perhaps a fair description of the post WWII Europeans who arrived at Port of Spain, Trinidad, in the 1950s, to plant and build and to aspire (and some to die), for it was the Island that took possession of many of the immigrants. They became as 'blood and bone and roots and loam' as the Creoles, Caribs, and the freed slaves, the long established Jews, and all the mixed up races that had been 'nourished on its sap and milk' for generations. And so it is with George Harwood, who falls in love with Trinidad even as his foot falls on her soil and never wavers in his love until the day he dies. Not so his wife, Sabine. Trinidad, to her, is always whorish: her climate is always humid, and far too hot. She finds the heat exhausting.

When George creates his dream house, built for parties, on what had been overgrown bush and savannah, she resents and fears the wild things that refuse to leave the garden and grounds of the house. Mosquitoes, scorpions, cockroaches, outsize spiders and wasps, and ants both red and black, some with a bite so fierce that the Amerindians had used them as surgical stitches. Pipistrellas swoop through the house, and, to Sabine, even the tropical birds and extravagantly flowering shrubs and trees seem foreign and threatening. Even the parties and the hedonistic social life, which George enjoys to the full, seem jaded to Sabine. Her only reality, her anchor, is her family and her only real friends are her cook, Lucy, and the childrens' nanny, Venus, both of whom are descended, not too long ago, from slaves. Sabine, of French origin, makes herself accept the fact that George sleeps with other women.

With the 1950s comes Independence, and, of course, a hero of sorts in the form of Eric Williams. He is of mixed race, Oxford educated, and an orator of ancient Greek proportions. Black and coloured Trinidadians worship him; they congregate in their thousands to listen and to adore him. George talks cricket to him, and gets on with enjoying his own life, but Sabine hopes that Eric Williams will deliver better housing (with running water and electricity), schools and hospitals for the families of Lucy and Venus. But Eric Williams surrounds himself with cronies and is often to be seen in the Country Club (previously a shrine to the colour bar) and makes a great many visits to foreign countries, where he is photographed with heads of state. Sabine writes unposted letters of reproach to him, and speaks her mind when she meets him, much to George's embarrassment.

After six years of this, the patient and trusting black people of Trinidad, betrayed by their own leaders, and poor as ever, blame the white people. Black Power becomes a call to arms. Guards and gates are defied, buildings and cars burned, dogs poisoned and schools closed. Even George has to admit that the time has come for them to go. And down at the harbour, beside Queen's Wharf, rides the Southern Cross, her white sides spotless, her tiers of decks towering above the docks, the glittering windows of her bridge like a tiara nestling on her brow...

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