I’ve never been much of a beach person. I’ve got that useless, white Celtic skin that’s just no good in the sun. I’ve been known to get burnt walking under a streetlamp at night and the only way I can survive beachlife is by covering myself from head to toe in total block. Being fat and bald is bad enough in itself, without then going out in public looking like Marcel Marceau in underpants. However, my poor night’s sleep at least meant that I was awake early enough for a discreet dip in the bay before any prying eyes were up and about.
I had brought a snorkel and mask with me, as well as some fins. Quite why I had lugged these all the way over from England when I was otherwise travelling so light, I’m not sure, but this was going to be my last chance to use the things before Maine in October. The sun was rising in the sky behind me as I took to the beach. The water was perfectly still. I walked to the end of the pier and sat on the wooden swing hammock to take in the view. There was a set of steps down into the water. I tentatively dipped a toe in. It was like putting your foot into a warmed slipper. For someone who had been schooled in sea-swimming on the beaches of the Thames Estuary, I was preparing myself for that ritual of edging slowly further and further into the water over a fifteen-minute period. There was no need for that this time. I was in and up to my waist immediately.
I say up to my waist because that was about the extent of the water’s depth. I swam out about fifty yards and it actually seemed to be getting shallower. It was also green and murky. I tried on my snorkelling paraphernalia but it was a waste of time. The fins just dragged along the seabed and kept getting snagged by rocks and I could only see about two inches in front of my face. Still, it beat trying to dodge the tampons, prophylactics and raw sewage at Southend and I could certainly think of worse starts to the day.
There wasn’t much sign of life on the road to Monroeville. Well, not human life anyway. The road was flanked by trees and perhaps even bushes but it was difficult to tell. All of this foliage was covered by a parasitic ivy that didn’t leave a single square inch exposed. It was like someone very large had thrown a green leaved dust-sheet over them in preparation for the decorating or something. Two dogs were trotting along side by side on the grass verge with no building, let alone owner, anywhere in sight.
In Monroeville, I had a look around but found little of interest. I crawled through the town, but there was nothing to attract the attention of the passing tourist at 10.30 in the morning. As I neared the edge of town, I gave up searching and motored off over the brow of the hill where the shops ended. I had accelerated far too quickly, an opinion shared by the police officer who was driving his patrol car up the hill that I was now descending. I saw him immediately and threw on the anchors, but it was too late. I pulled over to the side of the road and got out to face the music, which I realized was a mistake as the policeman seemed to go for his gun. With an urgency that I found somewhat disconcerting, I was instructed to return to my vehicle instantly. I was back in the driver’s seat in about a third of a second. My clear panic seemed to placate the fellow and the rest of conversation followed in a reasonably calm tone.
“Sir. You was doin’ 64 in a 45 there. That’s way too fast.”
“I know. I don’t really have any excuse.”
“Sir, did you know how fast you was goin’?”
“Well no really. I was pulling away because I thought it was the end of the town.”
“Oh no sir. This ain’t the end of the town. It’s a 45 all the way from here for another 2 mile. Didn’t you see the sign?”
“Er, no I didn’t.”
“Well perhaps you missed it. Hey. You’re not from around here, are ya?”
“No, I’m afraid that I’m not”.
“Have you been here long today or are y’ just passing through?”
“Oh. I’m heading up to Selma. I’ve come up from the coast this morning.”
“Well you better slow down sir.”
“Yes I will.”
“I mean it sir. Please slow it down for me sir. For your own good.”
“Thank you. Yes I will.”
“Take it easy now sir and keep an eye on your speed at all times. You make sure to look out for those signs sir. And sir…please please slow down.”
I’d got the message and learned my lesson. I’d been within 1 mph of potentially going to jail. And possibly within 1 second of being shot. Either of those would have messed up my schedule a touch. I took the policeman’s imprecations to heart for the rest of the day and determined to be doubly vigilant about speed in built-up areas. I assumed that my copper couldn’t be bothered with the grief and paperwork of nicking an out-of-towner and so had let me off lightly. I think my accent had thrown him and, if the Police Stop Action videos are anything to go by, probably my candor too. The next time I might not be so lucky. But I’d definitely remember to stay in the car with my hands visible on the steering wheel.
I held a nervous 58 mph for the rest of the morning, despite being the only car on a perfectly open road. I flicked on the radio and was confronted by the choice of Country or God. I listened astounded to a religious broadcast where the subject of raising children to be missionaries was being discussed. One caller pointed out that her kids were only 4 and 1 respectively, and was upbraided by the show’s host for having a sinful attitude. “They’re never too young to start being missionaries”. The co-host pointed out that many parents seem to think that they’re doing their Christian duty if they manage to bring their children up to watch their manners, not to drink alcohol and to be still virgins when they marry. He was very dismissive of something that I would have considered to be an extraordinary achievement.
