Part I: London, 7-8.
At first, the period when my mother was a Nervous Disorder was unexpectedly peaceful; I hadn't realized how much energy it took to counteract the weight of her sorrow. When the weight was lifted, in spite of the guilt I carried, I felt liberated. The first few months of her leaving were almost joyous. In my diary that April fourth I marked the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King with a poem called "Free at Last!" It was supposed to be about slavery and the civil rights movement, but it was really my freedom I was celebrating. There was no pall over our house anymore. I think that Alfred was also a bit relieved. We kept the rooms reasonably clean, tried to avoid too much home improvement because that seemed to have triggered her breakdown, and lived in a state of reasonable contentment now that Louise didn't breathe grief down our necks. Of course Alfred never said this. But I could tell. In a secret place in my heart, I began wishing that Louise Buttercup Moses would never, ever come back to Lavender Sweep.
Springtime in Battersea brought with it a brief prettiness. Alison claimed it was "the most beautifulest" time of the year. She looked up and down the street and saw loveliness everywhere. I realized that the axiom was true: beauty was indeed in the eye of the beholder. And my eyes were as open as Alison's this particular spring.
Dreams seemed achievable and everything was young. Three more months until the warm weather (if it made an appearance at all) would turn dog turds into stinking mounds of shit. We had three months before the summer when, Ruskin threatened, Louise could come home. But he'd been saying that for ages, pushing her return farther back, into a distant future. He couldn't scare me anymore.
April with Alison would be particularly good, now that I could stay out as late as I wanted and mingle with children who had germs. Alison herself was growing into loveliness, and my craving for all things beautiful made me ache to be near her. I liked it when she sat next to me on the front step and her darker-than-dark skin and quiet profile eclipsed my view of the Sweep. I liked it too when she lay her head on my lap and let me plait her tight, African hair, and sing songs to her from South Pacific or the Catholic hymnal. Often I'd take her to the Africa I'd pieced together from Simon's stories, and she'd take me to the Jamaica she remembered as a young child. In those months I learned to take up the remnants of my life, the stories left to me by my father, the morals taught me by Alfred, my own unquenchable optimism, and sew them all together into a crazy quilt that made sense only to me. Alison and Alfred helped me sew it together. From October to April, they became the thread.
Almost every afternoon after school, and most of the day on Saturdays, if it was warm enough and the rain held off, I'd sit with Alison on our front step. Lily polished it with bright red boot polish. It was the one area of the house she took some pride in. I overheard Maurice taunting his mother once, saying the step looked like the mouth of a whore, an observation that elicited the worst string of swear words I'd ever heard from a woman's mouth.
Maurice and Mary were still at home. To everyone's amazement, Maurice was becoming something of a mathematics genius. He was going to the London School of Economics. It was hard for Alison and me to imagine him as anything other than Maurice of the Sausage Tongue, however. Behind his back, I still called him the Troubled Boy, and mocked him for his ignorance; and he still swayed constantly as if he were aboard a ship. Alfred said he'd probably enter the navy at some point, as he had a genetic disposition toward imbalance.
When Alison and I sat together on Lily's red stoop, we could see Mrs. Gem's corner shop on the inside part of the curve the Sweep made just before the bus stop. Mrs. Gem had Gobstoppers and Candysnakes; she had a Penny Tray we could mull over for hours, trying to get the best sweets possible for a penny. Alison didn't get pocket money. Since Louise had been taken away, my only source of pocket money was Alfred. He was out of work more often than not now that the film business was, as he put it, "in the doldrums." But he still got the occasional bit part in a television production, so I'd get a sixpence now and then. He had the classic Dickensian face, apparently. He'd been told that Americans in particular would be thrilled by the antiquity of his features. Whenever he heard someone with an American accent, he asked them if they were in films. It was embarrassing.
If we followed the Sweep to its Clapham Common end, then walked alongside the common for about two or three miles, we'd enter one of the Christopher Wren sections of South London. It was a huge leap from Lavender Sweep to the majestic flats on that side of the common. It was like stepping out of one rhythm and into another. The flats had bars on their windows to stop people like us from getting in. Alfred said it was where the bourgeoisie repelled the proletariat. He said bars on windows were a sickness, and that people like that were simply too rich. Wealth needs to be shared, not hoarded, he said. Yet he loved the houses themselves, saying they were fashioned by God, who'd come down as a bird. It was a pun on Christopher Wren's name, but I didn't get it for several years. "The man was a genius!" he'd say. "Imagine the dome of St. Paul's! Imagine designing that! It takes a special kind of mind to be able to envision perfection. You stand in St. Paul's and you think you're at the point of all horizons. You know that feeling you get when you're out at sea and the world falls off around you like a huge eye? I know you haven't sailed anywhere yet; but, mark my words, when you do, Jacinta, it's just like the dome of St. Paul's. You begin to understand what infinity means. And that's the point where existence is blessed by pure beauty--a beauty so profound that it eclipses time, and all that remains are alleluias. That's St. Paul's, Jacinta. That's why I take you there every Christmas to see what beauty means."
But, even in the spring, Battersea wasn't beauty or infinity for long. It was "finite rooms hemmed to finite rooms." When I read that fine from my diary poems to Alfred, he said I was very advanced for my age. He was certain I'd grow up to be Shakespeare's sister or a malcontent. He said it was in the stars.
Sometimes I'd point out places of architectural interest to Alison. She always seemed to enjoy it, though when I'd quiz her later she never remembered any of the names.
"John Francis Bentley lived here," I'd say, pointing to a large eighteenth-century house in Clapham Common Old Town. "He designed the Catholic cathedral at Westminster, you know.
"Tennyson actually walked in Marianne Thornton's school on Acre Square!
"Some of the houses are Georgian, of course. I love that period--windows with little rectangular panes of glass--everything formal--as though it will be that way forever.
"Did I tell you about the plague pit on the Common? It's right there under the pond. Really it is, Alison. Imagine all those bones."
Alison's eyes would grow wide and she'd say things like "Cor, blimey," and I'd be as happy as I could be, given my circumstances.
Clapham Common itself was my favorite place to be. I'd go with Alison and sit on the bench near the old air raid shelters--huge concrete mounds where Alfred said he'd seen men and women firing the big guns up into a network of lights during the War. At other times, we'd sit by the dancing trees, as Louise used to call them when Simon was alive, near the narrow footpath where Louise and I used to walk before she became distracted.
I didn't tell Alison Bean about my mother. Alfred said you couldn't trust anyone. If I told, then I could be taken away to a "home." I made up elaborate stories about how Louise and I were doing one thing or another. One weekend we were going to Salisbury Cathedral on the coach, I told the girls at school, because my mother loved spires. The next week I told them we were spending a quiet weekend at home playing poker.
Because Alison was younger than I was, she seemed to believe everything I said. She didn't ask too many questions, and she rarely wanted to come in to the house to play because of Maurice and what had happened before. I was happy around Alison Bean. Apart from Alfred, Alison was the person I felt most relaxed with.
Sometimes we held hands when we talked. Alison had a small hand. It looked very black in my brown one. On the Common, we must have looked like two small specks on the expanse of green ringed by the South Circular Road, traffic whizzing round the edges of what I called "tranquillity." The breeze made my cheeks red, and Alison's eyes water. We strolled down toward the bandstand as boys on roller skates, mothers with prams, and old people passed us by--all out enjoying the mild afternoon. I told Alison we needed to celebrate the life of a King. She thought I meant Jesus.
"I love Jesus," she said.
"No. Not Jesus. Another King. Jesus was the King of the Jews, but Martin Luther King was the King of the Blacks. He was assassinated a year ago, you know. Which leaves a big hole in the movement, Alfred says, and means that someone has to rise up and take his place."
"Me maybe. I want to go to America, you know. After Africa, of course. There's so much to do. People are rioting over there, you know. Alfred says it's the most violent nation in history. He says the United States is predicated upon--that means 'based upon'--suffering. He says it was the Indians who were slaughtered first and now it's the blacks. He says that Simon said the Little Rock Nine---you remember, Alison, I told you that story last time--anyhow, the Little Rock Nine symbolized something ... I forget what it was exactly, but it was very important. Something bad about the West. Someone needs to go there and clean up the mess. It really is messy over there, Alison. I plan to go after Africa. There's so much to be done. Sometimes it's a bit overwhelming."
The wind picked up and blew in our faces. My hair stood up on my head because I'd forgotten my hat. Alison's short hair didn't move. I admired the Africanness of it. It reminded me of Simon.
"You can come to Kingston with me one day, Jacinta. If you like."
"I think I'd like that," I replied.
"Yeah. You would. It's super-calla-fraga-hstic-expi-ali-docious!"
We laughed. It had taken Alison two weeks to get her tongue around the word I'd taught her from Mary Poppins. It had since become her favorite adjective.
"What would I like about Jamaica?" I asked.
"Are there beaches with yellow sand? That's what I'd like more than anything. And coloured people everywhere. Here, there, and everywhere. Lots of poor ones too so that I could do good works."
"O yes, Jassie. There's lotsa those--poor people and beaches. Sometimes the poor people are right there on the beaches, so's you don't never have to even go lookin' for 'em. Lotsa them don't 'ave no shoes neither. You'd love it, Jacinta."
I looked up at the trees. A few had blossoms on. Most were losing them to the wind.
"'April is the cruelest month,'" I said.
Alison looked at me.
