Check out this preview of Eleanor Nicolás’ debut novel, Traveler in the Dark
It was a secret wanting, like a song I couldn’t stop humming, or loving someone I could never have. No matter where I went, my compass pointed west. I would always know what time it was in California. – White Oleander, Janet Fitch
That August in France was waiting for the last migration and not the next. 17 year old Violet backtracked in the hallway to a book cover calling to her. The title was White Oleander. She could hardly put it down for the 3 days it took to finish. Over the years, when Violet returned to the residences occupied by her parents, she’d find it again and again. It would always survive any donation or be freed from an artefact packing box. She plucked it out now from a pre paid 10kg box she’d dispatched herself from France. She thumbed to her highlighted passages. When Violet was growing up, wherever they were, there was one certain sight. The bookcases were always stuffed with books. She sat down on a sofa only to pull a library book out from under her. There were boxes of books in garages, attics or basements. She kept books on her bedside table and under her bed. Books with bookmarks, tea stains and creased spines littered the coffee tables. There were untouchable books, not meant to be read but collector items to be sold. Hardbacks and paperbacks were put on the stairs. Violet was just shy of becoming an adult when she repatriated to the United Kingdom and lived in her country of origin for the first time. She would finish her last two years of education at a boarding school in Surrey.
“I was always waiting for you mother,” Violet read out loud
The protagonist’s name was Astrid. Her foster homes are Violet’s new countries. Astrid’s redemption is her moving to Berlin with her boyfriend. It is in that city that she can become who she is. In Berlin, Astrid buys several suitcases and each one represents her temporary homes. Violet pictures her own suitcases and tends them.
The door to Violet’s flat in East London had not been so stuck that afternoon. Violet did not have to pull as hard. She locks it from the outside and then unlocks it, testing, back and forth across the threshold. Her eyebrows raised in relief. She had moved in three months ago in July, as soon as school was out. Violet keeps BBC World Service on. It’s the first thing she does in the morning as she makes breakfast. Wherever you are in the world, this is the BBC. She turns it on when she comes home from work and prepares supper. She never changes the station. In any case, she does not need to turn the dial in order to tune into other transmissions, time zones or geographic spaces. Anything can trigger a stepover. And lately, these other radios of hers had started to crackle just that bit louder. It was a stream she could no longer ignore.
She hears the radio with her key in hand, unlike her not to turn it off. But she stops in her tracks as she heads to the kitchen. It is warmth; like that child’s game when someone pretends to crack an egg over your head. Violet is lassoed by the newsreader’s Received Pronunciation:
High profile testimony today at a landmark war crimes trial in Montreal. Former General Romeo Dallaire will recount the horrors of the Rwandan genocide at the trial of Desire Munyaneza. The Toronto man is accused of leading a Hutu militia on a rampage of rapes and murders during the 1994 massacre. This will be the first time Romeo Dallaire testifies in a courtroom in Canada. The retired Canadian general who led the United Nations Peacekeeping mission in Rwanda has never met the accused but will give evidence as an expert witness on the Rwandan genocide to provide the broader context of what happened, helping the prosecution make its case against Munyaneza. Munyaneza is the first person accused under Canada’s recent war crimes act. He faces seven charges of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. All of which carry a life sentence that would be served in Canada. So far the trial has heard from a handful of witnesses who identified Munyaneza as having murdered and raped dozens of Rwandans. The court will also hear from a Royal Canadian Mounted police officer who’s investigating Munyaneza’s role in the genocide that resulted in the deaths of more than 800,000 Rwandans in the spring of 1994. Dallaire has testified before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 2004 and he admitted that reliving those painful memories took an emotional toll. He forgot some of the events during cross exaSarahtion and people now are watching to see how Dalliare will react to being cross examined this time. Dallaire has suffered from post traumatic stress disorder, as well as attempted suicide in the wake of what he went through in Rwanda but he has since given hundreds of speeches and published a book about his experience. Still, many are watching to see how he’ll react this time. His testimony is expected to last three days and the prosecution is hoping to wrap up its part of the case early this month or early November.
Violet descends her steps onto Navarino Road in Hackney and walks on Graham Road towards Hackney Central Station. She gets a weekend travel card. It reads Saturday the 6th of October, 2007. She checks her watch and quickens her pace. An automated voice announces stops on the 242 bus to Saint Paul’s Cathedral: Dalston Junction Station…Shoreditch Church…Liverpool Street station. Violet almost misses her stop, jumping out just in time and returning to her body.
“You’re here!” Violet spins round to embrace her
“I am, oh it’s so lovely to see you again,” Marine says
“From Ankara to London. You have hardly changed! Me?”
“No, not really. Come on, let’s find a seat.”
“I didn’t choose Paul because you’re French,” Violet tells her with a wink.
“Ah,” Marine gives a Gallic shrug. “I never thought of myself as really French you know. And I’m Canadian now.”
“And now you’ll be a Londoner. I think London is the 7th French city,”
“I love Montreal and I’m going to miss it but we are looking forward to our work at the National Bank of Canada,”
“Where’s the office?”
“So, this is going to be one of your neighbourhoods?”
“Where will you live?”
“Guillaume found a flat in Bow? I’m not sure how you pronounce it,”
“Bow as in go. I’m just a bus ride away,”
“I knew I didn’t want to live in France after my studies. During an internship in Canada, I found love and decided to give it a try.”
