Stories

 

KAYA

The moon made the ocean silvery and the plane flipped so low we seemed to be just above the tops of forest trees. Then we had a noisy landing with the brakes screeching but everyone in the plane clapped.  Dad pulled my rucksack out of the overhead cupboard and asked me if I was OK.
      ‘We’re home,’ he said.
But it wasn’t my home.   That was back in England, in  45 Willowbay Rd. Dad stood for ages in front of me at the top of the metal stairs, just breathing in, and the other passengers were laughing at him. But when I got through the plane door I could smell that flowery smell in the air and the heat was like being wrapped in a duvet
      The airport was tiny but full of noise and people.  Everyone was shouting and pushing, so Dad told me to stand close to the passport control, while he went to get the big suitcase, and it really was big, the size of a fridge.
      The lights from the airport were the only lights around, so the streets were really dark.  I could see the faces of the big boys hanging around outside, because they were lit up from that yellow inside light coming through the windows.
      The bus took us to a dock where a big ferry was waiting and we drove inside.  Dad said it was too hot to stay there, so we got out and pushed our way through the crowds of people on the stairs and passages.  Dad took my hand and told me to watch my rucksack.  He bought me a coke in a café and there were two comedians telling jokes, one with a painted, white face but I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  Dad said they were making fun of people like him, coming back, ‘justcams’.  He took me outside to look at the sky and the river.  It was so wide you couldn’t see the city on the other side and the black water was swirling around and slapping against the sides of the old ferry.  Dad told me it was opening out into the Atlantic and I could see, by the moonlight, the edge of the land and beyond, where the ocean was.
      ‘This is where they carried the slaves from,’ he said. ‘There’s an island way up there where they held them.’
I kept that information.  Dad liked to know that I would remember things like that.
I looked at the moonshine on the water and thought about Mum.  She wouldn’t have liked this crowded ship, I know.  I missed her so much but Dad got annoyed if I kept asking when she was coming back or if she was coming to meet us here, so I didn’t say anything.  We had to push out way back to the bus again for landing and I squashed against a girl my age, putting a bowl of something on her head.  Our eyes met and she looked at my long braids with the beads at the end that clanked in the wind.  Dad had let me get it done before we travelled.  Her hair was corn-rowed to her scalp in segments. 
      Dad said the bus would drop us in Rawdon St and that his cousin would be there to pick us up.  It seemed a long way from the dock, with no street lights, just small lamps by the sides of stalls but the pavements were full of people walking in the dark.  We got off outside a shop and Dad told me to look down as we walked to the bottom of the slope, because of the broken pavements and open drains.  It didn’t smell nice.  Everyone was black, you know, really black, like Daddy.  I didn’t see one white person apart from a woman in a big car, who leaned out of the window to buy eggplants from a stall.
      Dad’s cousin came to meet us in a taxi, a yellow one.  We all squashed in on the torn seats.  The driver turned the steering wheel with a wad of notes in his hand.  Dad and uncle Lamin talked and laughed the whole way, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  Dad had taught me some Krio and spoke to me sometimes but Mummy didn’t really like it.   What’s the point of teaching her that language, she would say.  Uncle Lamin turned to me and touched my cheek.
      ‘So this is Natasha.  Fine girl.  Welcome.’
I didn’t know what to say so I just pressed my hands onto my jeans and smiled.  The taxi had to stop sometimes because the road was very busy and boys came with newspapers, pushing them into the window but Uncle Lamin just waved them away.
      We stopped outside a yellow house, with a metal gate that swung open into a yard. A small, fat woman with a blue scarf tied around her head stood there and I knew it was grandma, because I’d seen her in photographs. She put her arms around me and pulled me against her bosom, which was hard and squashy at the same time and I could smell cooking on her, a sort of oniony, spicy smell.
      ‘So na u na mi bobo im pikin, Thank God I don finally see you.’
She was nice and warm and I liked her fat arms around me.  Dad was smiling looking at us.  And then there was a whole heap of grown-ups and kids crowding around, but Dad told everyone to go inside, where we all perched on the chairs and edges of chairs in the sitting room.  On the blue wall there were lots of photos of me and Dad and one of Mummy and Dad’s wedding day but later Dad took down that photo because I never saw it again. In the photo Mummy was wearing a long white dress and her blonde hair was done in a knot with flowers.
      Grandma brought me a bottle of Seven Up from a big freezer in the corner. It was nice and cold and I was so hot in my jeans and sweatshirt and socks and trainers.  My cousins were chattering away to me and laughing.  Jocelyn, who was about my age, brought me a plate of rice and stew from the back.  It was spicier than how Dad cooks it but I tried to finish it.  They put the television on and it was a music programme, so what with all the music and chatting, hot food and smell of the diesel from the generator, I felt quite dizzy.  I wondered what Dad was doing.  And where the toilet was.  Grandma came out to sit with me.
      ‘A big girl,’ she said squashing in next to me.  ‘How you do in school?’
      ‘I’m learning the viola, grandma.’  She smiled but I was sure she didn’t know what that was because Dad hadn’t till I explained it to him. I didn’t know whether to call her Grandma Claudia because I had another Grandma in Poland, Grandma Danuta, who I had met.
