In the summer of 2020 I was asked by Creative Futures/Collage Arts to participate in a project. The brief was to write a lockdown diary which, as well as being a good way of documenting a strange time, was a real test of very recent memory. I’ve become an infrequent diary writer, so I had to search through emails and my Twitter feed to work out what had happened, and when. Here’s an extract:
Mum’s care home is now closed to visitors. We have been visiting her without missing a day since 2015. I was only there the night before, but I go anyway as I’d been planning to, in case they’ll let me in. As I approach, I see closed signs on the gate, on the door. I stand at the entrance in the drizzle. The sky is pink. A woman approaches. She wears a nose ring, hood up, shoulders hunched with disappointment. She has come to see her Grandad. I tell her the home is closed, and her eyes become glassy with tears which don’t spill. I haven’t been for a while, she says. We stand and talk for a while.
Twelve women of colour took part, and our diaries were compiled into an e-book, released in December 2020.
The Maybe Box is about Bee, a department store supervisor who is determined to keep making beautifully decorated boxes out of the cardboard she salvages at work, all the while denying that they are works of art. Here is a short extract:
Jamshed the warehouse supervisor collects the used boxes for me, and if they are partly crushed or torn all the better. He approaches me with a mountainous pile of cardboard, origami-like folds and perforated edges not quite meeting after careless use.
He helps me compress the cardboard so that it fits inside my suitcase.
‘There you go, Bee. Is that enough to keep you going?’ He beams at me.
‘Definitely. Thanks, Jamshed.’
After work I go home, make dinner and feed the cats. Des knows he will have to wash up – I have work to do in the basement.
I open the suitcase and the cardboard springs into life. I close the curtains and turn on the old Anglepoise, directing the light out into the room and onto the sheets of paper pinned to the wall: I’ve sketched out the spaces and angles of the boxes that live in my head.
The Cat by The Incredible Jimmy Smith was shortlisted for the Guardian 4th Estate BAME Prize 2019.
1964: the year his marriage ended. The year his record stopped spinning, the needle in his groove lifted haltingly, and with a snap returned his tone arm to its cradle.
He had never wanted Marilyn. Not her prim-girl curls hot-combed into place on her head. Not her full-moon face so earnest that the sight of it irritated him. He hadn’t wanted to hear, I’m eight weeks gone! We have to marry, the corners of her mouth drooping. He hadn’t wanted the ceremony in Hackney Town Hall, his signature and hers in the register (but he had wanted the tonic mohair suit that made him look like a prince). He hadn’t wanted to live in rented rooms above a shop, with Marilyn asking, But where will the baby sleep? He hadn’t wanted any of this. He had come to England to find work, to do something with his life, to send photographs of his handsome Jamaican self back home to his Grandma, make her proud. Dear Granny, I hope that when these few lines reach you they will find you well …
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? 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.
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.
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 melinex 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.
I’m so used to introducing myself. It’s the first thing I do when I meet someone new – put the other person at ease first. I’m the Activities Co-ordinator at The Larches, a care home for elderly people. It’s a sprawling red-brick bungalow set in an untended garden. I used to work five days a week, now I’m only needed for three and, frankly, it’s hard to live off the reduced salary. I’m going to resign – I’ve written the letter already and have it in my bag. I’ve got no job to go to, but I quite fancy training to become a life coach. I’ll be self-employed and, hopefully, better off than I am now.
Aude – Audrey Simpson-Jones – is Care Home Manager at The Larches. She’s the one who decided that my working hours should be cut as part of last year’s Budget Efficiencies. Well, I’ve just about forgiven her for referring to me as ‘that coloured girl’ when I first started working here, but I can’t forgive her attitude towards the residents. Aude thinks as long as they are fed that’s good enough, as if they don’t need any sustenance for their brains. I sometimes wonder why she chose to work in the care profession in the first place.
I hold the Story Ring on the first Wednesday of each month. Me and a small group of the residents get together in the Activities Room to tell stories and reminisce. Today’s session would be the last before I leave The Larches. I’ve decided I won’t mention it to the Storytellers, as I call them, until after the session.
I go to the Activities Room, unload my stuff on to the spare table near the window, and stop momentarily to watch two of the residents walking together in the rear garden. Maurice, tall and thin with a slight stoop, is talking to Lottie. He’s moving his hands as if he’s explaining something but I can tell tiny, bird-like Lottie isn’t listening. She’s gazing up at the branches of the trees as she walks.
The furniture in the Activities Room has already been set up for the Story Ring. The red leather chairs, high-backed and sturdy, are arranged in a semi-circle facing a blank white wall. The other walls are decorated with paintings and drawings created by the residents. I unfurl a poster and tack it to the wall, covering it with a plain sheet of paper. I place pens, pencils and paper on the table at the centre of the room, and then I’m ready.
I can hear the Storytellers making their way down the main corridor to the Activities Room, a mixture of voices complaining, babbling, and laughing. Sally and Aisleen, the Care Assistants, are with them.
‘Story time again!’ Sally says, in a sing-song voice.