I arrived in Selma without any further brushes with the law, and I was soon driving across the historic Edmund Pettus Bridge I say historic not because it is particularly old but because it was the scene of the violent confrontation between protesters and state troopers in March 1965 that became credited with directly influencing the passage of the Voting Rights Act the following year. Out of sheer embarrassment, I had brought the Fairhope crabs with me. I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to eat them personally, but some wartime gene that I’ve inherited from my nan means that I never like to see food wasted. I couldn’t just dump them either. I stopped the car and quickly arranged the fruits de mer on top of an exchange box on the sidewalk thinking some homeless person would surely appreciate them. Judging from her quizzical expression, it was one of the more unusual things that the lady in the lighting shop nearby had seen that week.
The next stop, and lunch, was at Demopolis, apparently “home of Christmas on the river”. It was a quiet little town and there didn’t seem to be much action as I pulled into the main square. I got out of the car and went up to a stranger and asked where I could get some lunch round there. One of her suggestions, a place called BJay’s, was a few yards back down the road that I had just driven up. It was a new restaurant. In fact, it was so new and that today was their first day of business. The ambience was pleasant but unfortunately the catfish I ordered wasn’t.
Nor were the restrooms, on account of having non-partitioned cubicles. As a consequence, I found myself standing at the trough and looking down onto a bloke going about his movements in trap 1. Outside I bumped into the same stranger who asked me what I had thought of the restaurant. I told her it had been magnificent. If you liked soggy catfish and watching someone take a shit for dessert. As I was getting back in my car, I could see a man on the opposite corner becoming quite animated and trying to get the attention of (I assume) some friends who were a few yards up the road: “Hey. That’s the Englishman who was having lunch here!” Word had spread fast, and my presence seemed to have caused some sort of local stir. It might have been fun to go over and introduce myself but I didn’t really have the time and would have found it rather embarrassing. And I might have found it more than embarrassing if in fact he was summoning some sort of latter day lynch mob for foreigners and I’d walked straight into their hands. Perhaps the movies sensationalized the Deep South and there was no need to worry, but I didn’t fancy taking the chance.
I stopped and called the place I wanted to stay that night in Port Gibson MS. A slow voice answered the phone and confirmed that there was a room available that night. The conversation consisted of little more than me booking the room, checking that food would still be available, giving my credit card details and getting directions, but it lasted for thirteen minutes. She was very keen to emphasize that I should get there before nightfall because the route into town would take me through “not the best of neighbourhoods”. I told her that I was in Alabama, but hoped to be there by seven. If I could get off the phone.
I was heading up to Kosciusko to join the Natchez Trace Parkway. As soon as I crossed into Mississippi, things changed. The roads became bad and the driving worse. It was like being back in England, and not just because of the motoring. Even the trees and hills looked like the home counties. It was a strange feeling. Kosciusko was a green little town of old, largely dilapidated houses. I drove around the narrow lanes that made up its road system but nothing stood out. The locals eyed me suspiciously and I decided that I’d wasted enough time already. Mississippi’s apparent absence of any signage had resulted in my getting lost several times on the way and now I was running way behind time.
The Natchez Trace Parkway was an astounding road, not open to commercial traffic, and should be driven by anyone who remotely gets the chance to do so. It followed an ancient Native American route and was used by the likes of Andrew Jackson back in the days when it was just a muddy trail. Today it ran through some of the most idyllic parkland in the USA, with wildlife ranging from armadillos to vultures. And possibly even some creatures beginning with W X Y and Z.
Unfortunately, it had a radar-monitored speed limit of 50 mph. Even at top whack, it was going to take me two and half hours to get down to my destination for the night. It was just gone seven by the time I pulled off at the Port Gibson exit. I drove through a rough-ish looking shanty-town and took the wrong direction at the T junction. I was 10 miles further down the road before I became sure of my mistake and headed back. I found my plantation home by about quarter-to-eight.
The old lady greeted me with concern. She spoke slowly, with an almost mournful lilt. She had been worrying whether “those people” (I presumed she meant the poor black people in the shanty-town) had got me. She had her family there, a number of her own children and their spouses and even more grandchildren. She directed me to the annex and pointed out the gazebo where breakfast would be taken in the morning. The compound was huge and was dominated by a grand old colonial home. I was offered a choice of rooms in the annex and had no hesitation taking the first I was shown. The bathroom alone was bigger than most hotel rooms and the bedroom was decked out with antiques. The bed was a four-poster so high that there was a stool next to it for when you wanted to get in. All of the furniture pieces were family heirlooms pre-dating the civil war.