"We learned that at school," I told her, "but I don't believe it. I think April is the happiest month because of the spring and all the buds and everything. You know what I mean. New beginnings. Time to start over. Anything can happen in the spring!"
Alison nodded. Then she uttered one of the longest and most complicated series of sentences I'd heard from her in a long time.
"I'm going home one day. To Jamaica. Just like we said. You can come too. Mum says I'm a Cockney girlie now, so they won't reckanize me. But I think they will. Plantains are great. And there's no Maurice Beadycap over there. I hate him. He's a bad, bad one. One day something terrible's gonna happen to him. Mum says so. I like the trees too. I like pretty things. You're really pretty. I could look at you all day. My granny's pretty too, in a old way. She has the best smile and the best rice in town. She smells like ... like ... smiling."
"You know, that was a simile, Alison. Well done!"
"Yep. You said 'she smells like smiling." You compared one unlike thing to another. You did something else unusual too, in a rhetorical sense, but I don't quite know what it is. I'll have to ask Alfred. Poets use figures of speech like that, you know. I'm going to be a poet someday."
"I used a sim-le!" Alison said. She was beaming. She asked me if I'd be her best friend. I told her I could be her best friend, if she liked, but she'd have to be my second-best friend because of Josephine Marsh. I didn't tell her about Alfred or my other friend Julie Russell because I thought it might hurt her feelings. She said she'd be really happy to be my second-best friend. I took out a safety pin I always carried just in case, and we did the Indian blood-brother ceremony. I pricked my forefinger and squished some blood out. She pricked her forefinger too, though it took her five tries because she was so afraid of the sight of blood. Then we held our fingers together and recited a rhyme I'd made up.
If all the mummies loved you, and all the dads were good, then life would be like dreaming, and they'd do what they should. If all the friends were like you, and all the kings were queens, how happy we would be on earth because we all could dream.
We held hands some more and sang "Yesterday" in parts. We got very emotional when we got to the bit about people leaving. I thought about Louise, and I almost told Alison about it. I knew she'd understand and that she could keep a secret. But still, I had to be careful. I could ruin everything all over again by speaking out of turn. I didn't know what Alison had lost, but I thought perhaps it was her granny in Jamaica because when she spoke about her she always seemed to be writing her name in capital letters, the way t did in my head with Simon--and now Louise.
Just then, a woman went by with a baby in a pram. We rushed up to look at it but the woman shooed us away.
"Get out of 'ere! I don't want no coloured's germs on my baby!"
We were stunned for a moment. Then we looked at each other and looked at her. The woman was filthy. Her hair was so greasy it looked wet; her face had smudges of black on it; and there was snot running from her nose, which she wiped away on her sleeve. We began to laugh. We laughed and laughed and laughed. Alison mimicked her voice as we danced in circles around the pram:
"Coloured germs! Coloured germs!" we sang.
The best part of all was that the woman seemed to be afraid of us.
Her eyes got big and she took several steps backward. I felt myself growing taller.
"We eat little babies," I said, remembering the way Simon used to lick his lips to chase rude people away. "We're cannibals!"
"Yum, yum," Alison added.
The woman swore at us, then took off at about ninety miles an hour.
"Ha, ha, ha! Ha, ha!" The wind took our laughter and whipped it up around us like blossoms.
"We shoulda breathed on it," Alison said.
"Yeah! Even better!"
"Ha, ha, ha!"
"You know, Alison, I don't like white people much. Except for my mother and Alfred, of course."
"I don't like 'em either. They look at you funny. Me dad says don't none of 'em like us much. They're out to get us, he says."
We looked at each other. "Yum, yum, baby meat," I said, and we fell about all over again.
"Do you like being black, Alison?" I asked, suddenly serious.
"Do you ever wish you were white like the others?"
She stood for a while frowning in concentration. Behind her, about a mile away, matchbox-sized cars tore along the distant road--cars driven by people who didn't have to "wait for buses, driven by white people who had found a way to get away.
I waited to hear what she would say. I wanted her to give the right answer, though I didn't know what it was. At last she looked up at me and her face broke into a smile.
"If I was white, then I wouldn't be like the others, Jassie. Me brothers 'n sisters would all look at me funny. When I went back to my granny, she'd say, 'Who are you, Missy?' I'd be the odd man out."
"Yes," I said, understanding for the first time that our homes were places where our skins belonged. "Yes. You're right. You're abso-effinglutely right!" Alison gasped in horror at my language, then covered her mouth with her hand and giggled.
I continued: "Who wants to be freckly and pointy-nosed anyway? Who wants to have greasy wads of hair and fat babies that look like loaves of white bread?"
"Not us!" Alison cried.
"Who wants to be slave owners and racists and wealthy bastards living in Chelsea with our caviar and champagne, our color tellies and our Rolls-Royces?"
Alison gave me a puzzled look. Color televisions and Rolls-Royces were too appealing to pretend we didn't want them. I needed to make whiteness less attractive. I thought for a moment, then hit upon exactly the thing that would convince her.
"And who wants to be doomed to hell because of all the centuries of crimes you've committed as a white supremacist?"
"Not us!" Alison said emphatically. Hell was terrifying to her. It was where Mrs. Bean said all her children would go if they didn't attend church every Sunday.
"We're lucky, Alison. We're lucky because ... we're lucky because ..."
"Because we're not white?" Alison suggested timidly.
I grabbed hold of her hands and we spun around so that the sky twirled above us and the ground spun under our feet.
"Yum, yum, baby meat!" we chanted to the canopy of dancing trees.
We were so happy we never heard Maurice and Mary behind us until it was too late.
We spun around and saw them standing in the middle of the narrow path, which led from the main road to the bandstand. The cars that circled the common were whizzing behind the twins too, and I had to concentrate on standing still so that I wasn't swaying in time with Maurice, now that our spinning was over.
Normally, seeing the Beadycap twins barring my path on Clapham Common would have been enough to set my knees shaking. I hadn't spoken three sentences to Maurice since he kissed me. They were both even bigger than before. Even Mary was about twice my weight. This time, though, we'd made a white woman run away. We had power. We stood our ground.
"Go away, Maurice Beadycap," I shouted into the wind. "We were having a private conversation."
Maurice just looked at us. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking.
Mary began cursing us, calling us wogs and coons.
"This is our country," she said, "not yours. Go home and swing on trees, why don'tcha?"
I leaped before I knew it. Alison followed suit.
We both went for Mary's eyes. She kicked and spat and we didn't let go. Something told us Maurice would never help her. She didn't even bother to cry out for help. It would have been useless to do so.
The funny thing is, we were both laughing. Hooting with laughter, in fact. We laughed even more when we yanked up her skirt and found her navy blue knickers under the ugly yellow petticoat she was wearing. We each grabbed hold of the elastic and pulled them down to her knees, her ankles. A few bloody rags fell out. Alison slipped the knickers off while I tickled her. Mary was a sucker for tickling.
We took off for home. When we looked round, we saw to our horror that Maurice was chasing us. Behind Maurice we could see Mary on the ground, her legs wide open, her shock of pubic hair reddishbrown against the green of the grass. The wind caught the hem of her skirt. It ballooned around her head. She didn't look like a living person; she looked like a corpse. A few passersby stopped to stare.
We did that, I thought. I couldn't feel anything. I wanted to feel sorry for her, but I couldn't. Maurice had stopped in his tracks when we turned round. We were all caught in a moment of indecision. He didn't seem to know what to do, but there was a terrible look in his eyes, and I knew we'd taken as much away from him as we had from Mary.
"Run!" I said.
We ran and ran and ran.
The busy intersection ahead of us seemed to get farther away rather than closer. Behind us was Maurice Beadycap. He was screaming, "I'll murder you!" I thought of Louise. I ran faster.
I reached the road first and dashed across. Alison was on the other side with Mary's knickers in her hand. Maurice was a few feet behind her.
"Run!" I cried. "Run, Alison! He's right behind you!" She ran.
I didn't think the bus had hit her at first. She was there in front of me, then the bus was there, then she wasn't there. I looked around. She was lying in the middle of the road and there was a deafening screech of brakes. I'd heard the sound of flesh against metal, but it had been a small sound, almost gentle. A kind of "poof" really, like the sound you hear when a bean bag is dropped onto the floor.
The world hushed up, and I could hear my blood pumping through my body, throbbing as if it wanted to get out. I walked out into the road and stood over her. Her dress was up around her waist and I could see that she had pink knickers on. Mary's blue ones were still in her left hand. There was a tiny trickle of blood coming from a place above her right eye, and more coming from somewhere else because soon there was a bright puddle around her, as if she were lying on a scarlet mirror. Her eyes were wide open and it occurred to me that she'd just learned a most amazing secret.
Maurice came up beside me and adults began giving orders. Maurice's eyes were almost as big as Alison's. He was breathing fast and hard. He put his arm round my waist and pulled me toward him. I thought for a moment he planned to comfort me. I let myself sink into him. He was big and warm and smelled of men.
He whispered into my ear: "You did it."
I jerked myself away and began to shake. I shook so much my teeth chattered. I wanted to say it was his fault--that Maurice was evil and he'd taken something away from me again. I reached down and took Mary's knickers from Alison's hand just before her father got there to rock her little head in his hands and cry like a baby over her body. "From Kingston! For this! For this!" He turned to people in the crowd and made a sweeping gesture as though he were pushing a curtain aside.
