Here I am in my sixth decade on earth feeling new-born and kickin’ as I hit the high street – Fore Street, rather – of my new village, my new home in the depths of Devon. Sporting a smart green rucksack, there’s a full-on twinkle in my toes. Way hay!
Right away, I spot a sign of welcome:
St Anne’s WELCOMES all newcomers!
Coffee mornings 11 AM Wednesdays.
Hey, look at this: it’s bang on 11 o’clock! It’s Wednesday, too: it must be a sign!
Okay, we all know about church coffee mornings. All the stereotypes and stuff, but I like to think I’m open-minded. I’m a newcomer here, after all, and St Anne’s WELCOMES all newcomers.
The church tower is a stone’s throw away, baking in all its Anglo-Norman glory in the June sunshine. The bell tolls eleven. I hurry up the lane and stand at the wrought iron gate. As I wriggle it open, it grumbles and groans, weeping black flakes of paint onto my fingers. It slams shut behind me with a rattle and sputter of rust. I wipe my fingers on my jeans and push on through the graveyard.
On either side of me, the stones speak of folks who lived and died here, dates creaking with the passage of time. 1682. 1756. 1892. A bomber who died in the Second World War with a fighter plane carved into his concrete gravestone. Further along, a fresh mound of brown earth with plastic blue roses and a teddy placed on top. I stand for a moment to listen for the stories held here, but all I can hear is a lawn mower in the distance, ridden back and forth by an elderly gent, bald pate red and shining, shaving the grass down to a close blonde stubble.
The path between the graves leads to the stumpy church hall made of breeze blocks painted the colour of putty. A push bar opens the heavy door with a metallic shudder and I find myself in an airless room sweltering in the summer heat. Ten or twelve old men in tweed hunch over board games on fold-out tables exchanging conspiratorial whispers like kids in a library. As I step forward, though, their lively droning ceases. What’s left is an icy silence. Two or three men glance up at me, or rather through me, toward the door. It seems they’ve all decided to ignore me. They’ve cast their spell and, hey presto, I’ve disappeared. In that instant, normality returns, with eyes darting back to draughts, snakes and ladders, and each other.
For someone invisible, I feel pretty exposed. With relief, I see the ladies. They fuss behind the kitchen counter, laying out coffee and tea with plates of biscuits for the men. As I draw nearer to them, their collective focus sinks deeper into their bourbon creams.
And now it hits me. I’ve made a mistake. St Anne’s may welcome all newcomers, but I’m not their sort of newcomer. Okay. I had better get out before drawing further attention to myself. As I turn toward the door, an elderly lady pops out of the kitchen. (Is she really “elderly”? I ask myself. She’s probably around the same age as me!) Her arms are reaching around her back as she unties her red plaid apron when she glances up and sees me standing in front of her. I smile sheepishly and wave a hello.
Before I know it, she’s thrusting red-painted fingernails out at me and then up to her face, screaming:
“You’re not from here!!!
You’re not from here!!!”
Her voice is a lifted dagger raining blows down on me, over and over.
No one bats an eyelid. The gents continue playing draughts. The ladies continue to chatter while arranging their bourbon creams on melamine plates.
It feels surreal. But this is not a movie.
I turn on my heels, walk past the graves and the lawn mower man. I sit under a tree and burst into tears, hugging my green rucksack.
No one sees me, thankfully, because I feel ashamed. Embarrassed. Stupid. Violated. How could I have been so stupid?
Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”
But I couldn’t believe what had just happened to me. This can’t be real. Oh, I’ve experienced racism all my life. You know, “Where are you from … really?” “Why don’t you go home?” “But you speak English so well…”. You get used to this litany with time. Well, you don’t really get used to it, but you get used to trying to get used to it. But no one had actually looked at me before as if they’d seen … a terrorist?
I walk home, wondering how on earth I’m supposed to live here if I can’t be accepted for who I am. Perhaps this is a one off? I decide to call the vicar.
“Vicar,” I say, “I believe I’ve just had a racist experience in your church hall.”
A rickety voice coos over the phone. “Goodness! With respect, I find that hard to believe. We don’t have racism here. Are you coloured?” I’m too shocked to reply. “Well, I suppose you must be coloured,” the vicar muses. “It could be the Westminster Bridge attack, you know. Fresh in people’s minds right now. They’re good people. We don’t have racism here.”
The words linger in my mind for days to come. We don’t have racism here.
It feels surreal. But this is not a movie.
© Ocie Kanamori 2020
Image credit: Adam Ling from Unsplash