Category Archives: Long Time Walk On Water

Long Time: Waiting

SHE’s: young, fresh over from Jamaica, looking for a new life in 1960s London. She coudln’t be bothered to learn the national anthem. They let her in anyway.

HE’s: got red hair, blue veins, she’s got no idea how old he is but he looks like a fish. In his ordinary life he lives on the seventh floor with a wife who cleans spud juice from her fingernails with a knife.

THEY: happen to meet at a bus-stop. The rest is history.

*

“Jack!” Monica prodded him, “C’mon, you’ll be late for work. Jack… you playing wiv yourself?”

“Wot time is it?”

“Time you stopped wanking and brought some money in!”

“Know wot? You’re as common as muck.”

She leant over, squashing her breasts against his arm, said, “Give ’ere, let me do that for ya…”

But he yanked the sheets back and marched his cheated hard-on out the bedroom.

They hadn’t done it for ages. There he was, wanking off next to her and there she was, only too willing. Monica fell back onto her pillow, wondered what she might be doing wrong, but then thought fuck it, she snatched her cigarettes from the bedside table.

*

“Hello again,” said Jack as he reached the bus-stop, wearing a grin so wide almost all his teeth were on show. “You and I must stop meeting like this or tongues will wag, you know!”

“I don’t know what yu mean!”

“Don’t you, now. We’ve met here at least a dozen times… wot’m I saying,” he interrupted himself, “dozens! And I get a glimpse of you almost every day, or every other day. You never have a friendly word to say to me though I know you don’t dislike it.”

“Is what yu tink I can possibly have to say to someone like you?”

“Well, you could smile once in a while and say, “Hello, Jack, fancy meeting you here,” or “Hello, Jack, nice to see you again,” you know, something like that. Nice n friendly, like.”

“Nice an frenly me back foot!”

“Wot have you got to be so defensive about, eh? I don’t hiss or whistle as you go past like your lot do. Well, do I? No, I most certainly do not! I’m just nice n friendly, as I said. So wot’s a young girl like you got to be so uptight about, anyway, eh?”

“If is woman yu deh look go look inna yu own kind an inna yu own age, yaah.”

“I beg your pardon?!” It was far too loud to be a real whisper. One or two heads turned. Jack put his back between them and Rose, “How old d’you fink I am, then?” Did he look a mess? He knew Monica could look a damn sight better but he thought he wasn’t doing too badly.

“Yu old enough to be me farda, yaah.” Rose turn her face the other way look down the road.

Wot? Don’t make me laugh!”

But he did. “If I started having kids at fifteen like your lot seem to then I could be your father, grant you that.” She had a nerve! Old enough to be her father indeed! “I’m only -”

“How old you is don’t interest me.”

“Wot does interest you, eh?”

“Wat me do is none a fi yu business.” Is wat mek im no go weh an leff me alone, im is a blasted nuisance, she thought. An where di blasted bus deh?

No blasted bus, near or far, but Lou, as luck would have it, a little up from the bus-stop, Lou stepping out of the newsagent’s and heading their way, hunched over her cigarette.

“Oh ello, Emily! On your way home, are you?”

“Yes, see you.” Rose managed a meaningless exchange for a second or two, but glanced up only briefly at the voice that had so stabbed into her privacy.

“Wot you looking for, then? In a bag that small can’t be too hard to find anyfing, can it? I mean there’s not a lot you put in your bag when you’re going to work not like when you’re going out somewhere special I’m off somewhere nice tonight. Fink I might pop out again this aftanoon n see if I find somefing to doll me up a little bit noffing I hate more’n a woman who lets herself go, can’t be surprised if her old man’s eyes start doing the walkies, know wot I mean? Course, me n my old man we’re just like we were from the beginning, wouldn’t change im for the world n he wouldn’t want no other woman, either, I see he’s alright. No-one goes running after a bit a scraggy chop when he’s got steak at home, know wot a mean? Anyhow I must be off, listen, you fancy coming out for a round of bingo sometime? All girls togevva, we don’t half ’ave a good laugh I got noffing against you lot. My Michelle had a golly when she was little got it from her auntie Diane. Loved that little golly, she did. Really, must go, got a fousand n one fings to do before the day’s done. Cheerio, Emily. See you tomorrow!”

