Uncle Leslie was a kind man with a huge dark face, his chin brushed with a beard, his head topped with a luxurious, curly Afro. He looked like John Holt on the cover of 1,000 Volts, except that his nose wasn’t straight. It was broad, proudly Jamaican. I used to watch him play records: Gregory, Bob, The Mighty Diamonds, Marcia Griffiths, while talking and drinking with Dad, Mum and Aunty Monica. I was fascinated by the way he would slip the disc out of its sleeve and hold the edge in the ridge of his thumb, with a finger holding it steady on the underside of the disc. He would place it on the turntable and move the arm to the beginning. I would hear that gentle gulp sound as the stylus made contact with the vinyl. The record would spin, 33 1/3, and I would watch the label turn: Island’s palm tree upside down, the Trojan helmet against orange and white, mouth open like a skull. I was a small girl who lived for Top of the Pops, but I was steeped in reggae. There was no contradiction.
On one particular visit, I was playing outside with Aunty Monica’s cats, who had been banished to the garden for one too many accidents on the sitting room carpet, when I heard a familiar tune, one of my favourites, an English guy’s squawking approximation of a reggae singer’s croon:
bed’s too big without you
cold wind blows right through that open door
I couldn’t believe my ears. Uncle Leslie was playing The Police! I went back indoors to listen. The song lasted longer than the version I was used to. He had the 12” single! It’s a good tune Sone, he said. I was Sone to him, that drawn-out ‘o’ letting me know he was from elsewhere, a place where elongated vowels matter.
He nodded and turned up the volume, notched up the bass a little, both men clouded in cigarette smoke while Aunty Monica, my mum drank Babycham and chatted about Aunty Monica’s latest night school achievements. Their voices blurred into a background hum as I followed the bass of the extended dub.
I felt so proud that my music – mere pop music – was good enough to be played by Uncle Leslie, reggae enough to have a place in his collection. I felt such love for my nearly-uncle, one of so many Jamaican men, first-generation Black Britons who have come and gone.
For Leslie & Monica Henry, for Stanley & Maureen Hope.
Cloth Against Skin was accepted by an online magazine in December 2017. I was really pleased. It was obvious from the finished issue that care was taken in the selection of stories, that the editors had been thoughtful when considering how they would fit together. I wasn’t anticipating that the layout of my story might be changed. The story is short, under 1,000 words, but the format of it is very important to me: the separation of paragraphs and the italicisation of some sections is there to convey and emphasise the theme and meanings. The story lost some of its power due to the loss of formatting, so I’ve decided to post it in its original form here.
I arrive in Southampton from Port-of-Spain hoping that I’m suitably dressed for an English summer:
An iris-yellow dress cinched tight at my waist.
A white pillbox hat with a little net shading my eyes.
White kitten-heeled stilettos that lift my feet off the ground.
The breeze, though, is unexpectedly cool; it embraces me like a shawl. I’ve heard about the cold of winter that drains the blood from your fingers and toes, but I haven’t felt it yet.
I take the train to London where my cousin Rita is waiting for me at Waterloo station. She lives in a house with two bedrooms, one for her and Alan and one for their son Errol – no spare room, but she said I could stay.
At night I sleep on Rita and Alan’s settee and dream of being adrift in the Atlantic, but when I feel furtive hands creeping across my skin I am wide awake, holding my body rigid. I keep my eyes squeezed shut and wait to be left alone.
In the morning, sitting at the Formica table in Rita’s kitchen, Alan’s eyes won’t meet mine. They are blue and fathomless like the ocean that separates me from home.
I meet a man called Patrick. He buys me a pearl-pink glass vase and a weekly supply of carnations until I agree to marry him. On the day of the wedding, Calvin, Patrick’s best man, whispers in my ear that I am making a mistake, that I should go away with him.
I say yes to Patrick anyway.
Seven months later, Mia is born. She is such a dry-eyed, hushed baby. Sometimes I feel like tipping her out of her cot just to make her cry. Every day I hand her over to Esme to be looked after I feel so relieved. I leave Mia sitting in a room full of other babies, mute while the others gurgle and scream.
I catch the bus to work, sitting close to the open platform. I am unable to blend in with my surroundings but I’m used to the stares of Londoners now, their faces as bloodless as a winter sky. This is what they must see:
My stiff paper cap perched on my head, brown leather brogues on my feet.
My pale-blue dress with a starched white collar, thick black stockings.
My navy wool cape keeps me warm.
My nurse’s uniform protects me, tells them who I am.
Mia drapes her coltish body across the bed and watches me get dressed for a party. I have been promoted: I am a ward sister now. I stand in front of the mirror, but she is behind me stealing its attention, her face morphing from smiles to pouts to frowns. My daughter is nothing like me. She thinks being able to suck her teeth diverts attention away from her East London accent, her love of Marmite and Top of the Pops, her knowledge of no other country but this one.