The old lady’s whole being seemed stuck somewhere between the pause button and the slow-motion replay. When I enquired about food, it seemed to take several seconds for it to register what I was talking about. She said she’d need to make a call, presumably to confirm a reservation at some local place. Some minutes later she reappeared below my balcony and beckoned. I followed her outside to where the cars were parked and got into a huge old Lincoln alongside her on the front bench-seat.
More minutes passed as we waited for an opening at the T-junction with the main road before finally we were on our way. We drove two blocks south and then lurched across the road into what seemed to be a used car lot. The old lady pointed at a windowless whitewashed single-storey breezeblock building with a hand-painted sign saying “Rebecca Rose Cafe” propped up against it in the mud. She told me to come back here in half-an-hour. She’d called the lady who ran the restaurant and she was coming into town especially to open up and cook for me.
By the time we’d driven back, parked and the old lady had checked three times with me that I was sure how to find my way back to the restaurant, it was time for me to set out again. This time I walked and it took all of three minutes. It didn’t look any brighter a prospect on my second visit. It was definitely part of the used car lot and it looked as if it had once been a welding shop or something. The sliding door entrance was open a crack and I could see light within. I creaked it open another foot before it stuck fast, and squeezed my body inside.
“Hello, hello, hello. Come in. Come in,” squawked an impish voice. A short round woman with a ludicrously enthusiastic grin emerged from the kitchen, and wiped her hands on her pinny. She looked like a cross between Grandma Walton and Little Jimmy Krankee. She held out her hand and introduced herself as Sherry, adding that Rose was her middle name and that she was the Rose in the Rebecca Rose. Rebecca was the woman who ran the shop but she wasn’t interested any more. She led me over to the one table that had been set and asked me whether I’d like some Zin Sangria.
The inside of the breezeblocks had not been plastered but had been spray-painted with a variety of floral designs. The ceiling was covered in black plastic sheeting that was pinned in place by white trellising. There was one air-conditioning unit and a multitude of free-standing fans. The floor was concrete and there was a piano as well as another seven or eight tables. The food was good – amounting to four separate courses – and Sherry kept the Sangria flowing all night. She chatted throughout but at the end of the meal pulled up a chair and joined me for a full-on hour of chinwag.
Sherry usually only opened from 11 until 2 at lunchtimes because there was no call for evening meals, but she did like to help out Miss Martha when she had overnight guests. I was the fifth English person she had met and it was a shame I couldn’t be here on a Sunday lunchtime because she had an old blind woman who played piano. Port Gibson had five churches for white people but about forty for the black folks; only the Roman Catholic church enjoyed a mixed congregation. Sherry liked the black folks and fraternized openly with them but this had got her a bad name in town where some people called her the “nigger whore” because she hugged her friends. She wanted to emphasize though that while “she liked her cake and her milk chocolate-flavored” that taste didn’t extend to her men.
She was originally from Illinois and had come down to Mississippi when her mother had married a truck driver from the state. “I ended up marrying one of those things as well” she rued. She thought southern men were the pits. They consider themselves to be like Rhett Butler but “in truth, they’re playing around before you’ve turned your back”. Some inter-racial marrying was now going on among the younger generation but Sherry was suspicious of the motives: “It’s about wanting to show power for the black men and it’s about getting back at the family for the white women”. She didn’t mention anything about white men marrying black women.
The racial divide seemed not only to perpetuate in Mississippi, but there didn’t seem to be any attempts to pretend that it didn’t. Even if it belied the reality, at least a certain political correctness was in force in the other southern states. A county commissioner in Atlanta GA had recently rejected plans to name a street Plantation Way, on the basis that it summoned up images of slave labor. He had likened it to naming a street Swastika Boulevard. In contrast, as recently as April 2001, a state-wide vote had been passed by a huge majority to retain a small version of the Southern Cross – generally recognized as a symbol from the age of slavery (hence the vote) – on part of the Mississippi state flag.
Back at the Plantation, I relaxed on the balcony with a beer and a cigarette and took in the atmosphere. The garden was dominated by a huge Oak Tree with a bird box about the size of a pram on the side, and was generally awash with wildlife, including a very nervous feral cat which seemed unimpressed by my attempts to make friends with it. A musty smell hung in the air that reminded me of the greenhouse in the garden of the place where I’d grown up. Perhaps it cued some sort of subconscious nostalgia, but it made me feel quite sad. By the time I went to bed I was feeling very lonely for the first time since I had left New York.