You know them people who talk non-stop? No business if you show no sign of interest, just talk talk talk without them even stop to draw breath? This is a kind of person Rose could never stand, like a whistling woman and a crowing hen; they were an abomination. For one long moment, Rose stood with her eyes closed, her head tilted back, as if knocking back some nasty cough syrup. Said,

“Here yu bus.”

Silence.

“Emily -”

Rose jump. He had said her name so sadly, so painfully, but never the pain which she had felt.

*

Emily Thompson (Rose to her friends), the protagonist, epitomizes the strong, funny, suspicious nature of the Outsider daring to go for a new life in a foreign country. She epitomizes the strength of dreams. She’ll reveal to us a lot about how the Jamaican family works and although she’d never use the word feminist it’s still true to say that she is all about independence, equality and betterment.

(Joan Barbara Simon, interviewed by Sezoni Whitfield for Writer’s Kaboodle)

Beautifully written. Joan Barbara Simon is a wordsmith par excellence. (The Sunday Gleaner)

A magical reggae-type experience full of pride poise & grace (Amazon)

Intelligent, humorous, tragic and sensual. Contemporary British literature at its best.   (A.A., London, U.K.)

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Long Time: the better life?

THE FACTS:

In 1950, 1,700 people emigrated from Jamaica to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Twenty years later, in 1970, the number of emigrants had reached an alarming 23,000. The total number of immigrants in the UK in the year 1970 constituted, nonetheless, less than 5%.

On the topic of immigration, Enoch Powell (Conservative Party) delivered a controversial speech in Birmingham -1968 –  after which he fell into disfavour and was dismissed from the shadow cabinet.

Edward Heath:  elected Prime Minister, 1970. The 68th Prime Minister in the history of the British parliament, the conservative Edward Heath replaced Harold Wilson, the only labour Prime Minister in the last twenty years. Enoch Powell, dismissed, disgraced, was most saddened by the fact that his participation in the party’s victory could only take the form of his rather vocal support in front of the television set in the lounge of his comfortably furbished detached house.

Jackass.

What a naughty boy was that
To try to drown poor pussy cat
Who never did him any harm

And killed the mice

Ran
Down
Hickory tickory…

…Tock

THE FICTION:

He winds his way through the estate; past the first two low-rise blocks, past the newsagent’s, the fish-n-chip shop, the launderette, the post office, the betting office and the off-licence. A short queue had formed in the chippy, and through the fluttering multicoloured strips of a plastic curtain hanging in the entrance to the betting office, men’s voices joke, shout, hope, swear. Post office being next to the betting office and the off -licence, a fair amount of welfare probably never made it through a man’s front door, thought Jack, such is life. He turns another corner:

A couple of houses in the block are boarded up. Amazing, how quickly a place can run down. It hadn’t been that bad when they’d moved in. If everyone were to plant a few flowers on their balcony in the summer and make sure their kids went to school, he didn’t want his kids turning teenagers in this environment but what could he do? His feet smack the concrete floor. The sound carries far, far enough for gangs lurking behind pillars yards ahead to know you were on your way but he lives there and isn’t afraid of boys trying to be men, he’d smack their bloody heads together if they ever tried to mug him or anyone in his family. In a parallel house an old lady’s sitting by her window, her curtains pushed aside. Elsewhere, a mother, fraught, fed up; “Daniel! Come ’ere before I give you one! Come ’ere right now… you fink I’m joking?” Silence for a while, then, “Daniel!” Impatience brewing. “Right that’s it, you’ve had ya warning.” Whack! A toddler’s wet, gargling scream. Father storms into the room, starts effing and blinding, but Daniel’s mum gives as good as she gets. Maybe it will come to blows. The old woman shakes her head as she withdraws from the window. From the profanity. Jack takes a shortcut past the playground; two car-tyre swings mope from the branches like carcinogenic fruit, a metal slide, a see-saw and a sandpit, or at least it had been, before the sand’d been pinched. Another left turn, and Jack is home. Lift’s not working again. He begins to climb the stairs to the seventh floor.