‘Yes, story time, thank you nurse,’ a gruff male voice grumbles as the group enter the room. ‘Morning, Stella,’ Edwin says.
‘Morning Edwin!’ And for the benefit of those with slipping memories, ‘Hello everyone, I’m Stella.’
Lottie has come in from the garden. Her thin red lips – Lottie loves her lippy – utter barely-formed words, but I know she’s greeting me.
‘Hiya Lottie, good to see you,’ I say.
Jean waves at me before sitting down in her usual place: the chair closest to the door.
‘Good morning, my dear.’ That’s Euphemia, a proper posh Jamaican lady, always neatly turned out in a pleated skirt and pussy-bow blouse.
Sally and Aisleen help the frailest members of the group, Carole and Antonietta, to their seats. I thank them both as they leave, and close the blinds to protect sensitive eyes from the spring morning sunshine.
I explain to the Storytellers why we are here and what we are about to do. I love the whole ritual of it. Then I peel the blank sheet of paper away from the poster to reveal a picture of a small girl dressed like a 1980s career woman: padded-shoulder suit, designer glasses. She’s sitting at a desk in front of a boxy computer with a ‘phone in one hand, poised to make a call. I thought they might like it.
‘You can see it’s a little girl, can’t you? A right little career madam!’ Jean looks at me quite fiercely, but I carry on talking. ‘It’s funny. One minute we’re kids, the next we’re grown-ups. So the question for this morning’s Story Ring is: what did you want to be when you grew up?’
‘Well I didn’t want to be a girl, that’s for sure!’ Edwin grins.
‘Sorry, Edwin, I couldn’t find a picture of a little boy to match this one. But still, have a think.’
‘I do not like the picture.’ Antonietta’s Italian accent is strong, despite living in Britain for many years. ‘She’s a little girl. Little girls do not work.’
‘But she’s playing, isn’t she?’ says Carole, smiling. ‘Playing at being grown-up.’
‘Yes, that is all,’ Euphemia agrees. ‘I like the picture.’
I say, ‘Imagine that’s you in the picture, being a kid, playing. What would you be?’
‘If I was in the picture I’d be looking after children. Me and Thomas, my brother, were sent away to Dorset during the war.’
‘Why, Carole?’ Antonietta asks. ‘Your parents did not want you?’
‘Oh no, nothing like that. We were evacuees, you see. Some children had a dreadful time, but I loved it. Aunt Myrtle and Uncle David were so kind, not strict like our own Mum and Dad. I wanted to be a nursery nurse.’
I ask Carole whether she ended up working with children.
‘No, Sula. I worked at Jones Brothers. Remember the big department store that used to be on the Holloway Road? I worked in the hats and gloves department for years, until it closed.’
Euphemia looks genuinely interested. ‘Did you enjoy your work, Carole?’
‘I didn’t mind it. It brought in extra money so that was good. What about you, Euphelia? It must have been quite different in Jamaica.’
Euphemia ignores Carole’s mispronunciation of her name. ‘No, not very different. I came here when I was young, nineteen years of age, in 1962. I trained to become a nurse.’
‘So in that picture, you’d be wearing a saucy nurse’s outfit?’
Oh God, trust Edwin.
‘No!’ Euphemia says irritably. ‘I would be wearing a white wig, and be dressed in the gown of the law.’
I am so impressed. ‘You wanted to be a barrister? That’s great.’
‘Yes, except that in those days the law profession wasn’t open to the likes of us.’ Euphemia looks at me steadily as she says this.
‘Alright, Euph. Enough about you, what about me?’ Edwin pauses, winks, and looks at the others to see if they’re amused by his quip. ‘If I was in that picture I’d be a little boy surrounded by lions and tigers.’
‘They would eat you,’ Antonietta pointed out.
‘No, they’d be behind bars, like the wild beasts they are. Bit like me really.’
‘What do you mean, Edwin?’ I ask, although I can already guess.
‘I’d be a zoo keeper, of course!’ Then Edwin looks downcast. ‘But I ended up sweeping the streets, and when I lost that job I became a virtual down-and-out.’
‘Really?’ Carole looks appalled.
‘Yes. I’ve had a tragic life.’ Edwin turns to Carole, and at the other women, hoping for more sympathy. Then he looks at me. I raise my eyebrows. I’m sure he’s telling…stories.
‘But you persevered with life, and survived,’ Euphemia says. ‘That is admirable.’
‘Ha! Not really, girls. I’m having you on. Not lions and tigers. I worked with the penguins at London Zoo, Rockhoppers, mainly. Loved ’em. Best job in the world.’ Edwin succeeds in amusing himself.
Euphemia looks at him with disapproval. ‘Oh,’ is all she says.
Suddenly Lottie stands up, murmuring as she walks slowly towards the door. She opens it and leaves the room. I have to follow her.
‘Please excuse me while I check that Lottie is okay.’ I follow her down the corridor, but Aisleen reaches her first.
‘It’s okay, Stel, I’ll look after her,’ she calls. ‘Alright, Lottie?’ Aisleen gently takes Lottie’s arm and begins to talk quietly to her.
