Monday, 1 February 2016


I wrote this piece a few years ago for a friend's magazine, which never saw its second edition. The theme for the edition was confusion. It is by far my favourite story, and the one people usually remember when they think of me. It happened way back in the days of film, so I have no photographs to share; they were all on slides - the most obsolete medium of them all. Instead, here is a photo from the rockabilly party I went to last weekend. I am usually the one behind the lens, or at the very least with a child on my hip. I was channelling my grandma: beehive, red lipstick and all. Getting in character, if you will. She had four children too; three boys and a girl, my mother. History repeats.

The people standing over me were dressed all in white and spoke a language I did not understand. Usually the shock of coming back into my body disoriented me for a minute or two. I never knew who or where I was, or who was with me. As a child I had cried whenever I left that warm, welcoming place I travelled to for the seconds my heart stopped beating, while my body stiffened and my lips turned blue then deathly white. Once it was the shock of biting into a cold ice-cream that had started the seizure. I woke up cold on the burning hot concrete of our driveway. More often it was a needle, or a painful blow to my elbow that set me off. It was usually only a matter of seconds before I started to recognise the voices and faces around me.

But these people were strangers and the rapid fire Portuguese they exchanged over my head frightened me. It was like time travelling to some unknown place in time and space and having to survive on my wits alone as I took in my new surroundings. Gazing down the length of my body, laid flat on a metal hospital trolley covered with a white sheet, I could see the feet of the ward’s other patients. The gangrenous toes of an unwashed man dressed in rags. The purplish flesh of a prostitute burnt by the fierce Brazilian sun. They had been momentarily abandoned by the medical staff, now clustered around my head, gazing at something just out of my line of sight with intense interest.
The male nurse who had escorted me from the emergency ward, his tight white jeans striding ahead of me down the corridor, exchanged meaningful glances with the ward’s beautiful bronzed female nursing staff. “Pienso que hay una insecta en mi cabeza,” I had told him in broken Spanish as we climbed the stairs. He had looked at me with curiosity before asking, in perfect English, “What do you think is in your head?”

Arriving at the polytrauma ward I took in the burnt and rotting human flesh of some of the city’s least fortunate inhabitants and sat meekly on a chair, suddenly feeling my throbbing head to be but a scratch I should not have bothered them with. The doctor shaved a small patch around the sore and injected the area with local anaesthetic before slicing his scalpel across my scalp. I hardly felt the sting, so quickly did I slide into unconsciousness. There was the strange smell, like some laboratory gas burning the back of my nostrils, and the tingling in my head and limbs as I slumped to the ground. And then nothing. At least I never can remember what I have seen, although it lingers like a memory just out of reach. I always feel like I have been gone a long time. I am never sure that I want to be back.

“There is a little worm in your head,” the doctor said in English, when he saw that I was awake, “And it doesn’t want to come out.” I squirmed on the trolley, writhing in horror at the thought of my body’s passenger these three weeks’ past. I had been parting my hair and showing my inflamed scalp to pharmacists and hotel owners, bus passengers and backpackers from La Paz to Rio de Janeiro. The stinging red spot, which a Bolivian pharmacist told me was an allergic reaction to some unknown Amazonian insect, had quickly grown into a pustulent boil. Shooting pains radiated from my head down the length of my spine, forcing me to clench my teeth to stop myself from screaming every time the creature started feeding on my flesh. But even with a mirror I could not angle my head sufficiently to gain a glimpse of its crimson crown.

I had fallen asleep on the train ride across the vast wetlands that divide Bolivia’s tropical lowlands from the vast Brazilian interior, my head slumping out the open window into the thick, warm, night air. One of the jungle trees grown close to the track swiped the top of my head, across the very tip of the worm’s breathing hole, as the train rattled past. I woke screaming, clenching my jaw and quickly clamping down on my vocal chords to try not to wake the other passengers. All the tendons in my neck were taut with pain, my eyes bulging as I tried to absorb the enormity of it without the soothing outlet of sound. In the moonlight I spied a little girl tucked against her mother’s sleeping body across the aisle, her eyes wide and confused as she looked at my silent facial contortions.

Two more days in a bus with a broken toilet remained between me and Rio. I had not brushed my hair in weeks, pulling the knotted tresses gingerly over the weeping wound. The only foreigner in a bus full of gregarious Brazilians, we bonded over plates of salty meat at roadside restaurants, laughing at the stench that filled the coach from the cracked chemical toilet. Everyone took turns examining my scalp and agreed I should seek medical help as soon as I reached the city. I felt engulfed in the warm embrace of these beautiful people, as welcoming as the inhabitants of the Andean plateau had been aloof. The relief of physically blending into the crowd again, after towering head and shoulders over the slightly built indigenous people of Central and South America for six months, was enormous. Even my blue eyes, which had caused muchachos to hurl themselves at my bus and entire schools to line up to have their photo taken alongside me, were somewhat normal here, where eyes of every colour shone from faces white, black and every shade in between.

The doctor pressed at my head, wiping away the pus while he tried to catch the tail of the worm as it darted back inside its hole. Plucking it from the wound he dropped it in a specimen jar where it kicked and jerked in the cold air. A gasp went up from the crowd gathered around my head. Bot fly larvae were not usually seen this far south, although they were common in the Amazon, where they plagued the country’s cattle farmers. It was about a centimetre long, thicker at one end than the other, with black and white stripes the length of its body. I am sure it was confused. It was so close to achieving its life’s purpose; to growing wings and flying.

The doctor cleaned the wound and wrapped a white crepe bandage around my head. No dressing would stick to my hair, so I walked back out onto the streets of Ipanema looking like an escaped psychiatric patient. I bought myself a pink bikini and lay on the beach. I wasn’t allowed to get my head wet for three days, so I baked on the sand and waded into the waist deep waves.

The city was preparing itself for New Years Eve, and the dawn of the new millennium on Copacabana Beach. I removed my bandage, dressed in white and joined the crowds on the sand, lighting candles and tossing roses, perfume and wine into the waves for the sea goddess Iemanja. At midnight the sky exploded, fireworks trailing sparks over the white sea foam. My body now throbbed with the beat of samba and the heaving crowd. Around me I heard snatches of conversation in a dozen different languages. I dived into the water and stroked out behind the waves in my white dress. On the shore a line of men stood urinating into the sea. I looked across the waves at another boy swimming in the midnight sea and laughed as I caught the next wave back to shore.

The start of something

When I was at university the opening paragraphs of my best essays would often come to me in my dreams. I would read and read, and talk over ideas with my mum as we walked around the river after dinner each night, and then when I was asleep the ideas would coalesce and I would wake up knowing exactly what I wanted to say.

For the past year I have been researching the novel I intend to write; those words that have been waiting for my own babies to grow up enough to give me the space to write them down. I have sifted through histories and biographies, newspaper articles and university dissertations. I hunkered down at the State Library and listened to cassettes of oral histories and flicked through microfiche and educational film reels. I even got to put on white gloves to turn through the yellowed pages of old newspapers.

Last week I cleared my desk, sorting through the piles of back to school stationery lists and doctors' bills. I took the pile of black and white photographs from the drawer of my Grandmothers' desk and stuck them on to the wall above my writing space. And then, last night, I dreamt that I was there, in the tobacco sheds, the action unfolding like a black and white film around me. Today I sent my three boys off to school together for the first time. Tomorrow I will sit down and write.