Double First

Linda watched Desiree adjust the mortarboard so as not to ruin her hair. It was still lopsided, so she reached out to straighten it until it rested evenly on Desiree’s elaborate braids. Mum! Stop fussing. Desiree, draped in a black graduation gown and silver six-inch heels, drifted away from her mother towards her friends. They hugged, chattered, laughed. Whatever Linda did or said now was met with a tut, an eye roll or a shrug from Desiree, but it didn’t bother her anymore.

Their last argument had begun with Linda asking, Can’t you wash up your own dishes? I’m not your servant and ended with Desiree muttering, head bowed, at least I won’t end up like you. And Desiree was right. She wasn’t going to end up working in a supermarket by day and cleaning offices at night. She wouldn’t have to worry about paying rent on her housing association flat, and making sure they both had enough to eat. A double first in History and Economics from Cambridge had seen to that.

When Linda was fifteen, a boy took her by surprise. I like you, he said. Weeks later: come round my house, my mum’s out tonight. In his bedroom: Lie down, it’ll be alright. Linda’s parents mourned her as if she had died. You? And that English boy? And then Desiree was born, a light-brown, demanding, wriggling thing, and it wasn’t long before the boy was passing Linda in the street as if they were strangers. She left school, her friends drifted away, and university was just a building she saw on her way to work.

After graduating, Desiree got a job in the City, a banker boyfriend and a spacious flat miles away from home. She was too busy to visit Linda, had no time to call – which was everything that Linda had wished for. To be alone. To have time to herself.

 

 

 

 

Uncle Leslie Played Bed’s Too Big Without You

Image from https://soundsoftheuniverse.com/search/john+holt/

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.

 

Ms. Anderson

Saturday 24 June was National Flash Fiction Day. It seems like a long time ago now, but what a joy to spend the day reading short-short, sweet, scary, beautiful, quirky stories as they were posted on Flash Flood journal every few minutes. My story Ms Anderson was included. This story has been brewing for a couple of years and started life as a much longer piece that included an in-the-classroom rant about Mr Breheny’s love for Steely Dan, and some of the narrative is from Ms Anderson’s point of view. I might post it on the blog sometime. It was fun to write.

 

Una

Emmeline liked to believe that her mother had named her after Mrs Pankhurst the famous suffragette and not the Hot Chocolate song, but she knew the latter was true. She volunteered at the Museum of Women’s History, helping the archivists to wrap fragile protest banners in vast sheets of soft tissue paper, filing precious, yellowing copies of The Suffragette and Votes for Women in fawn-coloured boxes, and making lists of items ready to be catalogued.

After closing time Emmeline haunted the archive store, noting what she had already added to her collection at home: the woman-man-fish-bicycle badge; Kitty Marion’s letters scrawled in pencil on flimsy toilet paper while on hunger strike in Holloway; the magazine dated the month and year she was born – the title was something like Liberation, Asian, Black & Working Class Newsletter. It was so long she could never quite remember which way round the words went. Emmeline knew what she wanted next: the only photograph in the collection of Una Marson, captured as she stood at the BBC-Marconi microphone, her hair straightened and curled, striped pearl-button blouse shining through the greyscale of the print. She was laughing, radiant.

Emmeline knelt down between the stacks of labelled, ordered, acid-free photograph albums, and found Box L-M. She began to slip the photograph stealthily out of its perspex pocket and did not notice the rolling stacks that she had forgotten to lock, the rotary handles spinning slowly as they slid towards her, closing her in.

 

 

Reading Little Women

I don’t know where the impetus came from. My sister and I just read a lot. There were books at home, but we knew without thinking about it that libraries were where we could find more. I remember the mobile library that turned up for a while near where we lived in The Fairway, Bedford – its narrowness and murky interior, and the books encased in plastic covers.

The first book to have a major impact on me was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I read an abridged version first (we seemed to have some abridged versions of novels at home, like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), then I badgered my Dad to buy me a handsome illustrated hardback edition of Little Women, Little Men and Good Wives. I loved Jo. I liked them all and felt so sad for Beth (but gripped by the tragedy of her death), but Jo was important. By the age of seven, I was a self-identified tom boy.  Jo March was a tom boy too. But more importantly, she wanted to be a writer, and so did I. She was clever and brave, she read and read, she was friends with Laurie the boy next door, and I was heartbroken that she rejected his marriage proposal. But this portrait of a resourceful young woman was a powerful indication for me of how to be a girl. I also read Anne of Green Gables, Nancy Canadian Schoolgirl,  The Hunting of Wilberforce Pike, the Just William stories. But Little Women made the most impression. I wrote short stories, sometimes longer ones, as un-selfconsciously and naturally as if I was eating or sleeping.

I read Wuthering Heights when I was ten. It was 1978, and Kate Bush’s song Wuthering Heights was in the pop charts at the same time. My imagination soared. This was new territory – I didn’t understand all the language but I was gripped. Then I read other Bronte novels, possibly at the suggestion of our friend and neighbour Susan, who was five years older than me. My Dad bought me a red and gold-embossed hardback copy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and I loved it. I began to write a Victorian saga featuring three sisters, very much influenced by Wuthering Heights and the Brontë sisters, and I illustrated it with felt tip drawings. Years later, I looked at these stories and realised – all the characters were white. I had read so much, but there was no-one like me in the books that I read.

During my teenage years I read terrible romances and some teen fiction, as well as adult contemporary fiction. None of it left much of an impression on me. Music took over and affected everything that I did. I wrote (dodgy) poetry influenced by Cocteau Twins song titles and the names of works by artists like Jean Tinguely. Then I discovered Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway. Woolf’s words have never left me. My habit of using too many ampersands came from emulating her. I felt that she captured life in space and time as it really is.

In my twenties and thirties I began to wonder how to be a black woman. I studied for an English degree part-time, while I worked in record shops and book shops and, eventually, libraries. Toni Morrison’s Jazz was on my reading list and it was like a bolt of brilliance. I was awestruck by its boldness. But Andrea Levy’s Never Far From Nowhere was one of the first books I read that contained characters like me: young black women growing up in Britain. I read all of Levy’s novels. Fruit of the Lemon reminds me of my unearthing of cultural identity. Levy’s books were, now I look back, teaching me how to be a black woman. When I studied black women’s writing for my PhD, my knowledge gathered momentum. I learning to articulate my female-gendered blackness through my reading and writing.

Zadie Smith’s  novels were exciting, relevant. Bernardine Evaristo was, and is, an innovator, more brilliant than she is ever given credit for. Black identity and fiction were, it turned out, not incompatible. Beryl Gilroy’s Black Teacher and Buchi Emecheta’s In the Ditch are touchstones.

My favourite books of the last few years are: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, for its intensity and experiments with language; Mr Loverman by Bernardine Evaristo, for its humour, rich evocation of character and focus on older black masculinity and homosexuality; Citizen by Claudia Rankine, for its achievement in expanding what poetry can be in terms of form and content and the social impact it can make; and Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which is about authorship, Buddhism, the environment and memory that wears its scholarship lightly.

All these books and more have made me.