I return to the Activities Room feeling concerned and wondering whether Lottie is upset, but as I enter the room Jean is saying,
‘You’re not half as funny as you think you are.’ She turns to me. ‘Stella, Edwin is a disruptive influence.’
‘Least I’m not bolshie like you.’
Edwin and Jean always come to the Story Ring. They seem to want to be in the same room together, gently bickering.
‘Now, Edwin, let’s be respectful to one another. This is a chance to share and have some fun.’
‘I am having fun.’
‘Okay, well have fun kindly.’
There is a knock on the door, and Sally comes in wheeling a trolley of tea and biscuits. When I started at The Larches, cakes and pastries were served at tea time. Now, there are only biscuits. Austerity elevenses, I suppose.
I’m so relieved when Aisleen re-appears with Lottie. She settles Lottie back into her seat and offers her some tea. Lottie refuses. She points towards the pens and paper left on the table, and I fetch them for her. She murmurs thanks, and begins to draw. I watch her hand move with seemingly choreographed grace across the page. It’s then I remember that Lottie was an artist, quite a successful one.
‘Oh, Lottie, that’s great.’ I sit down next to her. Head bowed, her grey bobbed hair swaying with each movement, Lottie carries on drawing and doesn’t look up.
When the clatter of cups and saucers slowly subsides. I’m about to resume the session when Antonietta asks loudly,
‘Are we starting again? I want to tell.’
The Storytellers say yes. They are ready.
Antonietta, so elegant even in her plain jumper, slacks and slippers, declares, ‘I would not be that girl. I wanted to get married and have a family. I am from Calabria in Southern Italy. I came to live in England with my husband in the ‘50s. Many Italians moved to Bedford for jobs in the brickworks, rebuilding after the war. I wanted children, but no children came. I needed something to do and I can cook so I opened a café, the first Italian café in Bedford. I became famous!’ She laughs. ‘Then I had a son, just one son. He runs the café now.’ Antonietta stops speaking, looking satisfied with herself.
I know the answer to this question, but I ask anyway. ‘What did you call the café, Antonietta?’
‘Antonietta’s Café, of course!’
The Storytellers laugh.
‘Antonietta, that is so interesting. My story is the opposite.’ Jean pauses, gathering her thoughts. ‘I always wanted to be a teacher, like my Father. I didn’t want to be stuck at home like my mother. I couldn’t understand why she put up with it.’
‘She was looking after you, no?’
‘Yes, but I just didn’t want to be like her.’
Jean seems agitated, so I try to calm her by referring back to the poster. ‘Did you play pretend-teacher when you were little, Jean?’
‘I did. But as I got older I became very serious about it. I passed my exams, and went to teacher training college. I qualified in 1970, I think, maybe 1960.’ Jean begins to look confused.
‘I bet you were a great teacher,’ I smile. Sometimes I have a feeling that Jean thinks I’m too shallow, a bit frivolous.
‘I like to think so. Anyway, my point is that when I got married I had to give up my career. I stopped teaching and had two children. By the time they were teenagers it was too late for me to re-enter the profession.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ I sense the regret in Jean’s voice, and it saddens me. ‘Well, you could say that you sort of had it all. A career and a family life!’ I say this a little too brightly.
Jean’s face reddens. ‘Had it all? That cliché! You have no idea what it was like for my generation of women. We didn’t have choices. Can you imagine that, Stella? Giving up your career because everyone thinks you should? You don’t know how lucky you are.’
I don’t know what to say. There’s no avoiding the fact that I deserved Jean’s outburst. I’d hoped that the Storytellers would remember what it’s like to be children, not dwell on unfulfilled ambitions. Perhaps I shouldn’t have chosen this subject. Lottie has stopped drawing and is listening, alert. Antonietta is watching, looking from Jean to me, sensing the tension. Euphemia rescues me.
‘Jean, I understand. Stella understands too, don’t you Stella? We all do.’
I nod gratefully. ‘I’m sorry, Jean.’
Jean doesn’t reply. She fidgets and looks out of the window.
There is silence. Edwin is looking at Jean with something like concern, and Carole has a worried smile on her face. I stand up, trying to reassert myself.
‘We’re nearly at the end of this month’s Story Ring. Do you have anything else to share?’
‘Nah. Thanks, Stella.’ Edwin beams a smile at me, and I really appreciate it.
‘Well, it’s great to see how our lives can become stories. Thanks everyone.’ That’s the best I can manage.
We end with a song, a Frank Sinatra number from my Story Ring compilation tape: You Make Me Feel So Young. It’s good to sway to. While we hold hands and sing, I decide there’s no way I’m telling the residents that I’m leaving. And Jean is right, I do have choices. I can respond to Aude’s vote of no confidence by leaving and becoming a life coach, trying to believe my own motivational platitudes and charging extortionate fees. Or I can stay for now, take more care in future, be the anti-Aude.
By the end of the song, I’ve made my decision. And just as we stop singing, the door opens and Maurice pops his head round the door.
‘I’m here for the stories. May I take a seat?’
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.