So, I decided to de-junk my desktop and I stumbled across an old file. I cyber-dusted it off and found a piece I wrote for a Black History Month exhibition yonks ago. Here’s part one of the piece I call ‘Nothing New Under The Sun.’ The piece was inspired by the many stories I’ve inherited from my Grandma, who came to England from Jamaica in the 60′s, as well as the experiences I’ve been told of from those who came to England from the Westindies to rebuild post WW2.
To the people of the Windrush generation (who are underrated by the British people), Thank you for my heritage.
I’ve not seen you since I was back home! I left you in church. Granny must have found you and sent you here. I’ve so much to say.Yesterday was my first day at St Angela’s. Not as pleasant as I thought it would be. Quite quiet. Very grey. Somewhat dull. That’s the way it’s been since I arrived in the Motherland. Back home Granny said the streets were paved with gold and told of how I’d get to eat sweets every day and write on pieces of paper as white as snow and live in a palace and wear new clothes and have clothes for Susie too. Mrs Hutchinson said she was sad to see her star pupil leave but was looking forward to me returning to Jamaica to run the school with all my new found knowledge. Mrs Hutchinson worked me extra hard! My right hand was bruised from where she lashed me for not sitting up straight, not writing in a straight line. She even tugged my hair for misspelling ‘tomorrow.’ I know how to spell it now (as you can see).
As if that wasn’t enough, Dorris and Violet started acting funny. They followed me around like crazy. Non stop with the questions. They’d even follow me to the toilet. Another time they followed me home! Granny ended up chasing them away. She couldn’t take the noise.Mavis on the other hand turned sour. She would look away when I went to say hello. She’d kiss her teeth whenever someone asked a question. Once she kissed them so hard Mrs Hutchinson heard. She got the cane for that.
One play time Susie went missing. I cried! I cried! I cried! Mrs Hutchinson thought someone died. Dorris and Violet thought I was mad. I knew Granny would kill me if I didn’t come home with her especially after I begged her to wash Susie’s dress. I found her on the way home. She was napping on top of a bin. I grabbed, her gave her a big hug and as I looked ahead, I saw Mavis and she looked vex! I stared at her staring me out. This went on for what seemed forever. In the end she just kissed her teeth and walked away dragging her fat backside behind her.
When it was time for me to leave Jamaica, Granny was crying like it was my funeral. I tried not to hug her too hard. I wanted my dress to be tear and snot free for when Mummy and Daddy came to meet me at the English Airport. Dorris, Violet and their parents came to see me off. Even Mrs Hutchinson and Principle Churchill came! They bought me a brand new pencil case! I didn’t see Mavis there and between you and me, I didn’t want to.
As I skipped towards the plane, and hopped up every step, my stomach got bubblier and bubblier! I smiled so much my cheeks hurt. I waved goodbye to the sand, the salty sea, the dry yam and dashin’, the sugar cane fields, but I didn’t say goodbye to the sun. I thought it was coming with me!
When I reached England BWWWOOOOOOOOYYYYY it was cold! My Sunday dress (which I always thought was too heavy and too much) needed to be longer.
I stood at the airport with Susie and my suitcase. Lots of tall white men were hurrying back and forth, back and forth. They were making me dizzy. Wherever they were going must have been pretty serious!
Between you and me, I don’t think all white people can see brown skin. As I tried to find my way to where Mummy and Daddy would pick me up. I’d ask directions but none of them could hear me and the few that could would give a quick look in my direction before scurrying off.
After walking around for ages, I finally found myself in the ‘pick up and drop off place.’ Me, Susie and my suitcase were stood there for hours shivering. Soon everything grey went greyer. I suppose God knew I was just too tired to cry so he let the sky do it for me.
The rain came, white people whizzed past, the horse and cart ‘clonked’, but no Mummy and Daddy.I wondered if I was waiting in the wrong place. Better yet, I thought I could have been in the wrong country. After all, I still hadn’t seen any gold paved streets. Just concrete slabs as miserable as the sky.
Eventually a car pulled up. I couldn’t make out who was in it at first but, I could see a man wearing a mac. Beside him was a lady in a red hat and red dress. They looked so black and yet so English!
The lady got out the car, ran to me and gave me a big hug! She jumped back quick when she felt how cold and wet I was. She ran to the car and came back with a blanket. She wrapped it round me and Susie, picked up my suitcase and walked me to the car.