      At last Dad came back and leaned over me.
      ‘Now then Tasha, you will sleep with Grandma in the big double bed and I’ll be down the hallway. I’ve got a mosquito net to fix up over the bed.  And take your tablets with your drink.  Don’t drink the water.  Grandma will boil some up and keep it in the fridge for you.   Jocelyn, take Tasha to the bathroom so she knows where the toilet is.’
Sleeping with Grandma!  I’ve got my own room, at home, with a TV in it.
      Jocelyn took me down the corridor to the back.  It was a proper toilet, like back home.  I’d been worried it wouldn’t be.  She told me to take water from the bucket of water standing in the bath to wash my hands, as the taps didn’t work.
      Although it was so hot and noisy outside, as I could hear the men’s voices from the yard, including my Dad’s, I fell asleep and only woke a bit when grandma got into bed.  I could hear her slapping cream onto her skin.  She only snored a little bit so I soon went back to sleep. 
      Grandma got up early. There wasn’t even any sunshine, just a kind of half light.  There was a strange singing coming from nearby, like one voice going up and down and she told me it was the mosque, that people were saying their prayers.  My cousin Jocelyn was already up and going to get water from the pump.  She said it wasn’t far to go so I went with her.  We had to wait in the queue for ages with other kids, some of them had walked a very long way, she told me.  We filled the yellow plastic container and I helped her put it on her head.  It was way too heavy.  She tried to put it on me but we were laughing too much.   The other kids were looking at me, I suppose because I’m mixed race, light skinned and asking about who was the yellow pikin, but I’m proud of being a bit Polish and a bit African. 
      Grandma heated up water for me and brought the bucket into the bathroom and gave me a plastic cup.  A nice warm bath would have been fantastic but I wasn’t going to complain.  Dad wanted to make this a happy trip, for me to see all my cousins and family, so I didn’t want to go on about stuff.   But I know Mummy wouldn’t have liked it and would have been on his case, big time.
      I played skipping games in the street with Jocelyn and the others, though I couldn’t get my tongue around some of the rhymes.  It wasn’t a real road, like back home, just sort of hard, red earth and lumpy.  I watched the cars and people going backwards and forwards and even a big parade, with musicians playing trumpets, horns and rows of drums.
      One day passed another and I took pictures on my phone to show my friends (and Mummy if she came to visit me).  Uncle Lamin took us to Lumley Beach and we had ice-cream and swam in the sea, though Dad stopped me from going out too far, even though I’ve got my twenty lengths certificate.  One day Dad took us all out to a beautiful beach, that he said was River Number Two.   We had a lovely picnic and played in a stream that flowed into the ocean.  There was a devil in a big mask and everyone was dancing around him, including Dad and a woman he said was Evelyna, who had travelled in the second car. 
      Grandma took me and my cousins to church with her on Sunday. My Auntie Lucee came too.  She asked me if I had a dress with me to wear as I was always in jeans or shorts or leggings.  I had to iron the dress I’d brought with me and clean my shoes. Grandma said she would get take me to the market and get a nice piece of gara cloth, to get a dress made for me.  I don’t really wear dresses much but I said thank you.  I wondered where Dad was and I asked Auntie Lucee if he was coming but she just shook her head and smiled.   Church was so loud.   The music and singing was nice but it went on for such a long time and the pastor was shouting till my head hurt.  Mummy used to take me to church sometimes but it was always very quiet and calm, with candles and we did a lot of kneeling.  I made my first holy communion three years ago and had a beautiful white dress with a train.  I wondered if Mummy had got some of the photos from that day.
      There was a lot of stuff about the devil and I thought of the masked devil on the beautiful beach we went to.  I could almost taste the slices of fresh pineapple we ate that day.  I smiled thinking of the hills behind the beach that were so full of trees. One of my cousins went to get me a jelly coconut.  He slashed off the top and told me to drink the coconut water and scooped out the white coconut jelly from inside.  It was almost as cold as ice-cream.  Then that made me think about the Evelyna Dad was dancing with.  I could see she was very pretty, with a wide smile and her hair falling in soft curls round her face, so that you could hardly see her eyes.  She didn’t have it braided.   So then I said a prayer that she wasn’t going to be a new Mummy. If Mummy can’t come back, then I wanted it to be just me and Dad. 
      So I got a shock the next day when Grandma said that Evelyna was going to take me to the market to choose a piece of cloth and I’d get measured up for a nice dress.
      ‘Can’t you take me Grandma?’
      ‘Well, I got too much to do.  All these people to feed.   And the girl who does the washing is coming today.’
      Dad turned up later with Evelyna and he pulled this thick wad of notes out of his pocket and gave it to her, to take me to the market. I wondered why he didn’t give it to me.  I’m sensible with money and I never lose any. 
      ‘And get some for yourself too,’ he said pressing another wad into her hand. ’I’ll catch you later.’
      I decided I wasn’t going to talk to her all the way to the market, so I concentrated on walking carefully around the drains and traffic.  I pretended I couldn’t understand what she was saying but really I could.  She just smiled and edged me between the stalls till we got to one where bolts of cloth were piled on top of each other.
