Two weeks after their latest bust up, Yvonne decided to visit her aunt in Tooting, leisurely catching a bus from Clapham in the early afternoon. It was quite nippy out. She looked through the window, across the Common, recalling school days, grateful for the green space contrasting the powder blue arch of sky, before the panorama was broken up by the noisy silver black steak of a band of Hells Angels riding in the opposite direction.
On alighting she headed for an Asian grocery shop that was new in the area, the owners being arrivals from Uganda, after Idi Amin threw them out. She bought a bottle of VP wine and a quart of Captain Morgans – there being no Wray & Nephew or Appleton Jamaican rums on the shelves. In so doing, there was no connective recollection on her part of the slave trade or the sugar cane plantations to account for the sweet cultural tooth coursing through the land of her parents’ birth, a trait merrily imbued across the Caribbean.
In her ignorance and consequently for the Caribbean, she also bought treats for the youngsters: cola cubes, gobstoppers, R Whites lemonade, though most probably produced from sugar beet now. For something savoury she grabbed some cheese and onion and salt and vinegar crisps – which would unbeknowingly convert to more sugar on consumption later on. This unconscious sugar fest was on account of the fact that it had been a while since her last visit to her relatives.
Two white boys shouted “Paki,” from the shop doorway, laughed and ran away as she was handed her change, her eyes meeting those of the shopkeeper, heads shaking in silent agreement. So young and yet the seeds of racism were already sprouting, more crystal than the pile of sugar she walked out with.
She took a left off the main road. Someone had a top window open. She could just about detect Hopeton Lewis’s “Boom Shaka-lacka” cutting through the midday Sunday air – next generation – the music fading as she reached the house. Some people were coming down the front steps, new tenants perhaps, a young couple with a toddler.
“Afternoon, I come to see the Wilsons, my Aunt.” The family still rented.
“Oh,” the light skin man replied, slipping the key back into the lock. His woman smiled and nodded while the toddler just stared, wrapped up tight like a bear cub.
She followed the smell of Fricassee chicken to the kitchen, popping her head round the door.
Aunt Thelma was checking the rice and peas was cooked to perfection, while her eldest daughter was cutting up salad.
“Busy, busy,” she called out, drawing their attention.
“Wha, oh so you finally remember me!” her aunt responded pleasantly surprised. “I didn’t even hear the door knock.”
“Some people were leaving as I was coming in. Whappen Eunice?” The patois automatically kicked in.
The teenager cocked her eye at her long lost cousin. They had only made a few brief acquaintances since her arrival from Jamaica 18 months prior. Eunice had been pinning to go shopping in the West End with Yvonne for the past 12 weeks.
“Is jus now you reach?” she kissed her teeth and turned her bum.
“Eh, eh. What wrong with you?” her mother needled. “Your cousin is a hard working woman. When she can find the time she will take you shopping for a decent winter coat. Go help Dorette set the table and tell Franklyn to stop check the pools as dinner soon ready.”
The last part of the instruction made Eunice scowl all the more.
“Gwan, Miss Screwface” her mother snapped as she dragged her feet out of the kitchen, passing Yvonne without even a never mind.
Yvonne entered the kitchen. “Something smells good!”
“Just some chicken and beef. Wash you hands and help me dish out. That girl is so contrary. I don’t know what’s wrong with her.”
“Ah, she’s just a teenager Auntie. She still settling down with the cold and everything. It’s going to take time. I bought you some VP to warm your heart – all I can afford right now.”
“You know you don’t have to bring anything but yourself. Take it into the front room for me with the salad.”
Her Aunt listened for the burst of surprised laughter as Dorette her younger daughter greeted her cousin with Clive the youngest joining in. Her younger children had also been born in Britain. Eunice had been left with her grandmother when Thelma came over to work. She had meant to send for her daughter sooner but had found it hard to make ends meet, sending money home for her keep when she could afford it. Then she had met Franklyn on a Cricket trip to Lords. By the time he took her on a coach trip to Blackpool, that was to propose and so that they would have no trouble remembering where years later.