“S’at you, Jack?” She was in the kitchen.

“No, it’s Father bloody Christmas.”

“Hello, love.”

A peck on the cheek, “Nice day?” She wipes her hands on her apron. Pushes her hair into place. She had been beautiful once.

“Same as usual.”

Jack sits down at the kitchen table in the hot, small, cluttered place so hard to air on cold days such as these. The paint blistered on the wall around the cooker.

“What’s for dinner, love?” He picks up a crayon. Colours, absent-mindedly, with daughter, Nina.

Jack’s wife stands over the sink peeling potatoes. “Police were round. Door-to-door questioning. Some old lady in Havelock was mugged coming back from the post office this morning, I dunno… Ben got a gold star for a story he wrote at school, didn’tya, darling? Go’n show daddy your gold star…” she dunks the peeled potato into the sink of cold water then plops it into the pot on the cooker. Leaning against the cupboard, she begins to clean the juice, the mud of the potatoes from her fingernails, looking, every now and then, out the window. Nothing ever happened out there, but you look  just the same, like a fish in its bowl doing the rounds.

Jack looks at his wife. How many times had he told her it drove him up the wall the way she kept fiddling around with her fingernails like that.

“What’s for dinner, love?” he asks once more.

“Oh! Sausage n mash. Got a little baked beans left over from yesterday. You can ’ave those.”

‘Setting the book in Jamaica and England allows me to represent the communality of experience in addition to the effects and rewards of rupture. There are no losers in Long Time Walk on Water. Not even the most brutal of my characters. I see the vulnerability caused by need and I honour those who seek a way out. Harsh at times, Long Time Walk on Water is ultimately uplifting and life-affirming.’

(Joan Barbara Simon, interviewed by Lucy Walton for Female First)

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Long Time: tongues will wag!

“Jack!” Monica prodded him, “C’mon, you’ll be late for work. Jack… you playing wiv yourself?”

“Wot time is it?”

“Time you stopped wanking and brought some money in!”

“Know wot? You’re as common as muck.”

She leant over, squashing her breasts against his arm, said, “Give ’ere, let me do that for ya…”

But he yanked the sheets back and marched his cheated hard-on out the bedroom.

They hadn’t done it for ages. There he was, wanking off next to her and there she was, only too willing. Monica fell back onto her pillow, wondered what she might be doing wrong, but then thought fuck it, she snatched her cigarettes from the bedside table.

 

 

*

“Hello again,” said Jack as he reached the bus-stop, wearing a grin so wide almost all his teeth were on show. “You and I must stop meeting like this or tongues will wag, you know!”

“I don’t know what yu mean!”

“Don’t you, now. We’ve met here at least a dozen times… wot’m I saying,” he interrupted himself, “dozens! And I get a glimpse of you almost every day, or every other day. You never have a friendly word to say to me though I know you don’t dislike it.”

“Is what yu tink I can possibly have to say to someone like you?”

“Well, you could smile once in a while and say, “Hello, Jack, fancy meeting you here,” or “Hello, Jack, nice to see you again,” you know, something like that. Nice n friendly, like.”

“Nice an frenly me back foot!”

“Wot have you got to be so defensive about, eh? I don’t hiss or whistle as you go past like your lot do. Well, do I? No, I most certainly do not! I’m just nice n friendly, as I said. So wot’s a young girl like you got to be so uptight about, anyway, eh?”

“If is woman yu deh look go look inna yu own kind an inna yu own age, yaah.”

“I beg your pardon?!” It was far too loud to be a real whisper. One or two heads turned. Jack put his back between them and Rose, “How old d’you fink I am, then?” Did he look a mess? He knew Monica could look a damn sight better but he thought he wasn’t doing too badly.