      ‘Which colour do you like Tasha?  This smoky pink one or this blue and green?  I didn’t really want to buy any of them but to annoy her I chose a brown one, sort of coffee and cream pattern.
      ‘This is too old for you – choose a nice, bright colour.  This pink and blue one would suit you with your pretty skin colour.’ She held it out to me with her long red nailed hand but I shook my head, so the stall holder measured out two lapas.  Evelyna picked a mauve lacy cloth and held it against her in front of the mirror. We took the material to another shop, where the tailor took my measurements.  He already had hers but he made some joke about it and she sort of blushed and started laughing.
      We’d been there over a week, when Grandma got up from kneeling to say her prayers, sat on the edge of the bed and said. ‘I know you miss your Mummy, Tasha.  I am praying for you.’
      I could feel tears pushing their way up and through my head but I wanted to be brave and anyway, I had done all my crying in secret, away from Dad, but I couldn’t help a few tears falling down the side of my cheek.  Grandma patted my head. ‘You will see her again, I’m sure. But not just now.  She has gone home.  I don’t think she was happy with my son, your father.’ She shook her head. ‘Perhaps it was a mistake.’ She rolled in beside me and put her squashy arm around me. She smelt of smoked fish because she’d been taking the bones out of the ones we brought back from the seaside.
      ‘Maybe,’ she said ‘Your Daddy will find a new wife here.  From his own people.’
I stiffened.  What was going on?  Were we going to stay here forever and not go back home?  But it was so hot all the time and I wanted to see my friends and eat pizza on Friday nights and have sleepovers watching films.
      Dad was out a lot because he said he had a lot of old friends to catch up with.  I didn’t mind. It was fun spending time with Jocelyn and the others, though they had an awful lot of chores to do but, sometimes, even they were fun, like the day we spent getting the rose apples from the tree in the back yard. But one day he asked me if I’d like to go to Lumley Beach again for an ice cream at Kingdom Hall. So we got a taxi through town, which I nearly knew the way through now, down Campbell St and out beyond the prison and over a bridge and into the wide streets with big houses. 
      There were lots of colourful stalls on the beach and he asked me if I wanted to buy a present for my best friend, Alicia, so I chose a t shirt with a map of Africa on it and some cowrie shells around the neck.  We ate our ice-creams and walked along the sand, watching the lines of fishermen pulling in their huge nets.   He stopped to buy some fish for grandma and said
      ‘How are you liking it here Tasha?’
      ‘It’s great Dad.  I’m having a nice time. But when are we going home?’
      ‘Next week.  We fly on Wednesday.  Look, there’s something I need to tell you.’
My breath stopped.
      ‘Your mummy isn’t going to come back.  She wants to stay in Poland.  I’m sorry but we are not happy together.’
I didn’t say anything but I remembered all the rows and shouting and broken plates.  I’d told Alicia that home was like a war going on.
      ‘A man needs a wife.  A daughter needs a mother.’
      ‘Oh.  But we’re fine Dad.’ I could feel mounting panic. ‘I’ve got a Mummy, even if she doesn’t live with me any more.’
      ‘I really like Evelyna.  I knew her when I was at secondary school and now we’ve caught up again.  I would like to marry her and bring her to England.’
Well at least we weren’t staying here for ever but his news tasted bad in my mouth so I spat on the ground to stop being sick.
      ‘She’s a nice lady, isn’t she?’
I looked up at his big man’s face, his head shining in the sunlight, his eyes looking far out to sea. ‘Suppose,’ I said and he just patted my head.
      ‘I think you’ll get along.’
      The whole family got dressed to go to a party to remember an uncle who had died a year ago.  Grandma had been cooking for ages and was bringing pepper chicken with her so that the taxi smelt like her kitchen.  Of course Evelyna was there, sat right next to Dad. They kept whispering and giggling together.  Her skirt was so tight, she could hardly sit down and get up again and her red nails now matched her red lipstick.  She kept shaking her head to flick back the long hair off her face and I wondered could it be a wig?  It stayed on very well.
      I wondered if I willed it hard enough, would she fall down the stone stairs in her high heels and then have to go home, but it didn’t work.  She came over to me and squatted, I don’t know how, and held my chin up to look at me.
      ‘I’ll be coming to visit you in London soon Tasha.  I hope you are going to show me around all the shops.’
I tried to smile but my mouth became very tight. This was going to call for more than wishes and spells. Later that night, while Grandma was saying her prayers I texted Alicia and told her the problem.  Advice needed I said.  But all she wrote was, just be horrible to her and she’ll go away.  She didn’t know my Dad that well.
I didn’t make up my mind to do it.  It just sort of happened.  Grandma sent me down to the kiosk on the corner to buy some matches and I looked at the thousand Leone note in my hand.  It seemed like a lot of money.  I knew it wasn’t really because I’d seen my Dad buying an ice-cream with five thousand.  Then I saw a Devil dancing down Circular Rd with a crowd of people in costumes singing, dancing, shaking instruments and banging drums and I sort of followed along with a bunch of other kids, trailing at the back.  The Devil danced in and out of streets and past the big pink church and down the hill and into an alley way.    They wouldn’t let the kids follow down so I wandered off in the direction of the church I went to with grandma, least I thought it was, but the houses were so higgledy piggeldy, I got confused.  And then I ended up on the busy road that takes you to the normal shops.  I recognised some of the big buildings and a stall that sold colourful dresses.  It would be nice if I had enough money to buy mummy one. She loves the colour red and these dresses were so bright, blowing around in the breeze like empty rag dolls.
