The Washington Post
Small Islandby Andrea Levy
"It is 1948 in an England that is still shaken by war. At 21 Nevern Street, London, Queenie Bligh takes into her house lodgers who have recently arrived from Jamaica. She feels she has no choice. Her husband, Bernard, whom she married to escape her dreary upbringing on a farm in the Midlands, was posted to India with the RAF during the war, but when the conflict was… See more details below
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"It is 1948 in an England that is still shaken by war. At 21 Nevern Street, London, Queenie Bligh takes into her house lodgers who have recently arrived from Jamaica. She feels she has no choice. Her husband, Bernard, whom she married to escape her dreary upbringing on a farm in the Midlands, was posted to India with the RAF during the war, but when the conflict was over he did not return. What else could she do?" "Among her tenants are Gilbert and his new wife Hortense. Gilbert Joseph was one of the serveral thousand Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight against Hitler. Returning to England after the war he finds himself treated very differently now that his is no longer in a blue uniform. It is desperation that makes him remember a wartime friendship with Queenie and knock at her door." "Hortense shared Gilbert's dream of leaving Jamaica and coming to England to start a better life - that's why she married him. But when she at last joins her husband, she is shocked by London's shabbiness and horrified at the way the English live. Even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was." Queenie's neighbors do not approve of her choice of tenants, and neither would her husband, were he there. England may be recovering from a war but at 21 Nevern Street it has only just begun.
The Washington Post
"There is a great skill in the way she presents characters and dialogue; she has powers of observation and an ear for language that make her books a pleasure to read."Times Literary Supplement (UK)
"Andrea Levy gives us a new, urgent take on our past."Vogue
"A perfectly crafted tale of crossed lives and oceans . . . Happily, the hype is warrantedSmall Island is a triumph."San Francisco Chronicle
"Andrea Levy's beautifully wrought novel is a window into 1948 England. . . . A bristling, funny, angry tale of love and sacrifice."Entertainment Weekly
"Levy tells a good story, and she tells it wellusing narrative voices across time and space as she revisits the conventions of the historical novel and imagines the hopes and pains of the immigrant's saga anew."The Washington Post
"Familiar cultural observations in closely observed and surprising lives . . . Levy's writing deftly illuminates the complex and contradictory motives behind each character's behavior."The New Yorker
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Read an Excerpt
It wasn't me. Mrs Queenie Bligh, she wasn't even there. This woman was a beauty -- he couldn't get enough of her. He liked the downy softness of the blonde hairs on her legs. Her nipples were the pinkest he'd ever seen. Her throat -- he just had to kiss her throat. This woman was as sexy as any starlet on a silver screen. The zebra of their legs twined and untwined together on the bed. Her hands, pale as a ghost's, caressed every part of his nut-brown skin. She was so desirable he polished her with hot breath -- his tongue lapping between her legs like a cat with cream. It wasn't me. This woman watching his buttocks rise and fall sucked at every finger on his hand. She clawed his back and cried out until his mouth lowering down filled hers with his eager tongue. It wasn't me. This woman panted and thrust and bit. And when he rolled her over she yelped wickedly into the pillow. Mrs Queenie Bligh would never do such a thing. That one, Mrs Bligh, usually worked out what she could make for dinner during sexual relations with her husband. But this woman, if it hadn't been for the blackout, could have lit up London.
I'd felt him leave me in the night. With me naked under the slovenly bedclothes, the side of the bed that he'd heated so nicely gradually grew stone cold. I knew Michael, and the other two, were all down to catch an early train in the morning -- they'd asked about the best route to the station. It wasn't long before they were all jumping the stairs and slamming their way out, back to their squadron for more active service. But there was a gentle knock on my bedroom door before they left -- once, twice. It even opened a crack before it was carefully shut. It seemed so feeble to me just to say a simple goodbye. Truth of it was, Michael Roberts deserved a fanfare with trumpets and dancers. But with Arthur waking me so urgently it did occur to me that perhaps I was wrong -- that there was still a woolly-haired black head or a foot with five nigger toes where my buttoned-up, pyjamaed husband should have been.