“Yu old enough to be me farda, yaah.” Rose turn her face the other way look down the road.

Wot? Don’t make me laugh!”

But he did. “If I started having kids at fifteen like your lot seem to then I could be your father, grant you that.” She had a nerve! Old enough to be her father indeed! “I’m only -”

“How old you is don’t interest me.”

“Wot does interest you, eh?”

“Wat me do is none a fi yu business.” Is wat mek im no go weh an leff me alone, im is a blasted nuisance, she thought. An where di blasted bus deh?

No blasted bus, near or far, but Lou, as luck would have it, a little up from the bus-stop, Lou stepping out of the newsagent’s and heading their way, hunched over her cigarette.

“Oh ello, Emily! On your way home, are you?”

“Yes, see you.” Rose managed a meaningless exchange for a second or two, but glanced up only briefly at the voice that had so stabbed into her privacy and sliced her open.

“Wot you looking for, then? In a bag that small can’t be too hard to find anyfing, can it? I mean there’s not a lot you put in your bag when you’re going to work not like when you’re going out somewhere special I’m off somewhere nice tonight. Fink I might pop out again this aftanoon n see if I find somefing to doll me up a little bit noffing I hate more’n a woman who lets herself go, can’t be surprised if her old man’s eyes start doing the walkies, know wot I mean? Course, me n my old man we’re just like we were from the beginning, wouldn’t change im for the world n he wouldn’t want no other woman, either, I see he’s alright. No-one goes running after a bit a scraggy chop when he’s got steak at home, know wot a mean? Anyhow I must be off, listen, you fancy coming out for a round of bingo sometime? All girls togevva, we don’t half ’ave a good laugh I got noffing against you lot. My Michelle had a golly when she was little got it from her auntie Diane. Loved that little golly, she did. Really, must go, got a fousand n one fings to do before the day’s done. Cheerio, Emily. See you tomorrow!”

You know them people who talk non-stop? No business if you show no sign of interest, just talk talk talk without them even stop to draw breath? This is a kind of person Rose could never stand, like a whistling woman and a crowing hen; they were an abomination. For one long, long, moment, Rose stood with her eyes closed, her head tilted back, as if knocking back some nasty cough syrup. Swallowed she did, too, then set her lips sternly before opening her eyes once more to find Jack turned to face her, not smiling, or self-satisfied, rather thoughtful, even sad. She would not look at him. Said,

“Here yu bus.”

He continued to look at her.

“Look, yu gwine miss yu bus!”

“I’m not taking this one. Not today. I’m catching the same one as you are,” then he ducked away from the vexed look she shot him. “No need to get your knickers in a twist, I’m not gonna follow you home or anyfing like that… where you getting off?”

Silence.

He sighed, “Look, you can’t stop me from getting on the same bus as you. There ain’t a law against it, far’s I know. If you tell me where you’re getting off I’ll get off a stop earlier, how’s that?” he tried to be cheery.

Silence.

“Am I talking to a brick wall or somefing?”

After a long, long while, “Me deh get off by Pallard’s.”

Jack nodded, as if contemplating a second option, decided upon:

“Pollard’s, is it? A deal’s a deal,” but his cheerfulness made no impact on her. He exhaled with a slight whistle, his eyes on his shoes.

“Emily -”

Rose jump. He had said her name so sadly, so painfully, but never the pain which she had felt.

“…that first time I spoke to you and made you laugh, your face lit up so much it was an absolute beauty to see… you oughta laugh more often… really, Emily…”

Their bus ground to a halt at their feet.

“Ladies first.”

For her part, Rose hugged her handbag close to her chest and looked obstinately out of the window.

The West Indian conductor stopped in the aisle.

“Two please, mate.”

Rose had no time to protest.

The conductor swung the arm of his ticket machine round till it ching chinged,

Ching ching!

He handed Jack the two tickets.

“Taa, mate.”

Jack Dunbar and Emily Thompson sat upright. Not a word passed between the two a dem. Once, they brushed shoulders as the driver took a corner too sharply. Not a word.