Then the pavements got busier and busier and I had to weave in and out of men in suits, looking like they were coming from important jobs, ladies in beautiful dresses, grown-ups and kids selling things from the bowls and baskets on their heads, carts of men selling green coconuts, kiosks with radios and batteries, playing music, boys changing money, beggars, small boys running around.  It was so confusing and hot as.  The smell wasn’t nice either. I was so thirsty I bought a small plastic of water from a girl with a tray, selling them at the car windows.  There was a tall woman with hair the same colour as mummy’s up ahead so I tried to catch up with her, just thinking, just maybe it might be mummy, come to look for me.  I ran up beside her and looked up as she looked down and smiled, but she was nothing like her really, and older I think, with a paper file under her arm and a big badge on her shirt.
So then I sat down near the big, big tree, that Dad called the Cotton Tree and he’d taken me to see it one day, talking about history and stuff. I watched all the cars and people pressed up against each other and thought about the day I went shopping in Oxford St with Mummy and she put a shopping bag down and a thief ran off with it so fast, we couldn’t catch her.  Mummy started shouting in Polish, like she does when she’s angry and people stopped and stared.   Some people passing by stared at me but I didn’t take any notice of them.  And then a man with no arms came by begging for money and I felt frightened.  I know it’s not right to be scared of people who are disabled but I did, so I sort of folded myself into the bench.   Then another boy, older than me, sat down beside me.  He was wearing a torn t shirt and broken flip flops and started talking to me, but I could only get bits and pieces. He worked out I wasn’t local so he said
‘You must get money. Gi mi one thousand.’
But I just shook my head and he started to get angry and grabbed at the pockets in my jeans, so I pushed and slid out of his grasp and ran along the street, feeling him behind me, but I was in trainers and he was in flip flops, also I was smaller and could get through the crowds more easily.  Then I ran out of breath and leaned against the wall of an old church.   It was beginning to get dark now and I didn’t know where I was.   At the bottom of the sloping street opposite, I thought I could see water, so that must be the ocean.  It was going to be cooler, close to the sea, so I crossed over and walked down past a café.  There were a lot of white people coming in and out, and big cars in the street with their lights on.  I wondered if Dad knew I was missing now and lost.   Would he be looking for me or busy spending time with Evelyna?   I knew he was going to be mad as when he found me.  Was Grandma Claudia worrying about me?  It looked so dark at the bottom of the street, I was afraid to go on and there were so many beggars around the café, bothering the people coming in and out.  They looked so poor.  Some were on crutches.  One man had only one leg.  Some of the rich people coming out the café gave them money and others just walked past to their big cars.  I went up to one woman and touched her on the arm.  Perhaps she would help me get back to Grandma’s but she must have thought I was begging too and brushed my hand away.  I felt a tear in my eye and the crowd of beggars were muttering bad words at me.  Back up the hill, on the main road, the tears were coming out faster now but in the crowd no-one could see and I couldn’t see very well so I bumped into a girl the same height as me, with a red plastic container on her head.
‘Na wetin matter wit yu? She said.
‘Sorry,’ I said.
She looked at my face and the tears were falling now.  Hers was round and very dark and shiny and she he had big round eyes and dimples in her cheeks.  She touched my arm. ‘Kam,’ she said and we went up a side street where a woman was sat behind a stall.  They talked in a language that wasn’t even Krio.
The girl took the red plastic container off her head and wound down the piece of cloth it had been balanced on. 
‘No cry ya,’ she said ‘Kam sidohn.’
‘I’m lost.  I don’t know how to get home.’
‘We yu fambul dehn?’  I knew she was asking about my family so
I told them about my Grandma, Mrs. Claudia Kamara and I remembered the name of the street.  They talked to each other in their language and the girl pulled out a piece of what she was selling. ‘Kaya’, she said and snapped me off a bit.  It was really sweet. ‘A nem Rugiatu,’ she said.  I told her my name was Natasha. ‘Yu kin sho mi di rod,’ she said, pulling me up by the arm.  She lifted the red container on her head and we started walking up along the busy main street. We walked in the dark, stepping over storm drains and round stalls, between people walking and people selling, until we came to the street with the bright pink church.  I told her we were not too far.  She was stopping every once in a while to shout ‘I geh de kaya fe sale’ and a few people stopped to buy from her.  As we climbed the hill, we got closer to Grandma’s and I pointed to the house, when we got to the end of the street.  She turned to look at me, smiled and pointed at my trainers.
      ‘Gi mi di krep, nor ya?’
She had a pair of flip flops on and I had another pair of shoes in the suitcase.  I thought, well, Dad’s going to be so happy to see me he’s not going to be annoyed I gave my Nikes away, so I slipped them off and ran towards Grandma Claudia’s yellow house.  I could hear Rugiatu shouting thankyou as she walked back the way she came, with the red container of peanut biscuits on her head, and holding the rubber flip flops in her left hand.
      