Once I was in the back and she was sat in the passenger seat, she nudged the man to tell me hello. She said the man was her ‘friend’ Marcus.He turned, smiled and said hello and the car moved off. Susie and I were a bit confused. I thought I was coming to meet my parents. I hadn’t seen Mummy and Daddy since I was three but from what I remember and from what Granny described, these were not them. Were they?
I started to panic; my heart jumped from my stomach to my throat and back again but then I thought, ‘these people seem to know what they’re doing. They gave me a blanket and were the only black folk I’d seen up until then. Perhaps they were just driving me to Mummy and Daddy?’
When the car pulled up outside the house my mouth opened so wide a fly could’ve flown in and flown out without me noticing. It was massive! massive! massive! It had huge stairs leading to a big blue door with a golden lion doorknob. It had enormous windows with fancy nets and white window ledges. I was prepared to get used to the weather if I was living in such a huge house.
I went inside and stood in the middle of what Mrs Hutchinson called ‘a pallor.’ It was dark inside but very clean. Above me was a chandelier that sparkled. Finally I found the sun! (or something like it). I watched it beam reds, blues and greens that danced off the walls. Marcus startled me when he shoved my suitcase into my hand and told me to move into the room on the first left. He seemed angry, but I guessed it was because he’d been calling me for time and I was staring at the chandelier.
I walked into the room and in the corner by the fire I saw woman in a rocking chair holding a baby. I was sure she was Mummy. Then the lady came in and said. “I’d like you to meet your brother Michael.” The lady took the baby from Mummy and showed him to me. She crouched down so I could see his face. He looked like a monkey with constipation. I did wonder why the lady felt the need to introduce me to Michael and not let Mummy do it.
I also wondered if Granny knew about Michael. Then Mummy got out of the rocking chair. She smiled and patted me on the head. I was expecting a hug not a pat. Then she started talking to the lady about how well behaved Michael was while they were gone. And then she left. She left me with Marcus, Michael and the lady in the dingy, damp living room with the brown carpet and double bed and box for a cot and tiny yellow stained mattress. I thought it was funny decor for a living room but not as funny as Mummy just walking out. I went to follow her but, Marcus stopped me.
“Where do you think you’re going?” he asked. “To be with Mummy” I said. Marcus and the lady looked shocked. They stared at each other for some time. Then the lady said; “It’s me. I’m Mummy. You don’t remember?” Clearly I didn’t! What a stupid question!
“Then who was that woman?” I asked. Marcus explained it was a woman who lived upstairs. She was just watching Michael while they came to get me. I was confused and when I asked if she was the maid they both looked at me like I said let’s all run around in the rain in just underwear. Marcus got vex quick! “Do we look like the royal family to you? We all live here. This is not our house but this is our room!
Lady-Mummy told Marcus to calm down then he stormed outside the room. When I asked Lady-Mummy if Marcus was my Daddy, she rolled her eyes as if the answer was somewhere way back behind her head and you know what she said? “He. Is. Now.”
He is now? So where’s the real one? Why does he have to be my daddy? He clearly doesn’t want the job.
When the english summer (of nothing but rain) was over it was time to start school. Lady-Mummy brought me a brown uniform, beige socks, black shoes, a brown pleated skirt, brown blazer with a green and white crest on the left breast pocket and a brown hat. She also gave me a brown bag with an apple and a ruler in it. I wanted to put my pencil case in but she said no. She told me not to take Susie but I snuck her in.
Wearing the uniform, I felt like an idiot. I looked like a walking talking doo doo! I preferred my old uniform. Marcus walked me to school on his way to work. We didn’t speak a word the whole time. After about ten minutes of walking, he pointed to a big, black iron gate and said; “You go that way.” Then he walked off.Not many kids were around when I got there. I was pleased to be one of the early birds. I got to the gate and was greeted by an old, white nun…with a moustache. She looked as cheerful as the sky and the concrete pavement. She said hello, took my hand and escorted me to the head sister’s office. It was cloudy thick with smoke in there. I had to fight my way through the fog to get to the seat opposite her desk. Sister Smith (a witch in disguise) told me there weren’t many coloureds in the school so I’d have to make a special effort to acquaint with others unlike myself. She reminded me of how privileged I was to be in England and St Angela’s. She explained all the rules which included no jive talk.(whatever that is), no exotic foods, no voodoo dancing and to pray to Jesus as opposed to African gods. I didn’t know there were African gods. All my life I only ever knew Jesus. Then she handed me a hymn book and a bible.