I was led away by someone. I think it was Lily Beadycap, but it could have been Mrs. Butcher.
Alfred met me at the corner of Lavender Sweep, not far from Mrs. Gem's sweetshop. He was running toward me. He looked like a stick man. I was afraid he would shatter in the wind. He wrapped his skinny arms around me and whisked me up into the house. He sat me down in the kitchen with the fruit-basket wallpaper and the dents in the wall where my mother had kicked out a hunk of it. He made me a cup of English Breakfast tea and spoke about death and dying. He never asked me whose fault it was. "Dear God in heaven," he repeated over and over. "When will it end? One thing after another. You think you've seen the worst and then--poor little Alison. Poor Mr. and Mrs. Bean. When will it end?"
I trembled for two days.
Four days later I was back at school and Alison was in a small plot in Wandsworth Cemetery. I didn't go to the funeral. No one said I had to.
Maurice disappeared on the same day that Alison was killed. Lily was frantic. She said he was a genius and their ticket to better days. He had no right to go off on his own like that, she said. There were rumors that he'd joined the merchant navy. I hoped he was in hell. His words burned in my head. Maurice was evil, not me. Him. I hadn't done it. He had. He was the one with the tongue and the hands. He was the one we were running away from. Yet I'd made Alison cross the road. It was me. But only because of Maurice. He'd made me do it, just like he'd made me burn my hand that time. Maurice was the devil. If you got in his way, he devoured you. I needed to find someone to protect me. Louise was worse than useless. Alfred wasn't capable of hating anyone, and you needed to hate someone like Maurice, otherwise he'd win. I prayed for a champion to come and save me. I prayed to Simon to send someone who would never be afraid of Maurice Beadycap.
Then, one evening a few days after I'd returned to school, there was a knock at the door. Alfred was trying to make me eat some cod and potatoes. He said if I didn't eat soon I'd waste away. He went down to answer the door. "Eat that up, young lady," he said. "I'll be back in a minute."
When Alfred returned he had a white woman with him in a brown suit with gold buttons. She looked organized. Even her hair was organized into a taut brown bun, stuck through with large black hairpins. She had a small briefcase in her hand, and she looked weary, like the women in the offices where we went to get vouchers for shoes, or help with the heating bill. Alfred was crying.
"Now don't worry, child," he said. "I'M get you back. Your mother will too. It's a free country and they can't go against your daddy's wishes like that. You'll be back on Lavender Sweep in no time. You'll see."
I got up slowly and began to pack my bags. I didn't feel a thing. I knew that one of the twins had called social services. I knew it for a fact. I felt as though I'd known the secret was out as soon as I saw Mary's pubic hair on Clapham Common. You always got punished for things like that.
Alison Bean was dead. So was Simon. My mother was as mad as a hatter.
A glorious numbness set in. Everyone flew away. It was only a matter of time. The more you loved them, the more likely it was you'd lose them. The joke was on me. I should have known I'd seen this episode before. It was a repeat, but I'd forgotten to change the channel.
I smiled to myself. They could send Jacinta Louise Buttercup Moses wherever they wanted. The only person they could never touch was me.
Alfred has fallen asleep in the chair next to my mother's deathbed. I leave his English Breakfast on the side table next to him. I cover it with a saucer and creep back out again into the narrow hallway. At the foot of the stairs is where Maurice pinned my small body to the wall. The flowered wallpaper is gone, of course; now there is wine-colored paper and white woodwork. Yet, when I inhale deeply, I can still smell Maurice and his siblings, the urine-soaked mattresses, the grease from Lily's sausages and bacon.
Upstairs, Lady sleeps in the room that used to be mine. I think I hear her cry out. I creep upstairs; the old stairs that had once been covered with paisley/fish-hand carpet creak under my weight. I push open the door to her room.
All is quiet. She sleeps without nightmares. I kiss her gently and am awestruck by the beauty of my daughter's face. Who would have thought that nightmare could translate itself into blessing? I am my daughter's mother. Will I be a good one? When she is thirty-six, will she turn to me and demand the same kind of answers I demanded from my poor mother only days ago?
I creep out again, go downstairs and take my coat from the closet in the hallway. Outside the fog is beginning to lift, but the dampness puts a deeper chill in the air as the sky readies itself for dawn.
The fact of my mother's breast cancer has cast everything in a new light--as if her life and mine are foreshortened somehow by this circumstance, so that what is close up is large and intrusive, and what is far away a trick of the light. In the fog I see her clearly. The past few days shove me into a recognition of who we were.
In her final days, my mother was still an actress. When she told Lady one of the stories my father wrote, her voice took off into drama. Lady curled up on Louise's hospital bed--her whole body listening for clues. She looked just like I did when Simon told me the same story years before.
My mother told the story of the elephant--my father's story, but with different intonations because nay mother was the storyteller this time, and she was a white Englishwoman, and he was a black African man, and that makes all the difference. I tried to listen, well knowing that soon it would be me doing the telling.
My father's in print again. A new edition of his stories was published by Faber and Faber a few years ago. Everyone is praising his prose. He is fashionable at last. I become Simon Moses' daughter all over again. My mother has carried a copy of the stories in her bag ever since it came out. She carries it everywhere, together with a copy of my first book of poems. She tells me our styles are the same, but it's hard for me to see it. She likes my poem about my father's death best. "It sounds like holes," she says.
In spite of the pain, my mother laughs so much during her last few days on this earth that she often lets out a series of enormous farts that she blames on the chemotherapy. We have a few days together before the pain turns my mother inside out. Up until that time, Alfred, myself, and the hospice worker control it with painkillers.
I sleep in the rocking chair beside her bed and chart the course of her breathing.
One night I wake with a start. Louise is looking at me. Before I can stop myself, I begin telling her about my dream, knowing she won't understand how closely it resembles my first and last Easter in Africa.
"I was lying in the earth--sort of--only there was this huge tree on top of me. I could see its branches and it--are you tired, by the way? 'Cos I can stop if you are."
"No, no. I'm wide awake. So you were looking at this tree. Then what happened?"
"Well, it just seemed to me that it was very dark. Almost pitch dark. But I could see the tree, as I said. And it was lovely--the loveliest of trees. And I thought, 'I don't mind being under the earth if I can see trees like that.' And then it occurred to me that it wasn't the branches at all, it was the roots! Only things were upside down because it was the sky behind them, I knew that for certain. Weird, isn't it?"
"What happened then?"
"I began to think about dying. And about the roots of things. I can't explain it very well. And then I got scared. And then I woke up. What do you think about dying, by the way?" I realize I'm being anything but subtle.
Louise doesn't say anything for a while. But I know she's thinking about it. What she says next surprises me.
"You shouldn't be afraid of death, Jacinta. It can be a wonderful thing if the timing's right. If life didn't make us hate it, then how would we let go? But then there's Alfred. And he's getting so old. And London's a hard place for someone like him to be alone in. Even harder than it used to be. And he's still an extrovert, in a way. Still wears those lavender shirts with the lace. And the occasional dab of lipstick, you know. He got stoned the other day by some awful skinhead types. Did I tell you? Nothing too serious, but still..."
I want to shake her. I remember her diary. How much she wanted to share my father's grave.
"You're not going to die!" My voice is so loud it makes her laugh.
"You can't command someone to live, dear! It doesn't work that way."
There's joy in her voice. She is happy. My mother is happy to be dying!
"You want to die, don't you?"
She stops laughing. "No," she says. "Not really."
"You wanted to die when I was a child, though, didn't you?"
"I suppose I did," she says. "I was lonely." Her face is softened by the dim light in the room. The edges of her pain have been smoothed down by drugs. She seems to be at peace. I am compelled to try to ruin it.
"I'm never lonely with Lady," I say. It's an accusation.
"You are you and I am me. Maybe you didn't love your husband the way I loved your father."
I am stunned. She said it as a matter of fact; she didn't intend to be offensive. But she's hurt me more than she realizes. I wish I'd had the guts to tell her years ago about that Easter in Africa.
"You don't know," I say, my voice trembling, "what my husband was to me. You barely even met him. You don't know what happened over there. You've never even asked. You don't know what I've been through to get here. You don't have a clue. I wanted to be a good person, and it got all messed up. Just like that. And I forgot about all those things I was going to do for other people, and all that was left was ... making do."
"You know what it's like, then, Jacinta." She lies back in the bed and sighs. "And you mustn't resent your mother for wanting to let some of it go. Sometimes life's a bitch. You're right. I don't know anything about your husband or your time in Africa. Just those things you told me about Simon's family and that strange story about those friends of yours--and of course the accident. But you kept the details to yourself. And I didn't mind. Everyone needs some privacy. If you don't have any privacy at all, how can you learn to respect yourself?. Your father used to say that's how they managed to control the slaves. Their main weapon was denying them privacy. Herding them together in their little cabins. Naming them publicly with a branding iron. The poor don't have privacy and neither do the insane--not in the old days, anyway. Privacy is for the middle class.
"Sometimes," she says, more to herself than to me, "you look at your child and it seems like a lot to bear--that responsibility, you know. You know what it's like. When Lady was born, remember? You wanted to die. And you wouldn't let any of us near you. You're like me that way. When times are really bad, you just stop. Like a watch or a clock that hasn't been wound. You just stop. Sometimes you look at your child and you think it's just not worth it."
I am worth it, I think. Don't give me your despair. I have to have something to give to Lady.