I still relax my hair into waves and curls.
I still dust my cheekbones with powder that shimmers like moon dust.
I still paint my nails wine-red with lipstick to match.
My dress wraps around my hips and clings just so. With cloth against skin, I make myself visible.
After twenty years, Patrick breaks the strained politeness of our marriage to pursue a girl not much older than Mia. His body is distant and heavy with answers to questions I dare not ask. When I leave our home, Mia chooses to stay with him.
I retire and rent a house in a seaside town. I don’t have much to do except please myself, so I re-read all the books I own, drink strong coffee sweetened with condensed milk, and flick through my old records, returning to my favourites: Bessie, Ella, Billie, Sarah. I sing along. Sometimes I dance, awakening muscles that are usually quiet and still.
Every morning I wrap myself in an oversized parka that once belonged to Patrick, and I walk down to the sea.
My jeans are so worn the denim has washed away.
My hands feel snug in sheepskin mittens; they recall my first English winter.
My green wellingtons crunch the pebbles on the beach with each step.
Sometimes I think about going home – I wonder if I’ll die before I’ve made up my mind? My mother and father only exist in my memories now, and our house will be in ruins. Bats and birds will be nesting in the gaps of the galvanised roof, and green lizards will skim-skitter across the veranda where I used to sit and dream of coming to England.
It’s morning. The nurse comes into my room. She leans over me and her hands roll away the waves of sheets and blankets. My nightdress is unbuttoned and removed as if being unpegged from a washing line.
She says, stand, but I can’t – the frame won’t catch me if I fall.
She says, hold, and my fingers curl into my palms because of the pain.
She says, wash – my skin recoils from the tepid water filling the basin.
The nurse immerses a flannel and wrings it out briskly. She scrubs me as if she is cleaning a window. I am dried, and fresh clean clothes pulled on to my body. I have not chosen them:
Disposable knickers and a grey polyester vest.
Navy linen trousers, elasticated at the waist.
A moss-green jumper, its woollen folds nestling against my skin.
I’m strapped into a wheelchair, pushed into the lounge and given warm grey porridge for breakfast. The sour milk bleeds into the plastic tang of the beaker.
Afterwards, I am moved to the bay window where glimmering sunlight burns through the glass. I sit here for hours, and I can almost feel the catch-fire heat of the sun on my skin, inhale the sea breeze so it fills my lungs.
On days like this, I am no longer four-thousand miles from home.
I am a librarian working in an academic library in the centre of London. The collection covers every possible subject that the university students might find useful: philosophy, psychology, business, marketing, oil and gas and banking, literature. I work two evenings a week, and this is when the mature, part-time students visit. One of the regulars is a petite woman, middle-aged but still youthful-looking. She has dark skin and angular features. She is friendly and talkative.
‘How’s the studying going?’ I ask. It’s late, and we both blink at each other under the harsh flourescent light.
‘Oh, you know,’ she says, and laughs, revealing perfect white teeth. I laugh with her.
‘I’m going to assume it’s all going well for you,’ I say.
She laughs a bit more. ‘I’m taking these out,’ she says, pushing a pile of books across the issue desk towards me and handing over her student card.
I really should have asked which course she is studying by now, two terms into the academic year, but I haven’t. Instead, I have merely found myself interested in the books that she borrows. Tonight, amongst the pile, there are books on African philosophy (we actually have books on African philosophy?) and a novel, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I remember how much I hated that book when I read it as part of my undergraduate degree, and how surprised my lecturer had been that I hated it. I scan the barcodes of each book and stamp them with a date set two weeks into the future. I look at the student’s face, now set in a serious expression as she waits for her books. I feel as if we are mirroring each other, dark faces opposite one another – hers more recently from Africa than mine, a product of centuries-old diasporic movement. My mind fleetingly recalls the scene in the Conrad novel in which Marlow encounters the enslaved Congolese people, ‘black shapes crouched, lay, sat between the trees […] nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation….’ I want to say to her, don’t even bother with that book, but I don’t. I’m a librarian. I have to be neutral. Instead, I say, ‘due back in two weeks,’ and hand them over to her. ‘Take care. Don’t work too hard.’
She smiles, piles the books into a tote bag, and leaves.
Forty years earlier, my formal education began. I was four and a half years old when my family moved to Bedford, a town fifty miles from London where I was born. Everyone else in the reception class at my prospective school would be five. Mum had to persuade the headmaster to take me early. ‘She’s been at school in London since the age of four,’ Mum told the yellow-toothed, ferret-faced Mr Limmer. ‘Please take her’. Reluctantly, he accepted me into the school.