'What is it, Arthur?' I asked. There are times when his eyebrows just will not do. Like a dog trying to get his master to come to rescue the kid down the well, I had to guess what these grunts and pointing fingers and headflicking movements meant. 'Oh, for pity's sake,' I finally snapped. 'There's nothing wrong with your voice, Arthur -- can't you just bloody well say it for once?' A blank curtain dragged across his eager expression and I immediately regretted what I'd said. I was so sorry.
He'd found a battered leather wallet that Sergeant Michael Roberts must have mislaid or forgotten in his rush to get away. There were photographs in its tattered inside. One of an old negro man standing formally in front of a house. Looking to all the world like a chimpanzee in clothes, this lord of the manor stood behind a seated black woman with white hair and a face as grumpy as Monday morning. Another was of a little darkie girl with fuzzywuzzy hair tied in ribbons as big as bandages. They were like any airman's photos, dog eared and fading with sentiment. The wallet must have fallen from his jacket when he was rummaging for his war-time weapons of seduction -- his tin of ham, his orange. But there was something about its tattiness that let you know this wallet had been places. Stuffed into a pocket, jammed into a kit-bag, sheltered in a hat. It was so beloved its preciousness warmed my fingers as I held it. It might even have been his good-luck charm. I was told that most flyers had them -- that they weren't safe flying without them. This was Michael Roberts's fortune and it had no place lying in my hand. So I dressed quickly with the idea of catching him at the station, handing it to him before it was too late. And, anyway, it was easier to find a coloured man in RAF uniform at a station than it was to spend the morning looking apologetically into Arthur's face and finding his wanton trollop of a daughter-in-law could no longer stare him in the eye.
I was not far from the station when I heard my name being called with the urgency Bernard used when he needed a towel getting out the bath. Looking around me I swore someone was taking my photograph -- the flashlight's spark burnt spots on to my eyes. But then my legs were lifting off the ground. I could see the pavement lowering under me, feel a whoosh of air, a roaring waterless sea rushing my ears. Then everything was quiet except for a note that sang sharp and high in my head. I wasn't the only one flying. Over there a woman, a bundle of rags, was rolling over -- a cardigan, a skirt, twisting and flapping. A man, or was it a boy? making an arc, diving off a swimming-board. A silent ballet so beautiful my eyes were sucked from their sockets with the sight. Something hit me hard across the back taking all the wind from me. And then I was coming back down. Sliding down the slide near our school. Wilfred in his dead dad's boots screeching like a girl. 'Shut up,' I told him, 'you'll wake the dead.' Landing with such a thump -- the ground is so hard in winter. 'It's dark. Look at the fog. What a pea-souper! Go home. I don't want to slide again, Wilfred, and I'm out of puff now. You find your own way home. Go on, hop it. I'm going to stay here and have a little sleep.'
When I woke up, Wilfred's sharp screeching had stopped. He must have gone home. No, Queenie, he was never there. And that wasn't fog, that was bricks and glass and wood and soot billowing in thick folds of dirty cauliflower smoke. One of my shoes was gone, my coat was ripped, and my skirt was up round my waist, knickers on view for anyone who wanted a look. Crunchy slivers of glass were in my hair. The taste of blood was in the corner of my mouth.
Perhaps I was dead. My back was against a wall, slumped where I'd fallen, unable to move, watching silently with an angel singing in my ear. A doll falling slowly from the sky towards a tree: a branch stripped of all its leaves caught the doll in its black spikes. A house had had its front sliced off as sure as if it had been opened on a hinge. A doll's house with all the rooms on show. The little staircase zigzagging in the cramped hall. The bedroom with a bed sliding, the sheet dangling, flapping a white flag. A wardrobe open with the clothes tripping out from the inside to flutter away. Empty armchairs sitting cosy by the fire. The kettle on in the kitchen with two wellington boots by the stove. And in a bathroom -- standing by the side of a bath, caught by the curtain going up too soon on a performance -- a totally naked woman. A noiseless scream from a lady who was gazing at the doll in the tree that dangled limp and filthy in a little pink hat. The lady landing hard on her knees started to pray, while a man in uniform turned slowly round to vomit. But surely the dead don't feel pain, that's the whole point. Population, that's what I was. Smouldering like a kipper, I was one of the bombed. If it was a doodlebug I hadn't heard its low moaning hum. Hadn't had time to plot where it was going to come down. But surely I'd been walking among houses? A woman had called out from a window, 'Herman, get in here,' and I'd thought, How common. The boy running past me had made a face as he went by. And a tabby cat was stretched on a step. Too everyday to remember but surely there were people walking, looking at watches to see if they were late for a train, arm in arm, carrying bags? There was an old man reading a paper and a pub on the corner with a sign that swayed. Where had they gone? Now it was all jagged hills of wreckage, crumbling, twisting, creaking, smoking under far too much sky. There was only this bleak landscape left.