"Is that why you left?" I say out loud.
"When I was a child."
"Is it? I wasn't worth it, right?"
She sighs. I want to have mercy on her, but I can't. Something in me pushes hard. "I wasn't worth it, was I? Was I?"
"I love you, Jacinta. But I had to go away for a while and ... think."
"They sent me to live with--"
"Don't you think I know that!"
She sits up in bed. At last she's angry. I'm glad. If she's angry, she's not dead already. Rage, rage, against the dying of the light, Louise.
I say I'm sorry. I can't see whether she's crying. I move to hug her, but she pushes me away with what little strength she has left. I can tell she wants to say something. I wait for her to speak.
"You need to remember, Jacinta ... you need to remember ... whatever it cost me ... I came back for you."
The fog is lifting. I can see the rooftops in a zigzag outline against the brightening sky.
It occurs to me that I have taught students about my notions of "beauty" and "truth" for more than twelve years yet I know nothing. I don't know what propels evil; and, if you don't know that, how can you ready anyone else for an encounter with the world? I want to make a pattern out of my life. I need to do that if I am going to make sense of any of this. A part of me thinks life is a trick. Stephen Crane was right about the indifference of God. Events are random; fortune is blind. You're blindfolded, pinned to a wheel, and spun round like a top. "Nothing comes from nothing." You eat, you sleep, you suffer, you die. You love, if you can, in the margins.
I need to make a pattern in my head. I need to make a pattern.
I take out the small journal I still carry around with me. On the doorstep of Lavender Sweep, nearly a quarter century after I sat there for the last time with Alison, I open it up and try to write down what l know. I write this:
If I were to make a Life Quilt, the center would be a circle of fire. People looking at it would wonder whether it was the flames of hell or the flames of passion. Sewn into Greeting Squares would be the people I've loved. Lady is in the middle. Nothing is symmetrical in my quilt. The whole pattern slips off to one side like a bad actor's hurried exit. Lady's difference is obvious but not shocking. We are laughing: Alfred Russell-Smythe, Alison Bean, Emmanuel Fox, John Turay, Louise Buttercup, Simon Moses, Esther Cole. I join them to each other but it's me they've made. Interspersed with the colorful squares are oblongs of stark white with nothing in them but a word. The white squares say "Maurice" over and over again. There are some other squares too. In one is a red mirror; in another, a lost arm. Around the edge of the quilt are the Wing Squares, cut out from gold the color of Lady's skin. They take the Life Quilt up into the air. It rises in front of me and takes off.
I'm not afraid. I've been to hell and back at least three times. I know the cost of resurrection. I cannot change my story so that it fits my dreams better. I look for the links between Maurice and evil, the rich and the poor, Africa and Europe, America and a colored girl born on Christmas Eve. Maurice shoves himself to center stage. He's hanging from a beam in some old motel room. Something tight around his neck, his hand where it shouldn't be. His eyes are popping out of his head as he swings back and forth, his feet drawing an invisible smile in the air. The clarity of it frightens me. Can you wish death upon someone if you try hard enough? Lady's voice pushes him aside. I rush inside and up the stairs.
"Uno!" she cries in her sleep, playing the game she and Louise played right up until the last day or two of her journey.
The child's voice seems to echo round the house: "No! No! No!"
I go in and take my little girl in my arms in much the same way as Louise did once, just after Simon died.
"Is Mama Lou really dead?" Lady asks. "I dreamed she died. Is it true?"
"Yes," I say, remembering how often our dreams are the same--Lady dreaming she caught five moons, all of them striped except one; me dreaming five lunatics out of captivity, one of them myself--"Yes, it's true. But she left us something."
"What did she leave us?" Lady asks, scooting back in the bed so that she can look up into my eyes. "Her strength" I say.
"I miss her," Lady tells me.
"She was one of my best friends," Lady says.
"Best friends are hard to come by, Lady. It's good you recognize that she was one of them. You have to find a way to get best friends back when it looks as though they're gone for good."
"But how do you find them when they're dead, Mom?"
"You find them by looking back to where they used to be. Little by little they begin to join you where you are, as long as you look back without regret. And then, one day, the past and present meet, and the line we call death dissolves. At least, that's sort of what your uncle Alfred taught me, in a way."
Lady is comforted. Soon I am listening to her rhythmic breathing. On the way downstairs, I crack open the bathroom door where I used to kiss the plunger and conjure up what remained of Africa after Simon's death. There was glory here too, Alison, I say to myself. Why was I too stupid to see what you saw? Alison's voice joins mine. I sweeten the words between us. Not my second-best friend, Alison. Never only my second-best friend. You who let me dream aloud. You who sent me spinning into joy when only absence was real.
Downstairs I hear Alfred stir. I'll show him what I've written. He's right. It will heal us on this new day, and give us time to make room for the necessary waking of our dead.
I spent the night in a children's home in Clapham Park. I barely said a word. No one took much notice because the place was crowded: four new arrivals in one day, they said, three of us "coloured" children. They made me wash my hair with a lethal-smelling shampoo and comb it with a metal comb, as a precaution against lice.
That night in the narrow bed assigned to me by a Miss Murphy, I hovered above everything, and observed the nightmares of lonely children. "I am not Jacinta Moses," I whispered. "I am Simone Madagascar." It was a ludicrous name, but it felt good to sever my connections to Lavender Sweep, to Maurice Beadycap, to Louise Buttercup, and even to Alison Bean (who would never lie down again in the snow so that I could marvel at the exquisite blackness of her against the white earth). I chose Simone Madagascar because, although she wasn't me, she had enough of Simon in her name and enough of Africa to be different. People could call me "Mad" for short. With a mother in a nuthouse, I reasoned in my self-induced calm, I would be predisposed to insanity. On the other hand, if I kept the name to myself, it could always be mine alone.
Ruskin appeared the next morning. I didn't react when I saw him because I didn't care what happened to me anymore. I hadn't felt much of anything since I stooped down to remove a pair of blue knickers from the stiffening fingers of Alison Bean.
Everyone made a fuss when Ruskin appeared. He could do that to people--make them believe he was someone important. Alfred was prone to say, grudgingly, that Ruskin was fairly good-looking for an adult past his prime, and one of the women at the home remembered seeing Ruskin on some show about the "primitive" broadcast by the BBC so they hurried us through the paperwork.
Although I was too numb to feel much, it would be a relief to go home. I needed the space of the three rooms without Louise. With Maurice gone, nothing would disturb me.
When we got outside to Ruskin's Volkswagen, he paused, then placed his hand on my shoulder and tilted my chin so that I had to look up his nose. There was a huge booger in his left nostril, but I didn't comment because I didn't give a damn. He was talking about something. I caught him in mid-sentence once I stopped focusing on the booger.
"... Alfred's qualities are certainly endearing," he said as I watched the way his tongue moved in his mouth, "but he's not suitable as a guardian of a lovely young thing like you. As I said, your mother is still under the weather and--"
"Insane, you mean," I said mockingly. (Simone was looking down at us both. She could see the bald spot on Ruskin's head. It didn't interest her in the least.)
Ruskin continued: "Therefore we've managed to convince the authorities to let you run around with your friends in Battersea just a few doors down from where you lived before. It took a lot of persuading to convince them to agree to this. In fact, I'm behind on my next book, what with your mother's illness and all this to deal with. But a few words in the right ears and, Bob's your uncle, there you are. Installed just a few doors down from your own home in Mrs. Butcher's--"
My heart must have stopped because I nearly fell over. Ruskin reached out to grab me.
"You didn't, did you, Ruskin? You didn't ... I mean, you couldn't!" I cried. He'd stolen the only thing I had left: my numbness. He'd found a way to open me up like a wound. I wanted to kill him. I was spluttering like a fool.
"Now get a grip on yourself, young lady. No need to throw a tantrum. It's only for a little while until your mother comes home, Jacinta."
"Not Jacinta! Simone Madagascar!" The name was out before I could stop it. I tried to take it back. "I mean ... it's just a nickname. That's all. Something the kids gave me."
Ruskin was chortling. "Why Madagascar, for God's sake? It's the most ridiculous name I've ever--"
"Shut up! Shut the fuck up and mind your own damn business! I was just playing, that's all. Just do what you came to do and then go to hell." My voice steadied itself. I couldn't remember being as rude as this to an adult before. It made my skin tingle, and it obviously threw Ruskin off balance. He drew back from me, his eyes on fire. His hand seemed to be itching on the ivory head of the cane he always carried with him.
Hit me, please, I prayed. If you hit me I'll have to go to the hospital again. I'd be safe there in the white sheets. Hit me, Ruskin. Please.
I opened my eyes. I must have closed them when I began praying. Ruskin was looking at me strangely. I think I noticed horror in his face, then I thought it was rage. It was as if an artist had begun by painting one expression on him, then toyed with the idea of another.
He looked all higgledy-piggledy caught in between like that. It almost made me laugh.
"Jesus Christ! You want it, don't you? You want me to hit you!"
He caught me by the arm and began to propel me toward the car: "Come on, my girl. One mental case in the family is more than enough. We're going back to Lavender Sweep."
"I won't live with her," I said, my voice remarkably steady. "She's dirty and smelly, and Hubert makes me sick," I yelled.