“Pollard’s is the next but one, so I’ll get off here, okay?”

She nodded.

He reached for the cord overhead, suspended from the back through to the front of the bus like a washing line. Pulled it.

Ting ting!

“Some money drop fram yu pocket.”

Jack glanced down to see a coin lying on his seat. “Can’t be mine. I keep my money in my wallet, here,” he touched his breast pocket.

“Well, it’s nat mine neither.”

“You have it.”

“Me say it’s not mine!” she insisted, irascibly.

He picked it up as the bus lurched forward past the traffic lights. “I’ll use it to pay your fare the next time… there will be a next time, won’t there, Emily?”

 

 

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Long Time: But stap!

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.

James Dunbar. Jack is what he answers to. Picking his way through the mucky incidents of life, he consoles himself that things will get better.

*

One job was not enough to get by. After cleaning the offices, Rose makes haste to job no.2. On her way, she meets, for the first time, my other hero. Jack. Her first impression of him?

 

Rose slipped the letter into the postbox as she turned the corner to the multi-storey office block where she was employed as an early morning cleaner, a little sideline she had found without help from anyone. Six weeks on, after reading the ad in the local paper – cleaners always wanted. Good rates! – after pulling open that heavy red door to the public callbox, stepping into it for the first time, explaining who she was and being offered the job there and then, six weeks on, and Rose had slowly fallen into the routine of rising early. The voice on the phone informed her she had to be on the premises by a quarter to six, would earn an hour and a half’s pay, for which she would have a specified number of floors to clean. Rose nodded her consent. Miss Brown then explained how to get there, and because Rose had a good head, she nodded once again to everything without needing to write any of it down.

She had got up at four-thirty, moaning. “Dem sleep underground, wear wig pan dem head even wen dem got a head full of hair, an dem get up go work inna di middle a di night. Bwoy, is wat a race a people dis is…”

“Sorry, girls!” Lou would say in a breathless hurry and a clank of her keys as she came rushing up to the main entrance, outing her fag, accepting, without rancour, the stern regard of her grumbling, frost-bitten workmates. “We’ll ’ave to give it a bit of elbow grease this time, won’t we?”

The managerials started turning up around eight. A cleaner or two, whoever wasn’t in a hurry, might still be indulging in a chat in the tea-room over a mug of tea and a custard cream, though on a late day, the women would still be dashing around wiping away dust and setting files with a brisk irreverence back on their shelves.

“Another night on the town, Lou?” one of the managerials would always end up joking as he walked in with a newspaper folded under his armpit, or removed a tie from his jacket pocket to hang it up on the coat stand for later.

“Wish it were, wish it were…”

At the bus-stop, her hour and a half done, Rose’s mind running through the things she had to do before her main job in the pie factory started. She could do a quick bit of shopping and have a look in at Pollard’s to see if their children’s underwear had come down in price. Oh, and the rent had to be paid. Miss Brown, though friendly, was strict, she’d send Carmen to each of the tenants on a Thursday evening – rent due tomarra –  before they had the chance to squander it over the weekend. Four or five people, waiting at the bus-stop. Always the same faces, engaged in small talk about the weather. About the prices. One particular man had smiled at Rose a couple of times before, had said “Good morning!” to her once. Rose just look him up and down, is what im tink im doing?

“Bet it’s not half as nice here as it is where you come from, is it?”

“I beg yu pardon?” She span round, irritated by the sudden voice so close to her ear.

“Said it’s probably much nicer where you come from, ain’t it?”

No answer.

“Sunshine all the year round, white beaches, warm sea, lazy days… That’s wot we fink anyway, but if it was such a bed a roses, you lot wouldn’t all be here in the first place, right?” he winked at her. “Where you from, the West Indies?”

“Yes, if yu must know,” she said, giving him no encouragement, unused to people – to white men – just marching up and making conversation with her like that.

“Yes, I must know. Gotta be careful wot I say, don’t I? Africans and West Indians don’t like to be mixed up, do they?”