“What are the Quebecois like?”
“In France people are immobiles and always see the negative side of things. If you want to go in another project, they will tell you it won’t work. In Quebec, people will encourage you and if you fail, at least you will have tried. People in Quebec are more true, they will express their emotions, even men to men which I barely see in France. Quebec people are much less stuck in the conventions and the etiquette. They say tu instead of vous. They don’t judge you because of where you are from. They always ask how you are when you come in a store, which is never happening in France. In France if you are nice and smile to people, they will think you are dumb. In Quebec, they think you are a good person,”
“I remember meeting a man from Paris and he didn’t like Quebec at all. He said they were too hard, too direct. No softness,”
“Mmm I don’t agree at all, Maybe it depends in which city he lived? I find it surprising. They probably didn’t like him. I know some people don’t like the French for various reasons. One day I was sharing breakfast with the other customers in a bed and breakfast and there was a women that went super hard on me all the time saying that we abandoned them to the English people uh… 300 years ago… and that we had given up our language as we added a few English words in our vocabulary. People often put it on the table especially after a few beers. The preservation of their language is a very sensitive subject that I always tried to avoid as it leads nowhere. They just want us to apologize and recognise a fault that I think we are not responsible for. But this is a very small part of Quebec people. Also, French people, they have the tendency of staying with other French people and criticizing everything. That is why they are not very accepted and some people from Quebec don’t like it. The French are called the ‘oui mais’ or ‘yes but’. Meaning ‘yes but in France, we do it that way’. Of course I understand it is very irritating. I have only very few French friends in my circle, exactly for that reason.”
“Is your French accent changing?”
“No, I don’t think so. Well, maybe a bit. The accent is very difficult and very hard to understand at first. It took me a bit of time to understand my father in law. The vocabulary is a mix between English, old French and their own expressions that are directly related to their history when they settled in Quebec. They swear totally differently than us, they use religious terms. What about your parents?”
“Well, Dad retired. They still live across the border, close to Geneva. Same house…”
“They will stay there?”
“Yes, I think they will.”
A waiter came to wipe down the tables and clear. He was very taken with Marine.
“Are you American?”
“And you must be too,” he said to Violet
“No, I’m not,”
“But your accent?”
“Long story,” Marine said, waving him away. “Thank you! My parents settled in Italy, that was the last posting before he retired and yeah, they just stayed,”
“Yes but now they are completely inactive. They don’t go anywhere, we go to them. All the years of moving, one crisis after another and now they barely go out the front door,”
As if on cue, Marine’s father’s telephones her. They start laughing.
“He calls me all the time for no reason,”
“That’s nice,” Violet takes a sip of her coffee. Her parents did not do that.
“Bonjour Monsieur,” Violet greets him. “I was 14 years old the last time you saw me,”
Violet recalls how she used to phone her grandmother as a girl just to hear her voice. But the conversation strained as her grandmother was struggling to make sense of her life.
“That does sound nice dear,” she’d say
“When did you return to England ?” Marine asks, wrapping up the call. “And return is such a hollow word for it but you know what I mean,”
“I do. I came back at 17. Boarding school and then London for university. And I’ve been here ever since. Is your sister in France now?”
“Yes, based in Marseille but she travels everywhere, photojournalism,”
“Yes, I gathered as much from Facebook. I was so happy when I found you both there,”
Dusk came to the postcode E5 and a twilight of obscurity, ambiguity and gradual decline into the past would begin.
“Violet! Au revoir,” Marine calls from where they’d parted at the tube stop
“A la prochaine!” she turns and waves. Her arm high in the air, in salute. Marine is one of few people who had had the same childhood as her.
The route from Saint Paul’s back into Hackney is one Violet knows well like a black cab driver. She decides to walk home, the pigeons making way for her. She only stops to admire an iconic but now disused red telephone box. Listen, Violet, I’m going to call you and tell you a story because no one else is going to tell it for you.Walking the streets of the capital has always made her mind drift, not up but along like the seagulls on the Thames. She is gone, plugged out of this city, for it had already welcomed her long ago. Laissez passez she would read inscribed on her father’s United Nations travel document, official missions only. Let me pass.Waiting at the zebra crossing is waiting at a checkpoint. The stamp in her passport a stamp on her heart. Border control traces her face and she theirs. A turn on a corner at London Wall a transcendence, as if through an arrival or departure gate at an airport. Is there a song you forgot the words to? As a girl she had passed through many ports; destination known but unknown. Was alighting arriving or leaving? She had been confused by this, even today. Violet rewinds her film as the red Routemasters shudder past on Whitechapel Road. It has all been unraveling in any case. She is no one you know in the reflected glass of an off licence, hidden as she blends in so well. The city plugs back into her at the pedestrian crossing under a Cambridge Heath Station sign. Footsteps passing, traffic, calls from a coot, voices from a nearby building site, a bicycle passing on loose concrete paving slabs. A honk of a horn, a resident slamming the door of a flat. An airplane drones overhead. She sifts as she approaches Mare Street, turning back the pages of the book of her life. She stops to a standstill and turns, looks behind her, far back to see what she can see. What had been what?
Check out more by Eleanor at her author website.