'Can you get up, love? Can you hear me? Can you get up, missus? Are you all right? Can you move?' A man's face was very close to mine, breath as foul as a dog's. I could only just hear him but I knew what he was saying -- I'd said those sort of things so many times myself. I pointed in case no one but me had seen the naked woman in the bathroom. He looked round. 'Don't you worry about that, we'll take care of that young lady. Let's see if you can move. Tell me your name. Can you tell me your name?'
I said. 'Queenie,' at least I thought I did.
'Can you hear me, love? What's your name?'
'Right, Queenie, let's try to get you up. You don't look too bad. I've seen worse turned out of pubs on a Saturday night. Up you get.'
Three men were putting up a ladder, trying to find a footing for it in the quicksand of rubble. While the naked woman -- her dark pubic hair a perfect triangle -- stared out from the shattered room as if a bit puzzled as to why she was now so cold.
'Can you walk to the ambulance? Course you can.'
Bits of me that should have slid easily together cracked so painfully I needed oiling. Glass sprinkled down from me as constant as a Christmas tree shedding its leaves. One of the men started up the ladder -- he trod each rung as dainty as if it were mined.
'Come on, Queenie, can you walk? Don't you worry about what's going on there, that's being taken care of. You just watch where you're walking.'
The man was with her now, up there in the once-private bathroom, beckoning her to come to him, to step to the ladder. But she stood like stone, unwilling to admit there was anything amiss. He tested the sheared floor, bouncing on it gently, then stepped off the rungs. When he reached her he wrapped his coat round her urging her to put her arms into the sleeves. She obeyed like a sleepwalker.
I took four steps, the man helping me along. I knew it was four steps because every one was as difficult as for a newborn. At first my ankle wobbled. My shoeless foot was lacerated. On the third step I almost tripped. It was on the fourth that my torn naked foot landed on something soft.
Looking down, I saw I had stepped into the upturned palm of a hand -- the fingers closing round my foot with the reflex of my weight. I could feel its warmth coming up through my sole. 'Sorry,' I said, expecting to hear a cry of pain.
'Just keep your eye on that ambulance, that's where we're going. Queenie, can you hear me? Can you hear me? Come on, love -- not far now. We'll soon have you nice and safe.'
The hand was wearing a gold ring, clothed in a blue woollen sleeve, but lying there attached to no one. My foot was being cradled by a severed arm that merely ended in a bloodsoaked fraying.
* * *
So many people at the hospital told me I was lucky. A nurse, a policeman even a little old woman with an oversized white bandage over one eye said, 'Never mind, it could have been worse.' Some cracked ribs, a sprained wrist and a cheek swollen to the size and colour of an overripe plum. After a rocket attack -- yes, I suppose that was blinking lucky.
'I'll be all right, I'll be all right,' I kept telling Arthur. He fretted round me like a mother. He fetched tea, then sat close, watching my hand trembling the cup up to my chin. I had to put it down before too much was spilt. He brought a cloth, gently wiped it round my face. He then placed the cup in my hand again. This time his hand, for once steady as a rock, enfolded mine, bracing it until the warm sweet drink was safely in my mouth.