"Mrs. B. is a nice woman," said Ruskin, but I could tell he was hardly listening so I shut up. How would Ruskin Garland the writer-warlock ever understand what it meant to be me or Simone Madagascar? I'd realized early that no one knew anyone else from the inside. You could guess at things sometimes--have a rough idea about what people were thinking, but you never really knew. Ruskin was white. Ruskin was a man. Unlike Alfred, Ruskin stayed Ruskin. I didn't know quite what I meant by that. But I did know that Ruskin Garland would always be a man talking about the Primitive with a capital "P." He'd always be someone I could recognize. For a brief moment, I felt sorry for him. Then the merciful numbness came back, and I rose above us and was dissipated into the air just above the Volkswagen.
Playing the role of Jacinta again, I climbed into Ruskin's car, and we drove back through Clapham Park round by Olde Towne and on by Clapham Common toward Lavender Sweep. He talked about his warlock activities, but I didn't pay attention. He took to embellishing things in order to impress me.
"We're naked, of course," he declared at the traffic lights opposite St. Mary's. I thought of the candles my mother lit inside the church and the votive offerings she used to make to the Virgin Mary. In my mind I saw the pink face of the Virgin staring down at me from her pedestal--her blue robes covered in stars, as if she were the night itself made human. It would be interesting to open the door and leap out. I could curl up under the feet of the statue and be taken to heaven in my sleep. Another Ascension Day. I thought of my mother's urgent whispers coming from the wooden confessional box. I heard the priest's voice telling her to be sorry. I thought of my own sins. Playing with myself in the bathtub; planning how to kill Maurice Beadycap; calling to Alison Bean to cross the road; wishing my mother was dead; sending her to the insane asylum ... I was so full of sin now it hardly mattered what I did next; I would go to hell anyway. I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes.
"Yes, it's part of the ritual, Jacinta--I mean, Simone." I opened my eyes and he winked at me. "Clothes are an impediment to the spirit. There's a tremendous misunderstanding between those in and outside the Order." He sounded just like Sister Maria. I didn't tell him that, of course. I pictured him naked. It was unpleasant. I dressed him again.
"Do you like nudity, Simone?" he asked, looking down to where my bosoms were just beginning to "blossom."
I shrugged. I was thoroughly bored.
"Little girls your age usually do. They are still pure--untouched by the perversions of a society racked by guilt. They accept the body in a way that is totally uninhibited. They know their femaleness and it thrills them. What we need right now is a female prime minister. I know it's radical, but I'm right. A woman would put us all in our place. We could obtain succor at her breast." He was looking down at mine again. I shifted in my seat. "Put a woman at the helm and let the female spirit enlighten us and what have you got then?" He put his hand on my thigh. "You've got joy, Jacinta," he said softly. "Pure joy."
"Simone," I whispered. "Not Jacinta." But my voice was too low to be audible.
Ruskin went on to speak about flower power and its limitations. He had the answers to everything. When he wasn't changing gears, he'd rest his hand on my thigh. Once in a while he'd squeeze it. I tried to pretend it wasn't happening, but gradually I began to feel it. It was as if my whole body had become the area where his hand was. I didn't know whether it made me smaller or larger. I did know it made me feel guilty, something I'd escaped for a while. I hated him for pulling me back.
Ruskin quoted Sartre, Orwell, Aristotle, Darwin, Jung, Freud, and, most of all, himself. In his books, he claimed, he'd found the engine that drove the universe. It was what the Nazis had been searching for, he declared. He didn't say the word "Nazi" the way Alfred said it. I wondered whether he liked Jews.
All at once it came to me again that we were heading toward Mrs. Butcher's house and that his fat, hairy hand, now that it had been on my thigh, would always have been there. He was making me the girl with the swastika on her palm; he was turning me back into the girl who drove her mother insane, the girl who killed her best friend before she could tell her she was her best friend, and not her second-best friend at all. At the next set of traffic lights, I swiveled round to face Ruskin. He scooted his hand up my thigh so that he could pull at the lace on my knickers. Sometimes he'd inch his forefinger up around the lace and I was reminded of Maurice, and of the great sin that befell Catholic girls if they didn't keep their guards up. I was trembling. I thought of Alison's knickers and Mary Beadycap's knickers, and my knickers. People were always finding ways to pull them down. I tried to numb myself again, but it didn't work, and I came back to Ruskin's hand down there, more urgent than before; and all I could think of was how I had pried Mary's knickers out of Alison's hand, and how soiled and pathetic they were; and how all of this had led to where we were now, driving in a car heading in the direction of hell.
We pulled up at a traffic light, so Ruskin jerked his hand away because people were walking by--white people with the grayness of London in their expressions.
I sank back into the seat again. I didn't want to admit it, but part of me missed the warmth of his hand. It was the first touch I'd allowed myself to feel since Alison's death, and it made me want to cry.
We both remained quiet until we pulled up in front of the house. I sat there glued to the seat. Ruskin got out and came over to my side of the car. In my distress I'd forgotten to savor what it was like riding in the front seat, but it hardly seemed to matter. Out of the blue I turned to him and pointed out the fact that he had bad breath and a booger hanging from his nose. I said it softly so he had to bend down to hear it. I could see the sharp hairs in his ears. When he realized what I'd said, he jerked his head up so fast that he cracked his skull on the door frame. I looked him in the eye.
"You shouldn't have touched me like that, Ruskin. You know it was a sin." My voice carried along the Sweep, and Ruskin looked around nervously.
"Look, I tell you what, Jacinta. You keep this as our little secret, and I won't say a thing about your name. How's that?"
"What name?" I said.
When he spoke he directed his words to the windscreen, perhaps remembering what I'd said about his breath.
"Be careful, Jacinta. This isn't a game anymore, and you're not a child. I can easily take you back there to the home if I feel it's in your best interests. I had to work hard to get you a place with Mrs. Butcher. You're indebted to me, you know. By all accounts Mrs. Butcher is a good foster mother. Dozens of children have passed through her home. She knows how to take care of young people. She'll look after you until your mother comes home. None of us gets what we want when we want it. You wait for the thing you've longed for all your life and then, one day, when you think you've almost got it, she turns round and disappears on you. And all that's left is a shadow of ... anyhow.... You've got to grow up, that's all there is to it, young lady. We all have burdens to carry. Yours is not exceptional. Mrs. Butcher has taken in many coloured girls and done a fine job with them."
"I don't want to live with a white woman," I said.
He looked stunned. "Your mother's white."
"So what? I'm not."
"You're a half-caste, Jacinta. And that makes you part white, my girl."
"I don't like that word."
"What word?" His hand twitched on his cane.
"Half-caste. It's rude."
"Mulatto, then. Whatever. Look, I have to get going and--"
"Mulatto's awful too. I'm a mule, that's what they're telling me. Do you know about mules? I do. I'm not going to be one and that's that."
"O, for God's sake! All right, all right. What then? What do you want me to call you?"
"Nothing. Don't call me anything. I never want to see you again," I said. "You're old and dirty. You're a dirty old man." The words leaped out of my mouth and skipped down the street like a girl playing hopscotch. I thought of the way Alison Bean used to play hopscotch long after dark, while I went in to do my homework; how I'd hear her outside on the pavement, skipping over the concrete slabs, the click of the pebble landing on the next square she'd drawn, and then the next one after that. Hop, skip, skip, hop, hop ... and back to the beginning.
Ruskin Garland spoke again, more wearily than before.
"To tell you the truth, I don't want to see you for a while either. Perhaps we both need a holiday from one another. Give you a chance to grow up. Now, get out of the fucking car before I use this." He smacked his cane on the pavement.
His language made my eyes sting. I blinked, then climbed out slowly. We walked up to Mrs. Butcher's front door and Ruskin rang the bell. Nothing happened. He rapped loudly on the door. Still nothing.
"Damn the woman," he said. "She knew what time we were supposed to be here. Where is she?"
Just then the door opened. A small black child with a dirty face and torn trousers opened the door. He was about five-maybe six. He looked up at us without saying a word.
"Is your ... is Mrs. Butcher home?" Ruskin asked.
The child nodded.
"Go and get her for me. Tell her Ruskin Garland is here."
The child didn't move. He just looked from Ruskin to me as if he couldn't imagine what planet we'd come from. Ruskin swore again, then planted the boy to one side, took hold of my arm, and marched on through the house. The first open door we came to was to the right. It opened up into the front room. Ruskin walked in without knocking. I followed.
"Phew!" he said before he could stop himself. "It stinks in here."
We looked around. Half a dozen cribs. In each one a child. But not a sound. None of them crying. None of them laughing or talking to themselves. They just sat there and stared.
"What's the matter with them?" Ruskin asked, backing toward the door.
"How should I know?" I replied, speaking more to calm myself than as a response to his question. "Maybe they've just woken up."
But we both knew that was a lie. Something about the way they sat up in their cribs, their small faces pressed against the bars, or lay down staring up at the bare lightbulb swinging from a cord in the middle of the room convinced us that this was how they lived at Mrs. Butcher's.
There were posters around the room, tacked up with tape. The edges of the posters were curling up with age. One showed a thatched cottage in the country. It said VISIT THE WEST COUNTRY in large red letters. Another was a photo of a bottle of Guinness. GUINNESS IS GOOD FOR YOU! was written underneath. There was an OXFAM poster with emaciated children with large brown eyes holding up bowls to the camera; and there was a picture of an ice-cream sundae with a huge red cherry on the top. A small plaque over one of the cots read HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS. The carpet was frayed and soiled. There were greasy handprints on the woodwork. A small portable heater whirred in the background and above us on the next floor we heard the sound of children arguing with each other.