A man of about forty, or so she guessed, she could never tell. Roughly her height, fair-haired, slightly ginger, he had those watery blue eyes and that pale skin. Rose could see the veins in his head, thumping greeny-blue. He looked like a fish.

“You from Jamaica?”

She eyed him critically, “That’s right.”

“That’s important to know too, you see. I can’t well talk about ‘small island people’ if I ain’t sure you’re not one of them.”

Rose had to laugh in spite of herself.

“Oh yes. I know a bit or two about John Small and him got money. That’s wot you say, innit?”

Kuya! Rose nearly dead laughing.

Other people in the queue turn round. Turn back.

Good Lord, this long long time she never laugh like that! Not since she leave home. A deep, deep-from-the-belly laugh, petering out against her will, leaving behind the embers of a smile to flick at the corners of her young, cupid lips, too tender, too pretty to harbour the hardship they had grown to know.

“Kuya! Lord have mercy!”

“Oh yes! I’ve gotta few Jamaican friends down at the docks where I work. Nicest bunch, they are, really nice bunch. Livened up the place no end, if you ask me.” He smiled into her bright, moist eyes.

“Yu work in the docks?”

“That’s right. Used to be a taxi-driver. Know London like the back o’ me hand, I do, but, well,” he sniffed, “that’s anovva story. Hated it in the docks at first but as I said, oh, here’s me bus,” he shuffled forward with the others, “anyhow, my name’s Jack. See you again sometime, I hope.” He got on, took a seat near the window, nodded to her as the bus pulled away with a hiss, then a purr.

 

 

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‘Strands of fate magically interwoven to give you a reggae-type experience full of pain, sweat, suffering, pride, poise and grace.’ (Goodreads)

 

Available as paperback or ebook.

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Long Time: reach safe

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.

“Yes?”

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.

Shut eye.

Open eye.

London, April —, 19—

Dear Junie,

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.

Yours,

Rose

 

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)

walk-cover-w-s

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The Landing

The plane landed with a bump. Rose squeezed herself into the seat and when she opened her eyes the plane was still racing along the runway so she dug her forefingers into the rectangular metal ashtrays and closed her eyes once more. She had tried to learn the national anthem in case, after all, how could she just pick up herself and go all that way and not know a thing. Nobody she knew had learned the British national anthem; they had better things to worry about. United Kingdom. Rose could think of nothing. Two addresses ensconced in a pocket of her handbag, that was it. United Kingdom. Great Britain. The Motherland. Hinglan

This was it, that moment that had been beckoning as she stood over the grave of her starved child, for whom the corn she had planted in desperation had not grown quickly enough, despite good J.A. sunshine and her nightly prayers. That moment was now real,  rapping at her door. The plane had not crashed, even as it had swooped down over the island, pecking like a famished crow at a crumb. She had not been sucked out of the emergency exit, nor had her food got up of its own accord to float around. And there was air enough for everyone, like in a train, really, only you couldn’t open the windows.

The captain spoke a few words. It was a chilly day in London, they could expect repeated drizzly spells. One or two moans on board, one or two jovial remarks that the captain should take them back.

“Thank you for travelling with us. I hope you had a pleasant journey,” the English stewardess speak like a book.

“Very. Tank yu.” Rose stepped out of the aircraft. Into the Motherland.

from Long Time Walk on Water:

‘a journey of self-discovery, beautifully crafted, and one that will leave the reader as changed as Simon’s characters. Highly, highly recommended.’ (Amazon)

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Long Time: A hard day’s done, but there’s still serious work ahead

Just back in from work that very moment, Jack was standing in the hallway, and although he hadn’t been round the flat yet, hadn’t even taken his jacket off, although the flat was making all the noises it usually made – telly buzzing, fridge wheezing, waterpipes, the lot, he sensed in an instant –

“Nina? Ben, where’s ya mum?”

“Dunno. Said that she was going out n that you’re not the only one who’s got cronies.”