'Bit of a turn-round, eh, Arthur?' I said. I wasn't lucky, I was pathetic. Years of war, all those bombed-out people who could joke and smile at me with a steady gaze just after they'd had everything wiped out, and here was I, shaking so much that an old shell-shocked veteran had to help me get tea to my lips.
'Trust me, eh, Arthur, to get killed when the war's nearly won. Funny, really, when you look at it like that. Don't you think it's funny? Eh, Arthur, do you think it's funny?'
He had to help me to bed, walking me up the stairs -- I was an invalid.
'I heard someone call my name. Just before the blast someone called me. Who was it, d'you think? Do you think it could have been Auntie Dorothy or my little brother Jimmy, warning me, you know, from beyond?' I didn't ask him if he thought it was Michael seeing me in the street, although I wanted to. But Arthur was tucking in the bedclothes and plumping pillows that still had an improper whisper of Michael Roberts on them. I couldn't do up the buttons on my nightdress, my fingers were all quivering thumbs. 'Come on, Queenie, pull yourself together,' I said. Arthur, sitting me on the edge of the bed, carefully did them up for me. 'Thank you,' I told him. He tucked me in, swaddling me tight enough for an anxious baby. Then, lowering his head, he slowly moved towards me. And I knew he was going to kiss me. But he was going to kiss me on the mouth. I turned my head to the side. He hovered, fearful as a lover gone too far. Softly, slowly, his lips opened.
'I would die if anything happened to you,' he said, one careful word at a time.
'Arthur, you spoke.' His voice, deep like Bernard's, was posh as the BBC. I was as stunned as if the wardrobe had told me it could take no more clothes. 'You spoke. You can speak.' I waited, wanting him to say something else. Talk to me. All those things he'd seen he could tell me now. Explain how it was for him. What he felt, what he thought. Recite me a poem, perhaps. But he didn't -- he just leaned forward again, this time to kiss my forehead. And I couldn't help it -- I started to sob. Bring me back the blinking chiming clock, the knitting needles going clack, clack, clack, and Bernard pulling his chair closer to the wireless before giving me a tut. I had had enough of war. Come on, let's all just get back to being bored.
'Don't leave me,' I told Arthur. I opened the covers for him to get into the bed with me. But he tucked them back, then pulled the chair up beside me and sat down. Silently.
It was in bewilderment that Hortense walked from the place. Clutching her bag, her head held high. Four strident steps she took before she stop to look about her. Dismayed, she stand, fingers trembling at her mouth. She change direction for two steps. Then stop once more. She look up the street one way, then down the street the other. A paper drop from her hand on to the ground. She stoop to pick it up. Then bump against a big man who call at her, 'Oi, watch where you're going.' And the paper slip from her again. She chase it. Struggling with the clasp from her handbag she stuff the paper in before she start anew. Four paces this way then two paces the other. I call out to her, she see me. All at once this woman finally know which way she is going. Anywhere that is away from me. Tripping along the road I try to keep a steady course beside her.
'How you get on?' I asked. She dodged round me to walk on. 'They tell you you have a job?' She feigned a deaf ear. And, man, she is walking faster than any Jamaican ever walk except when they run. I have to call after her, 'Hortense,' for I was out of puff. 'What they say to you?' Still this woman has no word for me. Cha. I am following on behind her like a lame dog. 'Wait, nah,' I called. She quicken her pace. So, as Auntie Corinne taught me when chasing a chicken round the yard, I make a jump to grab this woman. Two hands I use to seize her then swing her round to face me. 'Wait,' I said. Stiff as a rod of iron, her neck twisted misshapen to turn her eye from me. 'So what they say?' I asked. Suddenly she look on me, her nose go up in the air and, man, I am ready to duck. Aah, I knew that look.
'Why you ask me all these question? What business is it of yours?'
What little wind was left in me she cause to expel. Come, this was a good question. Why was I asking anything of this wretched shrew? I was ready to walk away. Plenty boys would by now be chasing the next pair of pretty legs that passed their eye, not wasting their time listening on a lashing tongue. So why I bother to say, 'You are my wife,' only for her to look on me like this was one pained regret?
'Leave me alone. I can look after myself. I was doing it for many years before you came along . . .'