Yvonne’s mother, had not been too keen on him. Thelma thought she was too fussy about men anyway. Bernice also knew Thelma had hidden the fact she had a child in Jamaica. That had caused a rift between the sisters, but Bernice had known it was bound to cause trouble sooner or later.
Thelma married Franklyn and Dorette was born a year later. Franklyn finally found out about Eunice when grandmother died suddenly. He was furious, an understatement, which he somehow bottled in initially. What other secrets had she hidden from him? In the meantime, Eunice had been passed around other relatives who worked her like a slave. Franklyn hadn’t been in any hurry to send for another man’s child out of spite according to Thelma. Clive came along 4 years later and time had just flown by. The family could not have afforded to travel home in all those years. When Bernice died, she didn’t leave Thelma any legacy because she had a man and besides, needed to learn to make proper provision for herself.
Eunice finally arrived in England, harbouring a lot of resentment over being left back home by her mother. She lost no opportunity taking this out on Dorette, who she nicknamed Princess, treating her anything but. Naturally, it also did not help that Dorette’s hair was also better than hers, being less kinky than Eunice’s. Eunice had to use the hot comb in her drunk hair, while Dorette only had to do chinnie bumps in hers to get a silky effect with nice curls. Dorette could not stand the hot comb and as soon as she could manage her own hair, forwent the torture of getting her ears burned.
Aunt Thelma asked Franklyn to say Grace which was a flat, “For what we are about to receive, give thanks. Amen.” Franklyn knew more about dominoes than God and preferred things that way.
“I thought you would bring your young man with you again.”
“We pull up Auntie.”
“What again? So, you can manage your mortgage on your own? Eunice pass the chicken.”
“It’s really hard, why you haven’t seen me. Just struggling with trying to start up my business proper. I really need to learn to drive too.”
“Wheh you meet him again? American wasn’t he?”
“Hmm hmm, met him in a club.”
“If your mother was alive, she would have had you married off to somebody in the church, long time. Night club! Dorette dish out some rice for Clive and put some gravy on it.” Clive adjusted his thick glasses before raising his plate.
Yvonne’s mother had confided the family story to her daughter some years before she died. Thelma was the closest family outside of her brothers that she had in the UK, though cousins were increasingly surfacing from across the country.
“So did you win?” Yvonne turned to Franklyn.
“No. I like the horses and dogs better.”
“The Bookie’s best friend,” Thelma added.
“What about the cricket? I brought a flask by the way.”
“Thank you,” he rubbed his hands. “I’ll have a sip of that later. No, I never bet on the cricket. I always want West Indies to win and would always bet on dem no matter what.”
“And how’s work?” Yvonne continued effortlessly.
“I can’t complain, you know. Eunice get me a Guinness from the fridge.”
“Why don’t you get Princess to get it?” Eunice retorted.
“Princess? Ah who name suh?”
“Eunice, don’t start,” her mother pleaded. “Just get the man the Guinness nuh?”
“I’ll get it Daddy,” Clive jumped up.
“Clive, you stay where you are and eat up. Eunice …” Franklyn raised his eyebrows and opened his mouth wider. She responded by puffing up her mouth, dragging her feet to the fridge, remembering to snatch the opener from the sideboard at the last minute.
“No mek me … Thelma, when last you give that girl a box? She must tink seh she too big fi beaten.”
“My Daddy never beat me yet,” Eunice snapped back.
“Ah suh? You know where him deh?”
“Franklyn,” Thelma protested. “Can’t we have our dinner in peace, please. Yvonne didn’t come for this.”
Yvonne felt uncomfortable but tried not to let the tension spoil her appetite. Franklyn could hardly compare to her father as a role model, coming from her own mother’s perception of him. The person she really felt sorry for in all of this was Dorette. There was a sadness about her Yvonne had come to notice over the months. Being Daddy’s girl just wasn’t compensating for all this. She seemed to be lacking a big sister and a friend at a time when she needed one most, just turning a teen herself.
“It’s okay. You know, I really love the way you do your chicken. Can I have another piece and the pepper sauce please?” Dorette passed her the dish. The sadness lightened. The child smiled, glad her cousin had been there.