      



From :Dancing With a Stranger, Red Squirrel Press, 2015
www.redsquirrelpress.com


Sword Beach
I didn’t want to throw up in the tent so I got out of the sleeping bag and hauled myself through all the debris on the floor. My head vibrated with orange light as the sun streamed through the cotton ceiling. I vomited into the blackberry bushes. The smell of coffee hit me. People were already up, chattering and a bloody blackbird was giving it in a tree nearby.
Had I really eaten so much? It was the Calvados passed round the campfire when the beer ran out. I hoped my kids wouldn’t wake up. I vomited again and sensed disapproving eyes over today’s Le Monde. I was probably confirming everything they already thought about English women.
Yes, it had been Ben’s idea to go camping. I wish I hadn’t lost my rag with him yesterday when we were putting up the tent. If he had a proper father, if his father was here instead of prison, he’d be doing it, so my Dad and Ben had to work out the mechanics between them. My mouth felt disgusting even after rinsing it out with a swig of water.
Zoe was the first to wake up. Ben would emerge later. He was a teenager, just, after all. Once I heard Zoe stirring I knew I had to get into action and light the gas to get water on to boil. I suddenly remembered my Dad. He’d had a drink or two last night – what had happened to him? He seemed to disappear at one point.
‘Mum, you smell horrible. What is it?’
‘Just a bit sick.’
‘Are you alright?’ She still had that little girl sweetness.
‘Just something I ate.’
‘I had a nice time playing out with Therese last night but we can’t say much. She’s got her dog with her and we made a dam in the stream. My feet got really cold.’
I rubbed her feet between my hands. The nails were still like small shells that I sometimes let her put varnish on. She fetched water for me and we chucked it over the bushes.
I thought if I could just get the breakfast ready then I could take my sleeping bag outside and lie down in the shadow of the tent. Then I heard my Dad whistling as he cut through the campsite with a baguette under his arm and a plastic of milk. He was wearing those strange shoes, halfway between trainers and moccasins with squashy soles so his feet didn’t hurt.
‘All right Denise?’ He grinned from ear to ear. ‘Bye, you look rough.’
I poured boiling water on the tea bags.
‘Not too chilly for you at night Dad?’
‘Brought my thermals. What’s that smell?’
I said nothing while I assembled frying pan and bacon.
‘Nothing a cup of tea won’t solve, love.’ He pulled apart a folding chair and eased his sizeable bulk onto the striped canvas.
‘I’ve checked the map – one road from here to Falaise.’
I knew Ben was excited about going to the old battle grounds with his granddad, though he found it hard to imagine this overweight, balding man with arthritic hands in the uniform of the Royal Engineers, fighting for his life on the D-Day beaches. War films and history lessons – somehow they didn’t square up with the old man and his Match of the Day and a pint of Boddingtons.
When we got to Falaise the market was in full swing. The stalls glittered with jars and bowls holding the crown jewels – olives like jade and jet beads, raspberries like tiaras of rubies and the agate of artichokes. The air was thick with the smell of burning butter as the crepe stalls got it going.
‘We fought the Germans through this square – Look, that’s were the snipers were, in the Church bell tower.’ He fingered the rough bullet holes in the church walls, gouged out chunks of brick and mortar.
‘Awesome’ said Ben. ‘Where did all the blood go?’
‘My mate Reggie got killed over there. A grenade.’ He pointed to La Mairie, now white like a wedding cake decorated with tricolour flags.
On the way home the Normandy fields and farms glowed lush and dark green in the dusk. Cows, the colour of clotted cream, chewed, plump and peaceful. Apples ripened in the orchards like spawn in their jelly waiting to come alive.
After we’d eaten our potatoes and tinned stew, the kids were sent to the block to wash up.
‘Go easy on the sauce tonight, love’ he said.
‘No camp fire party tonight.’
‘But anyway, you’re..’
‘What? Anyway where did you skedaddle off to last night?’
He tapped his finger at the side of his nose like an extra in a war film set in Italy.

Day five was our trip to the beaches, in particular Sword Beach. Dad had pinned his Croix de Guerre to the lapels of his jacket. Ben was beside himself with vicarious excitement but Dad was reticent in his answers.
‘So you had to get out of those landing craft and fight your way up?’
‘Yes and the sea was freezing and bloody..’
‘Where were the Germans?’
‘In Panzer tanks waiting beyond the beach for us.’
Dad pointed beyond the dunes where the marram grass rustled and gossiped. Near us a family had spread a blanket out with a table-cloth on top. Bowls were laid out and someone was pouring glasses of wine. A screaming toddler ran towards the sea, chased by a woman smoking a cigarette. Dad waved to an elderly woman in a flowery dress sat on one of the beach chairs. She was slicing bread with the loaf tucked under one arm. Hre white hair was pulled into a symmetrical chignon. Dad raised his straw trilby in greeting. She had a light tan and small eyes black as olives.
‘Hello Matilde’ he said.
‘Bonjour Monsieur Joe. Ca va?’ She pointed at his medal and smiled. Dad’s face was like a firework that’s just had its blue taper lit.
There were some old concrete gun turrets sunk into the sand at the top of the dunes, askew and drunk, one eye leering. It was hard for Dad to get to the top so we linked arms. Ben bent to the dark gape.
‘D’you think there are German bones in there Grandad?’
From the top we looked along the beach at the gay umbrellas and parties of families, football games and children jumping the waves. There were containerships in the haze of the horizon.
‘Hard to imagine, isn’t it Dad?’
He stood still, saying nothing but from the angle where I was stood I could see one tear slip out the left corner of his pale blue eye and slide down his cheekbone into his jowl. I pressed his arm into me. There was nothing to say. He’d once told me he was the only one of his platoon to survive. It was impossible for me to imagine how that felt. Kind of guilty I’d guessed and now, trying to imagine that moment I thought about what he had done with the rest of his life. Had he earned the gift of life? Had he paid his dues?
Zoe was getting restless with all this old people’s stuff so we lay down together and made a sausage, rolling down the side of the dune, grains of sand in our ears and hair and inside our jeans. Maybe these grains held someone’s DNA, miniscule fragments of bone or blood.
The campfire socialising had begun by the time we got back to the camp site. Flames lit up the Gallic faces. Matilde was with some of her family round the fire. She raised a glass in greeting when she saw Dad. The man who’d said he was a policeman in Paris gave me a lop-sided smile and looked me up and down. I breathed in and straightened my still wiry posture.
We managed to throw together some sausages and beans, hoping our neighbours couldn’t see.
‘Go easy tonight Denise. Why do you drink yourself into a coma?’
‘I’ve a lot on my plate.’
He just looked and said nowt. I felt ashamed.
‘I know you went through the war an’ that but, Dad, I’ve been through a bloody war myself.’
‘You’ve not told me much, just that… fellah.’
‘Jimmy.’
‘Yes him. He’s away, isn’t he? But.’
‘You want to know why?’
He leaned forward and patted my arm.
‘Did he hurt you?’
‘You don’t know the half of it. I’m glad that bastard’s in prison. It’s where he belongs. The things he did to me.’
It was hard for him I know. He’d rather not talk about anything disturbing. Football, the weather, the roses, they were safe. Mostly.
‘But you’re here, living and breathing.’
I nodded and looked to the fire where that good looking policeman was pouring a round of drinks.
‘You’re worth... you’re worth more.’ Dad struggled to find words for the kind of thing he’d never say. No, I thought, perhaps I won’t get paralytic tonight and wake up with a gendarme out of his uniform.


This story won a prize in the North Tyneside short story competition.