Just then, a voice behind us made us jump.
"What a state! What a state! Mr. Garland, I am so sorry! Whatever was Michael thinking of letting you come in like this unescorted? How do you do? We met when I visited poor Louise when she was taken poorly that time. Vera Butcher never forgets a face. And how are you, my pet? Pleased to be back on the Sweep, are you?"
"No," I said as coldly as I could.
"She's a little out of sorts, Mrs. Butcher," Ruskin said. But his voice seemed weak. He'd gasped when we'd entered the room, and now it was clear he was having second thoughts about the appropriateness of Mrs. Butcher as a temporary foster parent. She must have guessed what we were thinking because Mrs. Butcher launched into a description of her child-rearing skills, and stressed how "handy" it would be, my living there, what with my old home being just down the road, so to speak. Why I could trot along down there and visit that nice Mr. Smythe at any time, she said. She'd raised forty-seven children for at least part of their young lives, and although she knew the facilities weren't luxurious, they were homey. There was a girl, Sheila, who came in to help. Yes, the babies were always well-behaved. Nice and quiet like this. They liked the quiet. Too much stimulation could injure their little nerves. No. They weren't all foster children. Most belonged to someone. The mothers had to work, so they left them here for a small fee. "Hardly worth my while, really. You can't make money on child minding. I do it out of love," she said.
We looked around at the doleful faces of the infants, then looked at each other. Ruskin cleared his throat.
Behind Mrs. Butcher we heard a voice. She introduced it to us before we saw what it was attached to. But I knew. I'd recognize Hubert Butcher anywhere. He'd been scooting up and down Lavender Sweep on his single roller skate ever since I could remember. It was he who terrified me the most. What if he tried to do what Maurice had done? People like Hubert were dangerous. Everyone knew it.
He came into the room. We tried to take a step back, but we jammed up against the cribs, causing one of the babies to start whimpering.
"Hubert, this is Mr. Garland and Jacinta Moses. You know Jacinta, don't you?"
"You know Jacinta, don't you," Hubert replied in the disturbing monotone of a man who only partly comprehends what he is saying.
"Mr. Garland, this is my son, Hubert. l think you may have met him once. He's not quite right in the head. But it's nothing contagious. He's a good boy. His mum's pride and joy ever since his poor father took sick and left us for a better world."
Hubert began to speak. He didn't stop speaking for the rest of Ruskin's visit. Mrs. Butcher ignored him, for the most part. Every now and then, when Hubert forgot he was in public and began to explore his trousers, she'd say, "Stop that, you horrible boy!" Then she'd turn back around to us and smile broadly. Ruskin kept clearing his throat. It was clear he hated being near Hubert. Ruskin looked at him with disgust. Hubert yanked on his crotch again. His fly was partly open. I shuddered and looked away. Mrs. Butcher slapped his hand.
"Jacinta will only be here for a little while. Just until her mother comes home."
"Till her mum comes home," echoed Hubert in a monotone.
"O, she'll be all right, Mr. Ruskin ... er, Garland, I mean. You can trust me, don't you worry. I've seen Hubert through thirty years of nappy changes, and I'm sure I can do well by a young lady like Jacinta. Don't you worry. And there's no colour bar here, Mr. Garland. None at all. We're all the same under the skin after all, aren't we?"
"Well, I must be going. I have a long journey back to--"
"O, Mr. Garland! You must at least come into the kitchen and have a nice cup of tea? No one leaves Vera Butcher's residence without refreshment."
We were hurried outside into the hallway. Ruskin insisted he couldn't stay, but she made him wait by the front door while she went off to fetch lemon cupcakes for his trip. He stood impatiently in the hallway, rubbing his hand against the leg of his pants as if he were really nervous. It was now or never. I had to ask him. In spite of Louise's and Alfred's warning, in spite of what he'd done to me in the car, he was the only one left. I grabbed hold of his hand.
"Ruskin, let me live with you."
Behind us, through the open door to the front room, the silent black, brown, and white babies stared up at the plasterwork. From the kitchen came Hubert's frantic voice. "No cupcakies for the Ruskin! No cupcakies! Hubert's lemon cakies!"
Ruskin edged toward the front door. "I'm sorry, Jacinta. It wouldn't ... it wouldn't be right. You're close to home here. You're strong. You'll be fine. Don't worry."
"You promised my mother you'd take care of me!" I cried, my composure deserting me completely.
"Jacinta, I'm telling you once and for all that it wouldn't work"
"Why not? I'll cook, I'll clean. I'll be so good. I'll never be rude again, I promise. Ruskin, please! Please don't leave me here!"
I was leaning up against the wall. I could feel the grease on the wallpaper as it entered me through my blouse.
"I wish I could take you," he said. I'd never heard him use that tone of voice before. He sounded like Alfred. I wanted him to hold me. "But I can't, Jacinta. You're too pretty and I'm ... as you can see ... I need to be alone. It's for the best. I promised your mother I'd never ... I'm sorry. Tell Mrs. Butcher I had to leave."
He made a single gulping sound in the back of his throat, and then he shoved me out of the way and dashed through the front door. I couldn't stop him. He was gone. I felt sick. l held on to the banisters leading to the upper floors. My teeth were chattering.
Mrs. Butcher arrived with the lemon cupcakes. She began talking when she was still in the kitchen. It was only when she reached the front hall that she realized Ruskin had left.
"Well, bless my soul! And I picked out some of the nicest ones for him too. Would you like one, love?"
"No!" I cried. I was going to run away. One night, two at the most, and then I'd be gone. I could go back to Alfred and hide in his flat. No one would catch us. I could go up to Piccadilly Circus on the bus and live with the street people. I could run away like Maurice had. I could kill myself.
"Well, I know I don't have to ask my Hubert twice if he'd like to have a cupcake, do I?"
Hubert leaped for the cupcakes. He stuffed a whole one into his mouth and spoke at the same time.
"And he does, and he does, and he does love his lemon cupcakies."
Mrs. Butcher sighed. "Don't you worry, love," she said. "You'll fit in here in no time."
I began to bawl. I bawled and bawled. "I don't want to-to-to be Jacinta Mo-Moses anymore!" I cried.
"There, there, there," Mrs. Butcher said. "Who else would you be, love, if not yourself?. That's the way the world works. We're who we are and we make the best of it. The sooner you learn that, the better you'll be. Now come back into the kitchen with me and have a cupcake."
"And he will, and he will, and he will have another cupcakie!"
"Yes, Hubert, you too. Sheila!"
A girl came running down from upstairs.
"See to those babies. It stinks to high heaven in there. No wonder Mr. Ruskin hurried off like that. It's a disgrace. I thought I told you to change those babies hours ago! Sheila, what are you thinking about, my girl? Get your head out of them clouds and join us here on earth for a while. C'mon, luv," she said to me, "you come with me. It's not a palace but it's not a prison neither. Come and have a nice cupcake."
"And me?" Michael said, appearing out of nowhere.
"Yes, yes. You too, Michael."
I let her lead me to the kitchen. My heart was broken. Nothing could ever happen that would make me smile again.
Hubert Butcher believed that there were trains in his head.
He'd believed it for decades, Mrs. Butcher said. She remembered the day it began "as if it was yesterday." They'd been sitting together in the front room. She wasn't a child minder then, and the furniture was new-looking and sweet-smelling, she told me. She and her husband knew there was something different about Hubert. He was six and talking the way he did now. He never used the "I" word, Mrs. Butcher said. But she and her husband thought it was just some eccentricity. Her cousin was eccentric, she said. Bought twenty-seven canaries and kept them in her upstairs loo. Mrs. Butcher thought Hubert might be taking after the cousin. But that day he was in her lap in the rocking chair when, all of a sudden, he looked up at the ceiling and seemed to notice the cracks.
"It was then that things took a turn for the worse, Jacinta. Because it was then that I knew for certain something deep was amiss. A train was going past and we could hear it in the distance as it rumbled into Clapham Junction. It'd never bothered me before. Hardly noticed it, really. But this one was loud, an express, maybe. Anyhow, my boy looked up at that ceiling and a terror spread across his face like a blanket. 'Mum! Mum!' he cried, stuffing his fists into his ears. 'The trains are comin' in me head!'
"At first I was really chuffed. You see, he'd referred to himself as 'me,' don't you know? And that was a kind of miracle. But then it dawned on me that he wasn't going to believe me when I said they weren't. I took him outside, you see, and tried to point to where the trains were over the rooftops, but it was no good. He was screaming and carrying on so bad we had to get the doctor. And that was the day that Dr. Swan told us he'd never be right. I tried to tell him he was wrong. I tried to tell him about Hubert saying 'me' like that, but he said it didn't make any difference. So we went to one doctor after another and they said the same thing. They gave him a name. He's a 'mosaic'--isn't that a strange name? I wanted to tell the one who called him that that he was a boy, not some bloomin' pattern. But you can't fight too much against what must be, Jacinta. You do that and you're lost."
I took a sip of tea. We were sitting by the gas fire in Vera Butcher's kitchen. I'd been living there for several weeks. Every day Alfred came to visit me. I had smiled five times so far. Mrs. Butcher said I was on the mend. She said that children had the capacity to heal themselves more quickly than adults, which I took as being a veiled reference to my mother; and indeed, I was surprised at the way my spirits began to improve.
