Emily Thompson, Rose to her friends, emigrates to the motherland, England, in search of a better life. It will be hard work for the young mother in this rich man’s country; above all she must also come to terms with this unknown phenomenon; di Hinglish dem.
In the following extract, Rose arrives at her home in England. Jamaican sunshine now long gone. How quickly will she adapt?
The door slammed after a quick “Thank you!” After the taxi-driver had been paid and had winked at her as he drove off, wheeling his vehicle round in a seamless U-turn further down the road.
So, this was Beswick Road. An infantry of redbrick and glass, shoulder to shoulder. Not many people on the street. Not like back home. Pale, lonely-looking, dreary herds had wandered, morosely, past her cab window as cab-man insisted through the London streets to her new home, Hinglan, where the sun seemed to have changed its mind.
It began drizzling. Again. Light flakes of water you don’t even notice at first, playing with you, meaning no real harm, but Rose had had her hair done especially, plus her clothes were new, so she picked up her suitcase, pushed open the garden gate and mounted the steps to the front door. A three-storey house with further rooms, it seemed, in the basement.
“Lord have mercy! Dem live undergrown like some sort of animal!”
She pushed the bell marked Brown. It screeched, alarmed, as though Rose had unexpectedly, maliciously, dug her fingernails into its side. No-one came at once.
“If yu tink me ringing dat bell one more time!” she cursed through her bottom lip, taking a step back to crane her neck up at the house. Her new home. She wondered how long for. Another step back and she caught a young black girl sweep the curtains back from a ground floor window, report over her shoulder what she saw, then disappear before she had had the time to catch Rose smooth her skirt out and wait at the bottom of the stairs.
“Juss hopen dat blaasted door before me drench, yaa,” and whilst the cussing came naturally, she had to will her toes down hard against the sole of her shoe to stop her right foot from tapping impatiently that way. Inside the house a door opened. Closed. A key laboured in the lock to keep whatever out of sight. The floorboards creaked all the way to the front door, which inched open just enough to reveal half of a slender young West Indian girl.
Mrs Brown, who had had to go to work despite the new arrival, had instructed her daughter, Carmen, to let the woman in and show her the room. Rose followed Carmen up the stairs. Carmen felt she ought to say something. Asked Rose if she reach over safely. Yes, Rose said and considered telling her the story about the passport but changed her mind. Later, if they became friends. Carmen was younger than her and didn’t much look as though she knew anything about anything. Did she like England, Carmen asked. So far so good, Rose said, noticing that Carmen didn’t speak Jamaican English.
“Tell me someting. Yu born here?”
“Hm-hm, I was.”
“So how long yu madda here already?”
“About twenty years, I reckon. Somefing like that.”
“An how old yu is?”
“I’m nearly fifteen.”
“Yu gat any children?”
Carmen laughed, “Me? You gotta be joking! My mum’d kill me!” And then Carmen ran out of things to say so she continued up the stairs in silence.
Someone had tried to pretty up the second landing with a bushy busy-lizzy in a plastic mesh flowerpot next to their door. The bright pink flowers stretched out in the direction of sunlight from stems as thick as rhubarb. The occasional petal had fallen onto the doormat calling Welcome To My Home. All the doors were painted brown. Two or three doors on each landing. Dark brown carpet with autumn leaves wafting up the stairs. Later, Rose would ease out of her shoes. Run her toes along the carpet. Yes, man. Rich man country, dis. Let me wait an see what di other people dem here is like, she was thinking when Carmen said, shyly, “That’s your room,” handing over the key she had been playing with in her pocket the whole time.
A minuscule room at the very top of the house, at least she didn’t have to share it with anyone. One small window, looking out onto the backs of the houses in the street running parallel to Beswick Road. Little poky patches of green with junk lying around; rusting pieces of she knew not what, bicycle wheels, car parts, clothes hung out to dry but getting wet again. One or two gardens had been done up rather nicely, though; rose bushes and other pretty flowers just dying to come out. One or two trees already in bloom. A woman ran out in her slippers to pluck her washing from the line. Workmen busy on a roof further along. She heard a crash every now and then as old tiles were tossed down the front side of a house she could not see but was pretty sure looked just like hers.