So what was it? A quickening breath? A too-defiant shrugging shoulder? The gentle pout of her lip? Who can say? But something beg me stay. 'Hortense, no more cuss me. Tell me what 'appen.'
She purse her lip tight. Cha, I could do nothing but shake her. Not hard, for I am not a brute. But I rattle on her bone. It was the teardrop that splash on my lip, warm with salt, that cause me stop. She was crying. Steady as a rainpipe, the crystal water ran from her eye. She start contorting again to hide her face from me. A woman passing by begin staring on us. But it was not concern for Hortense's welfare, she was just ready to walk a wide circle around we two.
'What happen?' I asked her.
'Nothing,' she said.
So I tell her, 'Nothing is a smile, Hortense. You no cry over nothing.' And the woman scream, 'Nothing,' at me again.
Man, let her burn. Come, this was probably the first time the woman's cheek ever felt a tear. She was insufferable! I walked away. Two paces. Then a hesitant third before I turned to look back on her. She was snivelling and trying with all her will not to wipe her nose on her good white glove. I thought to smile when I hear it: Hortense reeling wounded after a sharp slap from the Mother Country's hand. Man, I was ready to tell her, 'Pride comes before a fall.' To leap around her rubbing me hands while singing, 'Now you see . . . I tell you so . . . you listening now.'
But her breath rose in desperate gasps as she mumbling repeated over, 'They say I can't teach.'
Come, no pitiful cry from a child awoken rude from a dream could have melted a hard heart any surer.
I guided her to a seat in a little square, she followed me obedient. So did a little scruffy boy whose wide eye perused us all the way. Softly delivered in my ear, Hortense informed me that she was required to train all over again to teach English children. And I remembered the last time I saw Charlie Denton. My old RAF chum grinning on me because he was happy he said, oh, he was tickled pink that he had become a teacher of history. Now, let me tell you, this man once argue silly with me that Wellington had won the battle of Trafalgar Square. And yet there was he, one year's training, and they say he can stand before a classroom of wriggling boys to teach them his nonsense. Hortense should have yelled in righteous pain not whimper in my ear. And still the goofy boy was staring on us. 'Shoo,' I told him. He poked out his tongue and wiggled his big ear at me, then ran away. But other eyes soon took his place. An old man was so beguiled by Hortense that, gaping on us, he leaned his stick into a drain and nearly trip over. A curly-haired woman crossed her eyes giddy with the effort of gawping. A fat man pointed, while another with a dog tutted and shook his head. Come, let me tell you, I wanted to tempt these busybodies closer. Beckon them to step forward and take a better look. For then I might catch my hand around one of their scrawny white necks and squeeze. No one will watch us weep in this country. 'What you all see?' I shouted on them. 'Go on, shoo.'
Hortense's hat had slipped forlorn on her head, just a little, but enough to show this haughty Jamaican woman looking comical. I straightened it for her. She composed herself, dabbing her eye with the tip of her white-fingered glove. I got out my handkerchief so she might wipe her face. However, this item was not as clean as it might have been. For several days I had been meaning to wash it but . . . Hortense held it high between her finger and thumb to pass it back to me. As she took out her own handkerchief from her bag, I saw the pretty white cloth had Sunday embroidered on it. 'You have the wrong day there,' I told her. Then, oh, boy, she blew her nose into that poor cloth with the force of a hurricane, before telling me quietly, 'I walk into a cupboard.'
'Why you do that?' I asked her.
'I thought it was the door to leave by.'
'Oh dear,' I said.
'But it was a cupboard and the women all laugh on me.'
My mind conjured the scene but instead of laughing hearty on the joke of this proud woman's humiliation, my heart snapped in two. 'And tell me,' I said, 'what was this cupboard like?'
Her expression flashed 'What is this fool man saying?' but she answered, 'There was a bucket and perhaps a mop.'
'Ah. Now, that was a broom cupboard. I have walked into many broom cupboards.' Reddened and moistened with tears, her eyes gazed upon me. And I believe this was the first time they looked on me without scorn. Two breaths I skipped before I could carry on. 'It true! I walk into broom cupboard, stationery cupboard . . .'