 

Snow On Snow

When he hears the Jamaican accent through the phone his face tightens. It usually means his father wants something. His eyes half close as he weighs up the truth. He notices how his father’s voice sounds, like a tenor singer. All sweetness. It’s dusk and the sodium streetlights have come on, which he can see through the sitting room window. Snowflakes pattern down through the yellowing light. The rooftops of the houses opposite have been iced with a thin layer of snow.

‘It’s damn cold Leo’

‘What about a rescue service? The police patrol will stop and help get a garage out to tow you.’

‘You think Babylon goin’ to rescue an old black man? Anyway, ain’t got no cash.’

Don’t, thinks Leo, Don’t pull the you’ve got to help me because this country’s racist card from the pack. You’ve done it too often. He excuses himself and says he’ll call back when he’s seen to the kids.

‘Lend me a tenner Leo’. As Gemma bends over to zip up her high-heeled boots her red hair falls into her mouth. ‘I’m going to the offie – need a Chardonnay.’

Leo gets his wallet out, flicking open the buttery leather flap. As he pulls out a note he snags something under Milly and Jake’s photo. It’s a tattered snap of himself as a four year old with a fuzz of dandelion hair, leaning against his Dad who looks cool in a jaunty velvet cap.

‘Daddy’ There’s a wail from upstairs and another one.

‘There’s a sad dog.’

‘It’s your turn’ says Gemma.

‘While you satisfy your alkie cravings?’

‘I was not the adult being summoned.’

‘The football’s about to start.’

‘I’m out of here.’ As she opens the front door a blast of snowflakes float melting into spots of water on the carpet.

‘Daddy!’ The voices are getting screamier. He takes the stairs two at a time. Milly stands on her princess pillows and points through the clotted flakes on the window.

‘Doggie’s lost in the snow. Look Daddy.’

‘Lost. Lost,’ adds Jake.

Lamplight in the street glimmers amber through the gauze of falling snow. There are slight indentations where people have walked. A stout black dog looks up to the lit window. The snow forms a crust on his fur. His stance suggests middle age and he’s of no discernible breed.

‘He’s so cold Daddy.’ Milly looks up to her father with tragic brown eyes.

‘He’ll make a mess on the carpet.’ The children start wailing.

‘Your mum’ll be furious.’

‘Baby Jesus loves him’ says Milly.

Leo looks at his watch and thinks his own mother now she’s born-again has a lot to answer for. Two minutes to kick off.

‘O.K. Just let him in for a few minutes to warm up.then’

The children jump down from their beds and follow Daddy downstairs. Leo opens the front door and a blast of flakes hits him. He tastes one on his tongue as he shouts the dog over.

The dog waddles into the sitting room and sinks in front of the gas fire, shivering. Leo looks for an old tea towel and rubs its back. Milly and Jake stand close to the dog staring at it. The dog lifts his heavy black head and sad, slow eyes.

‘Now I have to explain this to your mother’ he says. He lifts one child under each arm and runs upstairs as they giggle and throws them laughing onto their beds.

‘Now then.’ He puts his hands on both hips ‘Sleep time. Daddy’s going to watch Man U.’

He jumps and does a mock header at the light shade and flees downstairs just as the telephone rings again. He can hear Gemma turning her key in the lock and the scrape of sole on welcome mat.

‘Yeah Dad. I’m still here. It’s frigging snowing like the end of the world. Haven’t you found anyone to rescue you yet?’ He can hear the pop of a cork from the kitchen.

‘I told you already. It would take me 4 hours to get down to that bit of the M1 in this weather. It’s two days before Christmas. Gemma won’t want me going away. ‘

Pause

‘Suddenly you’re my father are you?’

Gemma walks in with two glasses of wine. She stands still, listening to the conversation and taking in the large, wet dog before the fire. Her eyebrows lift like a bridge about to let through an oil tanker.

‘Why isn’t he in the AA or something?’

‘Cos he’s a pillock. Something useful like car rescue doesn’t take precedence over the bookie’s.’

She wrinkles her nose as the smell of wet dog hits her. He points out the soft heartedness of the children and their distress at seeing it lost in the snow.

‘When the snow stops it can find its way home’ he says, his eyes focused on the TV screen where the match has started. She unzips her boots and settles on the settee, her back stiff with annoyance but noticing the crinkled photo on the floor she picks it up and hands it to Leo with the change from the tenner. The dog watches her face warily. They can hear the wind against the windows and its whine as it flicks round the corner of the house. There’s a soft thud of falling flakes against the glass and an immense silence presses against the walls of the house as if it had suddenly been lifted from its street and sent spiralling out into the cold and still universe.

Two hundred and fifty miles away Eric sits hunched in his beat up Datsun. He’s pulled a blanket round his shoulder and the red ring of a cigarette shines through the misting up windscreen. Snow begins to pack into the corners of the car windows in soft triangles. He feels the ice begin to lick his feet. The peak of his cap hangs over his dark, lined face and the small brilliant eyes are deep in their sockets. There is no street lighting so the snow’s whiteness lights up the undulating fields. Eric unwinds the car window and throws out the cigarette butt. A blast of freezing air fills the car and he shivers and curses the night and his rotten life.

As the room fills with roars from the football, a small brown head with a halo of soft curls slides round the edge of the door.

‘What are you doing out of bed?’ Asks Gemma. The baubles from the Christmas tree reflect in the curve of her wine glass.

‘This my best pillow for the sad dog. And can I take him to see the crib, the animals and baby Jesus?’ The princess pillow is trailing behind her. The dog lifts its heavy head. Its red tongue lolls out now that it’s warmed up. As if summoned by its own princess it gets up and pads across to the little girl. The spotlights in the football ground illuminate a flurry of snowflakes falling on the scramble of players.