Mrs Brown’s house had a garden too, though Rose could not imagine she’d have much time to sit in it. Share such a small patch of green with a house full of strangers? And who wanted to sit outside in that everlasting cold anyway? Wrap up wrap up like an Eskimo and can’t enjoy yourself? She had her own room. That would have to do. There, nobody could pester her with questions she would rather not answer. She had not come to England to make friends, she had come to work, she told herself as she walked away from the window, trying to establish some sort of feeling for the room that was now hers; her home. Once again, she wondered how long for, wondered if her children were missing her already and if she would miss them enough, it was so new; leaving Jamaica, flying over, riding in a taxi, her hair, her clothes; she sincerely hoped she would miss her children enough.
“It’ll be a really nice room once you doll it up a bit,” Carmen encouraged. On the middle floor was a shared kitchen, she went on. You needed your own pots and pans. To punch gas, you put your coins in the slot on the side of the gas meter, then you turned the knob. Toilet’s outside, Carmen spoke to her feet.
“Tell me someting. Is how many people deh live here?”
Eighteen, said Carmen, on her way down the stairs. Money matters Rose should talk over with Mrs Brown when she got back from work, Carmen threw over her shoulder.
She moved her handbag aside to make a little space. Set the picture down, carefully, like an egg. Quick, quick, out of her clothes, her shoulders clenched against the unaccustomed cold. Rose folded her new orange suit, placing it reverently over the back of the chair before she wriggled into her nightie and buttoned up her school cardigan. Cold and dark was this place, man, but she would worry about that later. Wrapped up in the blanket, she thanked the Lord for bringing her over safely.
London, April —, 19—
How are you? I’m sure you are fine and One-foot is fine. I hope Marlene is fine and Leroy is fine. Give them my love.
I cross over safely. England is very cold. It’s raining all the time and there’s no good sunshine. With weather like this the people bound to be miserable. I already miss Jamaica. The address I had is correct when I get to England. The houses are really small and squash up together. Never mind. A roof is a roof. I am so tired after the journey, but I think, let me sit down and let you know I reach safe. Tomorrow I must go and look work. London is so big there must be work for everyone. As you know I have a job promised to me. I hope him don’t forget. You know how them say the streets of London are paved with gold, well, there’s not one word of truth in it. But I hope all the same that things work out how I planned and that I don’t come here for nothing.
Hear this. I get off the plane go to customs or immigrations or something like that. Him ask me, is this your passport? What a stupid question! Me say, of course is me passport. Whose passport it suppose to be? Hear him; it could belong to anybody for all he know, we all look the same. I glad One-foot wasn’t there or him would box off him facety head. Generally the white people friendly enough. So many of them stop and ask me if they can help me at the airport. I didn’t know what to do. All I had was the slip of paper with the address. Some of them look at me a bit funny but is ignorant them ignorant. One woman take me to the taxi and tell the taxi driver me is a friend so him not to drive no long route but take me direct. Me nearly die laughing! The English taxi them peculiar you see! Big and black like a bug and you got room for a whole heap a luggage in the back with you. Them even got one clapdown seat if is more people. We drive a long long time before we get to London. Them got one big red bus them call double-decker. Take you everywhere you want to go, the taxi driver tell me. The taxi driver nosey you see! Him want to know where me come from and how long me going to stay. I just smile and tell him little bit. You can’t be unfriendly. Tell One-foot I still got my head.
I am very tired and I’m going to sleep a little bit. I will write you soon. I’m surprised, I see quite a few black faces here in London. Say hello to everybody for me and let them know I reach safe.
Junie, Marlene, Leroy, One-foot, goodbye and God bless.
From Long Time Walk on Water:
‘Weaves love, self-discovery, race, class politics, immigration, and the British postcolonial imaginations into a beautiful tour de force. A moving account of black sojourners’ day-to-day in a new alien land as they tumble forward for a better life and belonging.’ (Amazon)