'This one had paper in also.'
'Interesting cupboard,' I told her. 'You say it have broom and paper.' And then it happen.
I felt sure Hortense had teeth that sharpened to a point like a row of nails. But they did not. They were small, dainty-white with a little gap in the front two. Come, could it be true that I had never before seen her smile? I thought carefully of what I should say next -- for I feared a rogue word might chase away that astonishing vision. 'How long you say you stay in this cupboard?' I asked. And, oh, boy, that smile take on a voice -- she giggle.
'Enough time for me to know that I am not dead but I am merely in a cupboard.'
'Long time, then.'
She laughed and I swear the sky, louring above our heads, opened on a sharp beam of sunlight. 'Enough time for them to think me a fool.'
'Ah, well, that is not so long, then.' Man, I had gone too far. No sooner were those rascal words said than I wanted to scoop them back up and stuff them in me big mouth. Like an apparition all trace of mirth vanished.
'Are you teasing me, Gilbert Joseph?' she said. I was ready to throw myself to the ground and have her walk across me. But the cloud passed. Playful, she hit my arm.
'What you do when you come from the cupboard?' I carefully carried on. 'I left the room.'
'You say anything to the women who were laughing on you?'
'What was there to say?'
'You must tell them that was an interesting cupboard.'
'You are fool.'
'It is what I would have said.'
'That is because you are a fool. No. I should have told them that their cupboard was a disgrace.'
'Because it was. It needed to be tidied. I bang me foot on a bucket.'
'Wait. Cha! You tell me you hurt your foot because these people cannot keep their cupboards in a tidy manner? You should tell them that you are used to clean cupboards where you come from.'
'But I am.'
'Oh, I don't doubt you there, Miss Mucky Foot.'
Her face was so pretty wearing merry, I wanted to kiss it. But no, no, no, no. Don't get carried away, man. One thaw is not the summer. 'Tell you what,' I said, for I had an idea that might prolong this glad weather, 'you wan' see the King?'
While Hortense looked out from the top of the bus at the city around her, I gazed at her. So roused was she at every site the bus passed even her wellbred composure could not keep her voice from squealing: 'Look, this is Piccadilly Circus. I have seen it in books. The statue is called Eros.' Gleeful, her head spun with the effort of seeing. And everything her glad eye rested upon she pointed out to me. 'Gilbert, can you see? That is the Houses of Parliament and the big clock is called Big Ben.' Although I had seen all these sights many times before, I too spun my head to feign elation. So pleased was she with her view from the top of the bus, she held her hands as if on a steering-wheel, saying, 'You can pretend you are the driver of the bus from here.' However, excitement for that particular experience I could not affect. The driver of a bus -- oh, God! -- with my luck, one day I probably would be.
A cheeky pigeon in Trafalgar Square deposited his business on the sleeve of her coat. 'You have your handkerchief ?' she asked me.
'Excuse me, Miss,' I said, 'but what happen to your Sunday cloth?'
'But mine is a good handkerchief and yours is filthy rag,' she told me. She have me there. Wiping off the muck she shrieked as two more birds landed on her head. 'Get them off me -- I don't like them.' She ran a small circle flapping her hands to scare the birds from her head.
'So now you need my help?'
I brushed them from her. 'What you think of Nelson?'
'He has too many birds,' she said.
Reverent as the devout before an altar, she gasped, astonished at Buckingham Palace. 'It is magnificent,' she said. A small girl carrying a doll touched Hortense's arm then ran away. No sooner was she gone than a small boy followed. Feeling his touch, Hortense looked around. 'Yes?' she asked the little boy.
He stared up into her face with that same expression she had used for the royal palace. 'You're black,' he told her before running off. Hortense, all at once aware of people around her, straightened her hat and pulled at her gloves.
'You like the palace?' I asked her.
Stiff and composed she replied, 'I have seen it in books.'
'People always stare on us, Hortense,' I told her.
'And I pay them no mind,' she snapped back to me.