Goldington Green School was a red-brick Victorian building with a bold-faced clock staring out from its façade. It stood on one side of a busy main road which cut a swath of grey through the Green leading straight into Bedford Town Centre; Goldington Church stood on the other, ruined and crumbling to young eyes. The church was Gothic and cold, lifeless without its Sunday morning congregation.
The other children knew I was younger than them. They saw my hair in bunches, tied with red ribbons. Grey pleated skirt and v-neck jumper. Bright white blouse underneath. White knee-length socks and red t-strap Clarks shoes. Self-contained and nervous, I refused to give away words lightly.
There were seven of us, including my older sister, Susan. If we were lined up in a row like an identity parade and looked at through glass, there would be a row of small black faces: a face stony with defiance, a toothy, smiling face, a timid face, a face nervously turning away, others, childish and inscrutable. One of the seven was a little girl that the teachers thought I should be friends with. She was black, like me. Skinny and silent, like me. She had my Christian name and my mother’s maiden name, and for this reason I was highly suspicious of her. I decided to keep my distance. Sonia Fergusson and I would never be friends.
Now, I remember that Sonia Fergusson was quite dark-skinned. Smooth baby skin. Deep-brown, honest eyes. Distant, but related to me, somehow? That had been my anxiety.
Instead, I became friends with a girl who was even smaller than I was. Her name was Rebecca Smith. Her freckles and short, streaky-blonde hair reminded me of Jodie Foster, film star of Freaky Friday and Bugsy Malone. Rebecca fascinated me. One of her arms was shorter than the other. Instead of having a hand with five fingers, Rebecca’s right arm ended in a soft, curved bump, with tiny wart-like buds of skin where her fingers might have been. I was impressed by her tom-boy verve. We plotted adventures that would take us to the farthest reaches of the school playing field. We were going to cycle the breadth of Bedfordshire on our Raleigh Fourteens. Snails would be given holidays in shoe boxes and jars.
I knew Rebecca was a special person because eventually she was given a ‘bionic’ hand, like The Six Million Dollar Man. The prosthetic hand matched her pale skin minus the freckles, and as she showed it off in the playground I could see how seamlessly it attached to her arm. She only had to look at it, she said, and the fingers would move. Rebecca Smith became, in my eyes, truly heroic.
I was sitting next to her as usual in the school assembly when Mr Limmer told us that we were about to watch an interesting film. Short films were occasionally shown in assembly, usually to illustrate a particular religious message that Mr Limmer was attempting to convey. The lights in the hall were dimmed, the heavy red curtains drawn. All of us, children aged from five to eleven, sat cross-legged on the parquet floor expectantly, giggling and shushing each other. The reel-to-reel projector rattled into action. The film was old, crackling, black and white but also washed-out grey. We sat in the dark, trying to make sense of what we were seeing.
The film seemed to be about African people – at least I think they were African people. There were men and women, and some children. The people walked across arid land and then around a cluster of mud huts with thatched roofing, wearing little and baring, declaring the colour of their skin. Rebecca and I looked at each other. Even in a televisual world of suggestion and innuendo, full of Benny Hill and Carry On films, I knew this type of nakedness was different. It was without reason or context. It was obscene. Rebecca knew it. I knew it. The boys sitting around us, sniggering, knew it. They should cover up, shouldn’t they? But it’s hot there, isn’t it?
Then the camera’s eye shifted to a group of people engaged in what seemed to be a festival of dancing. First, the people danced in a circle, arms throwing invisible arcs in the air. Some of them, I was relieved to see, were wearing cloths around their waists that looked like tatty mini kilts. Suddenly, frighteningly, a tall figure wearing a grass skirt and a huge white mask, blank except for black-lined eye slits and expressionless black lips, leapt into view. He was holding grass swats in each hand and shook them up and down, reminding me of a Morris dancer flicking his handkerchiefs. Other figures wearing masks joined the tall one. The images were punctuated with commentary which made little sense to me: ‘The sense of mimicry is highly developed…acting as Native Police is a popular turn.’
The spectacle seemed to go on for a very long time. Apparently, all of this had something to do with me, but I couldn’t work out what. When the film ended, the curtains were pulled open again, and the end of the reel snapped to a finish, I felt hot with shame. I could hear Mr Limmer talking, but the words reached my ears as heavy echoes, as if I were under water. I began to question my place in Goldington Green School, as a girl who lived in Goldington Green, Bedford, England, The World.
Forty years later, I am reading pithy one hundred and forty character messages on a small screen. One of them takes me back to forty years past, to that strange assembly sitting next to Rebecca Smith: ‘Bedford kids learn Traditional African Dance for School Play’. I cannot believe what I am reading; the information collides with the memory I carry with me from that day. The article reports that the children learned the dances for a play based on the life of an Ashanti king. We had sat and watched a film about African people, encouraged to deny any connection to them.
Now, my old primary school is twinned with a school in Ghana.
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