‘Looks like the game will be called off’ says Leo and follows the dog and Milly along the corridor into the dining room where a crib of shiny wooden figures is assembled on the windowsill, an African faced Mary. Joseph in a loose gown stands behind her.
‘Jesus will keep you safe. Godbless.’ Milly joins her hands together and closes her eyes. ‘Amen’ says Leo. Milly then starts another longer prayer she’s learned from Grandma,

‘We thank you for the world we have, we thank you….’

‘Now then.. time for bed princess. The dog’s safe but tomorrow he’ll have to go home, home to his own family for Christmas.’

‘But Dad..’

A gauze curtain of snow hangs over the windows. It casts an eerie light on the figures so that the wooden baby shimmers in the reflection.

There were no carpets but the Christmas tree was covered in lights of different colours. The red ones cast a pink glow on his mother’s cheeks where she kneeled in the corner of the room. His father filled the frame of the doorway, smoke billowing before him like incense. He seemed to glide over the floor and stand over his mother. She was sobbing. His father had his hands round her throat.

‘Don’t you ever… don’t you ever be checking up on me like that … you stupid bitch.’

He remembered freezing in the room though the gas fire must have been on full blast. His father let go his mother’s throat and spun round to pickup Leo by the back of his sweater.

‘So you tell your mammy where we go ugh? I not tell you be quiet Leo? I not tell you what gwine happen if you say?’

He remembered swinging from the fist that gripped the fold of his red sweater as he was carried down the hallway and thrown into the cupboard under the stairs. He fell against a pile of shoes and rubbery Wellingtons into the dark and cold of his Christmas. He thought if he sat very still the bad things would stop but he heard his mammy screaming and put his hands over his ears. The door of the cupboard jerked open and yellow light spilt onto his upturned face. His father had the space station Santa Claus had brought. His father snapped off the canopy and threw it over his shoulder. Then he snapped off the petrol pumps that filled the rockets and threw the broken toy into the darkness of the cupboard and deep, slow sobs of a small boy.

He carries Milly up to bed, tucking her in like a sausage roll just as his mother used to do and kisses her on the forehead.

‘Baby Jesus thinks you are very kind Daddy.’

‘I know petal, I know..’

When he gets down to the hallway he slips his padded coat on and his feet into unlaced trainers.

‘Gemma. I’ve got to. This weather – he might freeze to death.’

‘He’s never done anything for you Leo and it’s two days before Christmas and the roads will be so dangerous in this snow.’

‘No they’ll grit the motorways clear. It’s OK. I know what he is but I can’t, I just can’t leave him out there.’

‘You soft lad.’ She looks up at him. He can see melted snowflakes sliding down her long silky hair. ‘And what in God’s name am I supposed to do with this mutt in the morning, when you won’t be back?’

As he steps out into the street a blast of icy wind shouts into the house. Both the dog and Gemma edge closer to the fire.


Copyright Pauline Plummer

Snow On Snow was published in a Biscuit Press anthology.

 


 

The Manifesto

Jemima had scattered white plastic chairs across the yellowing, late summer lawn. Ed set up the barbeque in the corner and then sat on the stone steps where the French windows opened onto the patio. He was smoking to keep midges away.

A burst of Eminem filled the garden. ‘Don’t you think you’re a bit old for Eminem?’ shouted Jemima.
‘No.’ Ed shouted back. He pulled the ring pull on his Red Stripe and swallowed cold, sharp lager. He rolled the cold can around his face and drops of sweat stuck to the can.

The guests started trickling down the side of the house. Mia and Seb came over to give him a DVD set of The Wire wrapped in mauve tissue paper. Mia in tight, organic, cotton cut offs bent to kiss him on the cheek. He pulled the tissue paper off.

‘Cool ’

His children were pulling the table tennis table out of the garage so he wandered over to see all the bats and nets were still there. More people arrived, some with their children in tow, others with bottles and presents. The flames on the charcoal grill had died down now so he went over to check the trays of sausages, burgers and chicken pieces were stacked at the side. He put some chicken on the grill, sprinkled some Moroccan spices and a handful of chopped onion on top. Next to the barbeque was a large white bucket with Donations for Gaza written in magic marker on the side.

‘Hey Seb’ he called ‘come and give me a hand so you can tell me about the conference.’ Seb came over, a glass of wine in his hand.

‘Are you worried about the resolution on Israel?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, as it happens. And the rest.’

‘It went through on a tight vote. We’ll boycott all contact with Israeli academics from now.’

‘I bet that bastard rep from Loughborough spoke against it?’

‘He wasn’t the only one. They seem to think that Israel has a point bombing people in refugee camps.
And the links with Venezuela – they were confirmed.’

Seb nodded as turned over chicken thighs.

‘This is very carnivorous Ed? No veggies?’

Ed pointed to a table laden with breads, cheeses and glistening salads the colour of the flag of Italy.
Jemima walked over with a tray of samosas.

‘Looking good, darling. I didn’t realise we’d invited so many people. Do we really know everyone?’

‘The department, all the post grads plus everyone from the party and the union people. It’s good to network. There’s a few party leaflets to give out. Might make them think about voting for these tosspot parties.’

Jemima pulled a bit of chicken off its bone to see whether it was cooking through and then licked her fingers before going off to fill someone’s glass. Seb and Ed leaned together as they discussed the conference and the direction of the union. Their summer tanned faces and tousled hair made them look like brothers. A ping pong ball flew over and bounced off Ed’s shoulder. Seb caught it and wandered off to the gang of young teenagers who were around the table tennis table in the drive.
He looked around the garden. The party was a success. There were lively conversations taking place. Kuldip who worked as his admin assistant was sharing recipe secrets with two post grads, the sexy Ella from New York and mature student Sarah. Some of his male colleagues around another table were discussing yesterday’s cup match. One of the reps had brought his new boy-friend and they were having a heated discussion about the appraisal system.