"Was it the cracks in the ceiling that made Hubert think the trains were in his head?" I asked.
"I don't know, dear. Could be. I'm not sure Hubert knows where he begins and where he leaves off:"
"Yes. It is in a way, dear. But you know, in another way, it's not so bad.
You take Hubert out for a walk on a nice summer day and there's never been such a happy boy. He is the day, you see. He's not the way we are. The day doesn't have to happen to him, if you see what I mean."
I told Alfred what Mrs. Butcher had said about Hubert. He said she was a rare woman. Much wiser than most. He told me to listen carefully to what she said, then asked me if I liked it better there now.
Alfred was visibly relieved. "I'll tell Ruskin," he said.
"No! Please don't, Alfred. Tell him ... tell him I'm sick and thin. Please!"
Alfred tapped his nose with his finger in a gesture that meant he'd keep my secret. "The nose knows," he said. "In point of fact, you are looking somewhat pale. I'll make sure to let Mr. Ruskin Garland know that as soon as possible."
The Butchers and I got into a kind of routine. I helped out with the children. Mrs. Butcher was distressed at first because I played with the children and it made them livelier than before. After a while, though, she told Alfred she liked having me there. The mothers had commented favorably on their babies' moods; if they (her customers) were happy, she was. Alfred said Mrs. Butcher wasn't a bad woman. But her lack of training made her dangerous as a child minder. He said we'd been too hard on her in the past. (He really meant that I had been too hard on her, but he didn't say it because he knew I was still fragile.) I said I'd never put my baby with someone like Mrs. Butcher to sit all day long and stare up at a lightbulb. Alfred said he hoped I'd have the money to retain my high ideals. I told him I would because I was getting an exceptional education, which would stand me in good stead later on. He said only time would tell. Adults regularly resorted to cliche when all else failed.
Nothing dramatic happened at Vera Butcher's. We simply became easier with each other. Once in a while a great bitterness would envelop me, and then Mrs. Butcher knew it was best to leave me alone. But I didn't surrender wholly to it because there were always things to be done, and the sense of pride I felt when I saw I could make things better encouraged me to want to do more. About once a week at first, and then more frequently, I felt almost human. More than anything else at that time I wanted to live within some kind of routine. In spite of her faults, Vera Butcher gave that back to me.
Alfred usually stopped by Mrs. Butcher's house at seven-thirty. By then we'd had tea--a meal that always included some kind of cupcake for dessert--and those children who were fostered had been bathed and put to bed. Sometimes I'd be late coming down for Alfred's visit because the children made me tell them stories. Once they found out I knew so many, they would beg me each night to tell them a longer one. I used Simon's stories of Africa. Most of the children were West Indian, but they didn't know anything about Africa--nothing at all--and it made me sad. Little Michael asked if Africa was hard to carry, as he wanted Santa to bring it here for Christmas. When I asked him why, he said the weather would be hot then and his nose wouldn't run all the time. Then he wiped the snot away with the back of his hand and asked me to tell another story.
The stories I told them surprised me. I hadn't realized how many I still had in nay head. When I spoke the words, something strange happened. It was as if it wasn't me talking at all, but my father. My mouth moved, but it was his voice that came out. It was deep and reminded me of the chords an organist can play on those huge organs in cathedrals. I made parts of the stories up. They became mine too. I inserted songs into some of the paragraphs and had village girls singing such things as 'Tin Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair," and village boys singing "Maria." Simon's stories had lacked romance. I shoved it into his plots relentlessly. I made the children characters in the stories too: Michael slew a lion once, but I had to change it because he began to cry when the lion died from the knife wound he'd inflicted. So Hubert was transformed into the African Wizard-Chief "He-Who-Speaks-in-Tongues" so that he could restore the lion--minus teeth and claws--to his former glory.
Before I moved to Mrs. Butcher's, I hadn't realized I liked children. The summer holidays gave me a chance to spend the whole day with them. Many had less than I did. Some had lost their parents; others were put on hold while their parents served time in prison, or were in rehabilitation. Most of them were from the West Indies, but two were mixed race, and the rest were white. When they got to know me, they sat on my lap, asked me to comb their hair and tell them stories. I pretended they were my real brothers and sisters. I made the disheveled ones more presentable because Mrs. Butcher didn't seem to notice when their shirts were hanging out or their noses needed wiping. I cleaned up the ones who soiled themselves by accident. Mrs. Butcher said I ran rings around Sheila. I was a born nurse, she said. I told her I planned to become a flying doctor.
The children opened up to me. I heard Michael's stories about the children behind the plaster. He said he saw them at night. They came out like people coated in self-rising flour--he insisted it was self-rising. The kind you use in cakes, he said. They rubbed on you at night, those white ghosties, and gave you the Itchy-Fidgets. It had happened to him before in another house--white ghosties rubbing on him all night. That's why he'd been taken away, he said. Mrs. Butcher said his father had a "penchant" for poodles. She said Michael didn't say a word for a year, then he opened up to Hubert one day and he'd been asking for cupcakes ever since.
From the children I learned that there were worse situations than the ones I'd known. Before Mrs. Butcher's, I hadn't realized that there were tragedies more compelling than my own. The stories I told the children brought Simon back. For some reason, I could tell them better when I wasn't living in the house where he wrote them. I could make them mine in a more profound way. Gradually I began to realize that my mother's house on Lavender Sweep held me in like a corset. It was there that Simon's ghost lived. It was there that the flames on Alfred's gas ring had drawn me in. It was there that Louise had gone mad. Alfred's presence was not enough to redeem the house. "It was a palace of doom," I wrote in my diary one day, in spite of my vows never to write again. I was glad to be out of it--happy to be living with sane people at last, even if one of them had part of his brain missing, and the other didn't have a clue how to rear infants.
The spirit I'd managed to quell for a while rose up in me again and reasserted itself as a do-it-yourself fiend. To my delight, Mrs. B. liked my ideas for home improvements. Soon we were stripping and sanding, painting and wallpapering until her front room became a brightly colored nursery. I asked for some posters from the Battersea library. I went in and told the librarian that we were all orphans and that the only posters we had were alcoholic. She gave us glossy new ones depicting Peter Rabbit and Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh and Pinocchio. I pinned them up above the cots and framed them in squares of cardboard that had been decorated by the children.
At Mrs. Butcher's I didn't have to be anyone but Jacinta Louise Buttercup Moses. That was who I was and it was enough.
In the morning I'd get up earlier than the other children because there was only one bathroom for all nine of us, and I was too old to line up the way the others did to have my mouth and underarms wiped by Mrs. B. I'd wash quickly and then write in the new journal Alfred had brought me.
I hadn't planned on keeping up with my journal. It forced you to see how dismal your life was, how absurd your wishes for the future. My old diaries depressed me. I thought of Maurice's hand on the pages and it made me want to throw up. Yet I was drawn to cataloguing my achievements and recording my own growth. Occasionally, I could still weave magic into the pages. So, every morning, I confided my life to the pages of my journal.
After that, I helped Mrs. B. with breakfast. We had a fixed routine. Everyone had either porridge or cornflakes. Michael always tried to sit next to me, but I never sat down for long. Mandy would drop her spoon, or Irma would need help getting down from her high chair. Then the babies would arrive during or after breakfast, dropped off by mums who had to work at Woolworth's or at Marks and Spencer, at the hairdresser's or the dry cleaner's.
When my summer holidays began, I convinced Mrs. Butcher to get two extra prams so that we could load up all the children and take them for walks on Clapham Common after breakfast. At first she hated the idea. They would catch cold, she said. With the child minders and the fosters there would be too many children to take out all at once. What about Hubert? But we found a way, the older children helping the younger ones. And we played rounders and piggy in the middle; and we flew homemade kites that never would stay up in the air.
In the afternoons, the youngsters napped and I cleaned or redecorated. Then the mums would come and we'd be left with only nine of us, which seemed like a much more manageable number.
Then we'd have supper and I'd tell stories to the children and they'd fall asleep. I had never had much of a routine before. It blessed me and gave me time to think. I began to believe in hope again, though I wouldn't admit it to anyone. Every so often hope would catch me unawares and another layer of sorrow would slough off me like old skin, and I'd find myself humming some tune from South Pacific or Showboat.
At Mrs. Butcher's I dreamed of princes and palaces, of white beaches and designer clothes while I scrubbed the floors or sewed a frill for the bathroom sink. I watched the black-and-white TV with the same steady concentration I employed when I watched it with Louise and Alfred, only this time I watched for a reason: to learn. I learned from the BBC how to behave if the queen invited me to dinner; how to dress appropriately for the ski slopes; how to rebuff the attentions of the Prince of Wales; how to smile demurely when heads of state asked me to sleep with them; how to use the proper fork at banquets; how to redecorate a room with just the right chandelier; how to use my body to obtain my desires; how to kiss; how to reject; how to gain power. I took to writing the word "power" on the backs of envelopes and the undersides of chairs I liked to sit in. It elevated me, that word. It made me feel that Ruskin Garland could never again put his hand on my thigh without permission. It made me certain of the fact that Maurice Beadycap's tongue would be bitten off the next time he tried to force it into my mouth. But power wouldn't bring back Alison Bean. And power couldn't make my mother whole or my father breathe. Power was limited. I always came back to the walls.