I found my way to the office door and the nun escorted me to my form room or as I like to call it, HELL!
Sister Colette (my form tutor) was doing the register when I walked in. She stopped half way through someone’s name. In fact, they all stopped. I had to look down and make sure I wasn’t naked. I wondered if it was because my uniform matched my skin. But then I realised these English girls could not be that stupid.The nun introduced me to Sister Colette as ‘the coloured girl.’ Everyone heard and that name has stuck with me since. Colette made me sit at the back of the class. The other girls moved their desks away.
The lesson seemed to go on forever. These girls are my age, in this school and so slow! Mrs Hutchinson taught me these topics ages ago! When it was time to do the exercise as instructed on the board, Sister Colette thought it wise to ask if I understood in the slowest voice possible: “DOOOOOOOOOOO YOOUUUUUUUU UNNNNDDDDEEEEEEEERRRRRSSSSSTTTAAAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNDDDDDDDD?”
When I answered yes, she looked shocked. I finished my work in half the time it took the others. I almost got the cane first for ‘daydreaming’ and then ‘cheating’ because I was waiting for those fools to finish working on baby tasks. After what seemed like a million years, the bell rang and it was break time.
No one would play with me. After six failed attempts to make friends, I found a nice little spot in the corner of the playing field. I opened my bag to get my apple and out of nowhere this chubby, white hand plunged in and grabbed Susie! I turned to face this big, spotty, frizzy haired beast of a girl (who could easily pass for an ugly boy). He/she was holding Susie up in the air. I tried to grab her but had no luck once a huge gang of girls came to join. The beast lit a cigarette and started stumping it out on Susie’s face. I screamed for her to stop but it was no use. I was competing against loud laughter and girls screaming ‘Zulu! Zulu!’
Eventually Sister Smith came. The girls ran, taking Susie with them. I got the cane for teaching the girls how to do a ‘godless African chant.’ I don’t even know what a ‘Zulu’ is!She also wrote a note for me to give to Lady-Mummy. I didn’t open it because 1; it’s rude to open letters that do not belong to you and 2; it would have probably vex me.
On the way home, I found Susie. They hung her from a tree. Her dress was torn. They cut her hair. I took her down, kissed her and carefully placed her in my bag. I walked home slowly so not to damage her anymore.
Eventually when I arrived in the room, Lady-Mummy was trying to start a fire. Michael was asleep. She asked me how school was. I think I took too long to find words because she just got right into talking about what was for dinner. Carrots, cabbage and potato…again.
Marcus stormed in angry as always. He sat down and mumbled something to himself about police, search and rough up. He saw Lady-Mummy trying to start the fire and told her she was doing it wrong.
She argued she wasn’t and then they just argued, Michael woke up and started screaming. Marcus’ voice got louder and so did Lady-Mummy’s. She said if we had more wood it would be easier. Then it hit me; paper and wood both come from trees. Perhaps throwing the note Sister Smith wrote would help. I opened my bag wide and as I went to pull out the note Marcus grabbed Susie and before I could even blink she was burning. “It’s insides are made of hay. Great for making fire” said Marcus. He burnt my only friend and called her an ‘it.’ Marcus stormed out the room. Lady-Mummy’s eyes started doing that funny thing again when she’s looking for the right words. Then she went to see to Michael. I spent the whole night in front of the fire. When it died down I took a lock of Susie’s hair and plaited it into mine. I lay down on my mattress and listened to the rain. It was the heaviest I’d ever heard it.This morning I woke up and laying beside me was a little white doll with blonde hair and blue eyes. She wore a scruffy pink dress, had ink marks all over her feet and her hair stank!
I sat up and saw Marcus by the fire. He turned to face me and smiled. I could tell he felt bad about Susie. I guess he didn’t know she wasn’t like normal dolls. When he asked me what I thought of this new doll, Kate I asked why he didn’t get a black one. As soon as I said it I felt bad. I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. I thought he’d be mad but he didn’t even raise an eyebrow. He just said; “They don’t do black dolls in England.” I held Kate up and stared into her blue eyes- all sky and no sun. I held her close to me, but quickly put her down when I got another whiff of her hair.
I’m in the park right now. I couldn’t face another day in school. I figured as long as I keep writing in you I’ll be keeping up my literacy.
Now Susie is gone it’s just us. I hope one day you fall into the hands of my children or my children’s children so they can know what life is really like in 1954 England.