With a sigh, expelled from the caverns of his fed up lungs, Jack:

hung his jacket up next to her empty peg,

pushed his working boots into place along the skirting board next to where her outdoor shoes were missing,

threw himself into a chair in the kitchen.

Them in the flat upstairs, trampling around again. Why couldn’t their kids just

s-i-t

d-o-w-n

and behave themselves, sit down and watch telly quietly like his kids did.

“Oi! You up there!” one hand cupped over his mouth. An angry voice carries far. Propels saliva. Turns the veins that scale the temple hard, blue.

Pack of anti-social bleeders! What he wouldn’t give to get off that council estate, but it was hopeless; with only two kids? They would need another three before getting on the list for somewhere bigger. He felt sorry enough as it was that his two had to stay cooped up in the house all evening, all day when they were on school holidays, but he would not have them mixing with the kids round there. Not that he had anything against his two inviting a friend home so they could watch telly or play upstairs, but they would not be going out. A few months back it must have been by now, when Ben had run in crying because some of the boys on the estate had thrown stones at him. His father had simply tutted with even greater disdain for his son than he had shown for the gratuitous violence impregnating the headlines of his local newspaper, had just said, “Stop crying, you sissy. They’re just jealous. Riff-raff like that don’t know the meaning of the word family. Next time they chuck stones at you, you pick up a couple yourself and pelt them back good and proper.” The following evening Jack had braved the cold, had gone down with Ben to practise pelting stones at a wooden wall, some of them council kids watching at a distance.

“Look at em,” Jack head-butted their way, “gawping like they’ve never seen a son having fun with his dad before.”

Ben pelted, harder, like a cricketer, imagining them council kids yelping every time he slung a stone, every time he got them right where he wanted to, egged on by his dad, teaching him the right angle, guiding his pitch. Inside, behind the ostentatious ruffling of hair or vocabular praise, it pained Jack Dunbar to have to teach his son how to pelt other boys, poor little bleeders they were, with all the cards stacked against them no wonder they turned rough. They pelted for ages, till their shoulders ached and them council kids had wandered off, one by one, driven home by hunger and the cold. The next time Ben asked if he could play out, his father still said,

“No.”

 

 

 

‘Words dance, breathe, rejoice, titillate, pulsate, quiver in this brilliantly crafted volume of what may be her best-loved novel. Couldn’t put it down.’ (Amazon)

 

From Long Time Walk on Water:

 

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Count yourself lucky

Emily Thompson, Rose to her friends, emigrates from Jamaica to the Motherland, England, in search of a better life. James Dunbar. London lad. Jack is what he answers to. Picking his way through the muckier incidents of life, he consoles himself that things will get better. They happen to meet at a bus-stop, Emily and Jack.

Long Time Walk on Water; a tale of how the humble live whilst waiting for their dreams to come true.

*

“When did she go, then?”

“Oh, she left just before I got home from work yesterday. I dunno wot the hell she’s playing at.”

“Wot is it with you young people, James?” She had given him such a nice name; James Dunbar, she couldn’t bear the way he let everyone call him Jack, as though he were a commoner.  Or somefing. “I ask myself why you young people can’t get your act together, eh? I’m sure I don’t know.”

“Mum, you gonna stay wivva kids this evening till I get home from work, or ain’t ya?”

“Someone around here has to have a sense a duty…”

“See you this evening then. Oh, and mum-” quick peck on the cheek, “Taa.”

Nana Irene lived a few streets away in the upper half of a maisonette, although she had submitted numerous applications to the council’s housing agency to get them to move her down. On account of her legs, but that stupid young thing at the desk seemed more interested in her nails than in Irene Dunbar and tried to give her the impression she was being ungrateful. “I ain’t looking for charity!” Irene had tapped on the counter, indignantly. “My husband’s fought in two world wars and I’ve brought up four respectable kids, so I’ll not ’ave you reduce me to begging, you silly little tart, wot I want is my fair due!” But Irene had given in now. The only way she would be coming out of that maisonette was feet first. That’s how grateful society is. Do your duty, then they treat you like a sponger. The only ones to ever show any appreciation were the grand-children, Irene smiled as Nina and Ben pressed themselves lovingly against her, delighted by her surprise visit.