Louise didn't write to me. She sent messages via Alfred. Every so often over that summer he'd ask me if I wanted to go and see her. I said no. He didn't ask me why at the time, and I was grateful. We almost got right through the holidays that way. In late August, however, during one of his after-dinner visits, he brought the subject up again.
"I'm going to visit your mother, Jacinta. Would you like to come?"
Vera Butcher looked up from her sewing. I cursed Alfred silently. This was neither the time nor the place to mention my mother.
Mrs. Butcher put in her penny's worth: "O, Alfred. Wouldn't that be nice? I know the poor thing misses her mother. Is she better now? How's the TB?"
Mrs. Butcher spoke frequently about my mother's "indisposition." I never found out whether or not she really knew what had happened. I was grudgingly grateful to her for handling the situation with a modicum of grace--which was a lot more than I could say for Alfred at that moment.
"I told you, Alfred. I'm busy with things right now."
Mrs. Butcher wouldn't hear of it. "But, Jacinta! You must go and visit her. What would she think if you didn't go? It's the summer holidays. And besides, you could take your books with you and study on the journey. She really is such a brainbox, Alfred, did you know that? Going to sail through those O levels, I'm sure. Not like the rest of us, struggling with the two times table. O, no. She's going to be an air hostess or a doctor of some kind, you mark my words."
Alfred smiled. He looked at me again. His huge head and straggly hair made him gnomelike. I was still trying to hate him, but each day it was getting more difficult. If he kept on like this, though, I'd be able to hate him again in earnest.
"I won't be going, Alfred. I'm busy, okay?"
Mrs. Butcher gave Alfred a look. They nodded to each other. I was about to change the subject when something else did it for me. A train rushed by in the distance. Mrs. Butcher put her hand on Hubert's knee to steady him. "If he has another conniption about those bloody trains, I'll go off my flippin' rocker."
But Hubert was good this time. His eyes grew wide and he breathed harder than usual, that was all. Then the train noise disappeared into the dark, and we were left the way we'd been found.
"Trains," said Alfred, knotting his forehead as if he were looking at a mathematics problem, "trains are odd phenomena. There's something about them, Vera, that excites even the most placid of us in England. Something that reminds us that there are other places out there--other sights to see. They emphasize distance, in a way. Make it more significant, more prominent, if you will."
I looked at Alfred's nose. It was a prominent nose. A promontory. I wondered what the distance was from his hairline to his nostrils--several feet probably. Then I wondered about the distance between his eyebrows. A centimeter, if that. His brows were a couple, he used to say; they held hands over the bridge of his nose.
"I know what you mean, Alfred. I do indeed. Do you think that's what Hubert hears? The distance?"
"Could be. I don't know." Alfred smiled over at Hubert. Hubert asked for a cupcake. "Maybe it awakens in him the same kind of yearning we all feel when we're trapped in a place we can't escape from. You hear life rushing past you and you think, 'I need to be a part of that rush.' But you can't be. Circumstances won't let you. So you stay here and dream. And on the edges of the dream is the sound of the trains rushing through you like heartache."
I didn't know how it had transpired that Alfred and Mrs. Butcher had become friends. He'd hated the idea of my moving here as much as I had. But something changed once I arrived. Vera Butcher began to look forward to Alfred's visits. Once she asked if he was "on the lookout for a good woman." I told her he was--that he never left the lookout unmanned for fear of being pounced upon. She thought I was joking and began to dress up before his visits. In the end I had to tell her. It was too sorrowful watching her string her false pearls around her neck and clip on her gold-tone earrings.
"Homo ... homosex ... homosexual," she said, plopping down on her bed like a sack of potatoes. "Are you sure?"
"'Fraid so. I thought everyone knew."
"Yes. I suppose ... I mean ... I heard rumors ... but then you don't like to believe ... Are you sure?"
"Yep. We talk about it once in a while. He had a great love called Lipton, but it didn't come to anything in the end. Lipton was in the army. He went overseas in the end and Alfred never saw him again. Sorry."
Mrs. Butcher slowly unwound the pearls and took off the earrings.
"Well," she said, "as my dear husband always told me, 'You lose a few and then you lose a few.'"
Suddenly she turned round to face me. Her voice was urgent and her bottom lip was trembling.
"It doesn't mean he's not a gentleman, though, does it? I mean, he could still be a ... gentleman. Couldn't he?"
"Yes," I said. "In fact, he's the most gentlemanly gentleman I've ever met."
"Yes. He is, isn't he? And there are all sorts of ways to love someone, aren't there? And you don't need to ... I mean, after a year or two it doesn't amount to much anyway, does it? A little cavorting under the sheets--it's not much really. Men never know what to do anyhow. All thumbs they are. There are other things, aren't there? With a man like that."
We never spoke about it again. And I never saw Mrs. Butcher in her jewelry after that day.
I was staring into Vera Butcher's gas fire, thinking about Louise and Hubert and Vera and Alfred and Ruskin and Alison and Maurice and Mary and Me. I thought of e.e. cummings's poem about Maggie and Milly and Molly and Mae who go down to the beach to play one day. Why were they lucky enough to find such treasures? Would I be lucky too? Vera Butcher hadn't been lucky--or had she? Was I a lucky person? Did you know that kind of thing when you were a teenager or was it something you could only know much later on? Who else was out there for me? Who else would I meet who would change my expectations and make me into someone I hadn't been before?
"If you'd known what was going to happen, would you have done it?"
The question slipped out before I could stop it. I was speaking to myself or to Louise. Perhaps to Simon. Alfred took a deep breath, but Vera was the one who answered me.
"You mean about Hubert," she said.
"O no! No! I just meant in general, that's all."
Mrs. Butcher raised a hand to quiet me. "It's a good question really, love. The thing is, you don't know. You don't. And there's an end to it.
If you knew, you probably wouldn't do it. That's why people don't jump off those diving boards. At least not people with any sense. You know what could happen, and it makes you think twice. But in life you don't know that. So you just keep going. I don't regret giving birth, myself. But I do wonder what will happen to my Hubert when I'm dead and gone. Often I pray he'll go first. I'd follow soon after, I know it. He's my life now, you see. Him and the children. We're not much, the two of us, but we're sufficient for each other."
I could see Alfred was crying. Mrs. Butcher didn't notice; she was in her own world. And all Hubert did was rock in his invisible rocking chair--back and forth, back and forth, as if he would get somewhere someday if only he rocked hard enough.
One Sunday in early September, Mrs. Butcher came into my room at seven in the morning. I slept with three of the other girls, but they were much younger and struggling with their potty training, so they were all together in a double bed. I had my own single bed shoved up into a corner of the room.
"Get up, Jacinta!" she whispered. "There's a surprise waiting! Get up! Get up!"
I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep, but she threw back the covers and the room was frigid. I groaned. She urged me to get up again and see the surprise. She literally dragged me out of bed. I told her it was Sunday. I'd go to mass at nine-thirty, if I had to. Just not now. She threw her housecoat over my shoulders and propelled me downstairs.
Alfred was waiting in the kitchen. He was standing up as we walked in--standing on tiptoe as if he were looking over the top of a high wall.
"There she is!" he cried. Then disappointment spread across his face.
"Vera! She's not dressed!"
"She's got the housecoat on. She'll be all right."
A look from Alfred told her I wouldn't be all right after all. She hurried me back upstairs to get some clothes on.
As she helped me pick out my best dress, I guessed their secret. Two weeks before, I'd entered a contest at school. The winner would be notified by post within fourteen days. The letter must have arrived yesterday at the old Lavender Sweep address I still used. It was a poetry competition. I'd written a poem about suffering. It was set in Africa and the rhyming words included "wicker," "thicker," "snicker," and "bicker." I felt sorry for the other contestants as I affixed the stamps at Her Majesty's Post Office. They didn't stand a chance.
Alfred was still waiting for me on tiptoe downstairs.
"The nose knows," he said gleefully, rubbing his nostril.
"The nose knows," I said, smiling in spite of myself.
The prize was fifty pounds. Fifty pounds! I had never seen that much money in my life! Ruskin sometimes carried a wad of notes around, but he'd never let me count them. He was as tight as Eartha Kitt's underwear--or so Alfred said.
Vera Butcher waved good-bye to us at the front door. Hubert was calling to her from his bedroom. The words "tea" and "cupcakie" floated down on us from above. She took her handkerchief from her pocket and waved it up and down as if I were going away forever. It made me laugh. I laughed out loud. Alfred laughed too. "How did you know?" he said.
"The nose knows," I said, laughing even more, and ran on ahead.
I rushed through the door and up the stairs to our rooms. I passed Mary Beadycap on the way. She smelled like a brewery. "Knickers," she said to me as I took the stairs two at a time. "There's no future in 'era. Dead end, that's what they are. Knickers."
"Get an education," I called down sweetly to her. "That's the key."
She launched a projectile in my direction. Her saliva hit the worn-down stair carpet with the paisley pattern or the fishes' hands, depending on your point of view. I kept on going. Upstairs was fifty pounds! Fifty pounds for me!
I hurled open the door to the front room and screamed.
There was no letter. There was no fifty pounds.
What greeted me instead was Ruskin. On his arm was an old woman with a missing tooth in front, a thin strand of gray hair, and cheekbones so pronounced they could slice into something.
"O shit!" I said, falling back into the doorway. "O shit! You've come home."
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|Date:||Jan 1, 1998|
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