Mia bit into a samosa.

‘Are you pleased about the election?’ she turned towards Ed.

‘It’ll be the same old crap. Yeah it’s something of a milestone to have an African American as President but he’ll be in hock to the real power brokers like all the others.’

‘It’s bad news about your mother-in-law isn’t?’ Mia asked. Ed pricked the sausages savagely with the long fork.

‘You’ve lost me.’

‘Jemima was telling me about her pension – the house unsustainable, you know, all that stuff.’

‘News to me, Mia.’ He pulled a piece of flesh off a chicken leg and popped it into Mia’s mouth.

‘Tasty, chef.’

‘You’ve lost weight. You’re looking great. But you always had the greatest legs in the branch.’ He looked at her through slightly sleepy eyelids a few seconds longer than was socially necessary. ‘How come I never see you at the meetings anymore?’

‘I might start going again if things get interesting.’

His daughter ran over and put her arm around his waist

‘Sausages ready yet Dad?’

He slit a bun and put one in smearing it with tomato ketchup the way she liked and she ran over to join her siblings around the tennis table.

The kids had helped carry some of the dirty glasses and plates into the kitchen. There was a huge pile on the stripped pine table and Jemima was rinsing and stacking them in the dishwasher. Match of the Day blared out from the sitting room. The left-over salads had been sealed off in plastic wrap. The left over bread had been wrapped and put inside the freezer.

Ed came into the kitchen holding a Red Stripe.

‘What’s this about your mother?’

‘I meant to talk to you but we’ve been so busy organising the party.’

‘She’s losing the house Mia said.’

‘Did she now? Mia has a busy tongue.’ She brushed a long strand of dark blonde hair that had fallen over her face which was flushed red from the work and the wine.

Ed leaned on the table with one hand and watched his wife at work. He knew she was keeping busy because there was more to tell. News about his mother-in-law was not high on his list of priorities but he had a feeling that the consequences of what had happened were going to involve him.

‘Surely one of her well off relatives could bail her out. The rich like to stick together.’

‘She has nowhere to go Ed. She’s lost all her savings in the crash. Her shares are worthless.’ She turned towards her husband. ‘I want her to come and stay with us.’

Ed ran his fingers through his graying hair.

‘Fucking hell. Look Jem. I know it’s your mother and all that but it’s hardly our fault that she invested all her money in banks hoping to make profits on the backs of people who actually work. We’d all be on top of each other. We don’t have a spare bedroom and the noise in the house would drive her crazy. Anyway she thinks the kids haven’t been brought up properly because they speak with Geordie accents. And let’s face it she’s thinks I’m a manifestation of Satan, in which, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, she still believes. I think she’d even accept evolution because I’m proof of a strong linkage with the ape family.’

Jemima slammed down a bowl just emptied of guacamole. Her fair skin was deepening in redness.

‘It’s my mother for God’s sake. I’m not going to leave her homeless!’ Her enunciation rang off the rustic floor tiles. ‘She has no-one else to turn to apart from her only daughter. It’s my DUTY!’

Ed backed off swallowing the last of his can. He chucked the empty tin into a black sack. It clinked as it fell on the pile.

‘When you get angry’ his voice slowed down ‘your mouth looks like an arsehole.’

He swung out of the kitchen and onto the patio where he lit the small, neat joint that Seb had slipped him. The sky was at last darkening even though it was eleven at night. The mauves and pinks were softening into grey. He wondered if he’d have liked the old woman better if she’d been a retired school dinner lady, say, with decades of struggle and poverty to her name but the old cow was blue rinse down to her blue nail polish. For God’s sake she’d be ordering the Telegraph to the house. And he thought about Jemima because as she slipped into middle age the more she seemed to be reverting to type. When he’d first met her she’d been so anxious to debunk her privileged upbringing but now she cared whether she was well thought of by the bourgeois neighbours they had gained, moving into this well-heeled area of Edwardian houses. She even corrected the kids’ pronunciation.
He kicked a piece of fallen samosa into the bushes. Now Mia, well there was a feisty independent woman. Hadn’t she just crossed India on a train? Hence the sexy tan. He wondered if she really would turn up to the next branch meeting.

Jemima stepped out onto the patio. Because she put her hands on her hips he could see the dark circles of sweat on her t shirt.

‘Ed, I’ve just spent weeks getting this party ready for you. And you seem completely unsympathetic about mum. Do you want her to go into a hostel for the homeless?’

‘You’re being melodramatic. She must have something stashed away. She could sell her large house and move into a flat.’

‘But I’m worried about her. The stress. I really want her to come and stay. Maybe just a few months. I can’t believe you are being so, so uncaring.’ A cloud of midgies seemed to hover above her head. Perhaps they were attracted by the sweat he thought.

It was true, Ed thought. He didn’t give a toss about her really. How many times had they spoken in the nearly twenty years he’d known her? She was a fossil, a relic from another age. But her kind held tightly onto the purse strings he thought. They still voted in these dreary, lying politicians who shared their postcodes and their reading matter. Hadn’t she once sounded annoyed because the cricket team had a British Asian captain? How could he have her living here?

This had spoilt the day. He’d thought after clearing up he and Jemima would have sex once the kids were asleep. It seemed ages and he liked that position they’d tried last time.

When he turned round he saw she had gone inside. Bollocks, he really had, hadn’t he, bought the whole package? Marriage, career, family and in-laws. Not barricades and struggle.

 

Copyright Pauline Plummer

The Manifesto was performed at Northern Stage.


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