'Good, because you know what? The King has the same problem.' But her nose had risen into the air and I feared I was losing her once more. I put my elbow out to her. 'Come let us stroll like the King and Queen down the Mall.' But she sucked on her teeth and turned her eye from me.
I bought her a cup of tea and a cake at a café. 'Why you waste your money on cake?' she asked me. 'It will spoil your appetite for the food I will make.'
Oh, I do hope so, was my thought. Of course I did not utter those words for this woman's mood was once more bleak as the dark cold fog I viewed through the window of the café. Who knows how long we sat there in silence eating on our cake, sipping on our tea? Not me, for three boys came greeting me with a cheery nod, looking on Hortense with a wink of: 'Okay there, man -- you have a pretty coloured lady.'
'You know these men?' Hortense asked.
'They are from home,' I told her.
'And you know them all?'
'I know they are from home.'
'But you don't know them?'
'No, but I know they are from home.' I did not tell her that some days I was so pleased to see a black face I felt to run and hug the familiar stranger. She took off a silly white glove to wipe some crumbs from her lip and I sensed a little thaw. I am not a gambling man but I was a desperate one. 'So, how you like London?' I asked.
'I dreamed of coming to London,' she said. Her eye was not on me but focused on the stirring tea in her cup.
'Well, there you see, not many people have a dream come true.'
And hear this -- with no warning she start to cry again. Damn -- I was losing me touch. Tears were dropping into her tea. Out came the Sunday handkerchief. A shaking hand dabbing once more at her eye. I thought to apologise but feared that do-do might fall from my careless mouth. It was a timid hand I stretched across the table to place over hers. I waited for her to slap it away. But she did not.
'What am I to do now?' she said softly. 'I thought I would come here and teach.'
'Don't worry,' I told her. 'I can look after you.'
As I suspected, the do-do fell. She pulled her hand so rough from under mine, it slap on the table. Cha, nah, man, this woman had me no longer crafty. 'I am your husband . . .' I started. I said it too firm, I know I did. Looking on her pouting mouth I quickly changed, 'Well, come, let me see. What else can you do?'
'Can you sew?'
'Of course,' she told me.
'Is that "of course" like you can cook? Or is that "of course" because you can actually sew?'
'I can sew. I have been sewing since I was a girl.'
'Good,' I said. 'Then I know where you might find some work.'
'Sewing?' She shout this, all tears outraged away. 'But I am a teacher.' 'And a teacher you will be even when you are sewing.'
She sucked on her teeth in a most unladylike manner. So I told her, 'Hortense, your mummy never tell you, "Needs must when the devil drives"? Look at me, for too long I have been driving lorries but one day . . .' I hesitated.
'What?' she asked.
'One day I will study the law.' Man, those words sounded so foolish. Let out into the cold air of a London night that hopeless dream soared so far from reach I heard the angels laughing. It was my turn to look away. For I was a big-talk buffoon. Suddenly her hand, delicate and tender, gently place itself over mine. I dared not look to see if her touch was real. My doubt might melt it. A minute it rested there before she said, 'I can cook.'
'No, you can't.'
'My teacher, Miss Plumtree said my cake was the best outside the teashops of southern England.'
'Your teacher taste it?'
'And still she say it better than one she eat in a tea-shop.'
'She tell you where this tea-shop is, because we must be sure not to go there?'
'Are you teasing me, Gilbert Joseph?' Just as she said that another boy came to our table. He was old and cold. Two scarves were round his head with a brown hat squashed down on the top.
'Cold today, eh?' He smiled, with the few teeth he had left.
'Yes, man,' I said.
He did not smell so good, his brown skin dusted grey with dirt. It was a struggle for him to tip his hat to Hortense as it was pushed down so far. But finally it came off. 'Cold day today, Miss,' he said to her.
She glanced at him, from his scarf-wrapped head, past his baggy stained trousers, to his dirty shoes. She looked swiftly around her and, in the wink of an eye, she came back to this man. And she answered him, 'I have found that this is a very cold country.'
The man tipped his hat again. 'Ah, very cold, Miss,' he muttered, as he moved on, 'very cold.'
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