“You doing well at school, Ben?”

“Course I am!”

“And you, Nina, d’you like going a school now n having lots of boys and girls to play wiv?”

“Yeah!” Nina sing-songed. She liked to wear her hair in pigtails when she went to school.

“That’s good to hear! Now, go n put your clothes on then come n watch telly with Nana, okay?”

The pair pounded up the stairs to their bedroom, where there was a wardrobe for the two of them, a bunk bed squeezed in behind the door, and the table Monica had put by the window. For homework. Monica had likewise submitted several applications to the council’s housing agency, but the council said; two kids in a two-bedroomed flat? And both parents earning? Count yourself lucky.

*

            The phone booths were always pissy round here, and the doors too heavy to be kept ajar with your heel. Monica had to leave her overnight bag:

a pair of slippers

a hairbrush

two pairs of nylon tights

a bundle of underwear (her best ones)

a dress (she was wearing one already)

a skirt

two tops

a photo of the children in their school uniform

another one of the two, taken by the door-to-door photographer in August

outside on the pavement. She dialled the number; had wanted to laugh, to sound carefree, yet no sooner had the receiver been picked up at the other end, then shame, rage, helplessness and all sorts of other vehemently felt inarticulations raced in a salty flow from her eyes and nose, so that all she could splutter was Thanks, she knew she could count on her. Wot? Oh, just a couple o days, she said.

*

‘The most beautiful writing I have ever read.‘   (Christiane S, France)

‘Words dance, breathe, rejoice, titillate, pulsate, quiver in this brilliantly crafted volume of what may be her best-loved novel. Couldn’t put it down.’ (Amazon)

‘when I fell into an armchair at my gran’s place after work, in her over-heated, over-furnished council house where the telly was almost always on, and in between my gran would tell stories, I started looking at her anew. I discovered a singer. I looked closer. Saw the warrior. Looked closer still, and there she was; the heroine. Once she told me about this Englishman at the bus-stop, she was convinced he fancied her. It was out of the question. Of course. Me nevva even look at him twice, she told me. She never mentioned it again, either, and that would normally have been the end of it, had my mind not seized upon the potential of a Rose Thompson, Emily to her friends, and a James Dunbar (they call him Jack, from the 7th floor), unimpeded by the values transmitted by their respective cultural backgrounds. Long Time Walk on Water was born.’ (Joan Barbara Simon, interviewed by Lucy Walton for Female First)

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Big city bumpkin

Gertrude got off the bus in the big city. It didn’t take her long to find out where the well-off lived, and she headed immediately for that part of town. The big city. There were more shops here than she had ever seen in her lifetime. And people! Black people dressed like she never knew they could. And women in high heels and make-up. It made her feel unattractive and primitive. She’d never look like these women who swung their hips and pouted, touching their styled hair and talking back to the men who stopped to enjoy the sight of them and whistle nastiness. Look! There was a black lady with a little bitty dog on a lead. A dog. On a lead. She wore a long blonde wig, tottered along in her gold high-heel shoes and the men were just about going crazy over that blonde hair and them high heels. One stopped his car in the middle of the road, hung his head out the window, Hello lovely, wha mek yu no get in it, lek me give yu a ride. She said No, she didn’t want a ride, she knew he did, she chose to wiggle on her way, sweet-smiling to a chorus of tooting, of whistling and “pussy sweet!”. Gertrude stood there in her country frock and chunky plaits. Me is a quashie; a real country bumpkin. Closed her eyes and sighed. Never. If she had finished school and got into nursing college… but she pushed the thought back to where it belonged, out of her mind.

Two parts of town Gertrude had to go to. The well-off black district and the well-off white district. She could have taken a bus but she had time. Besides, the one case she had wasn’t even heavy. A bashed-up, scratched-up, thrown-out-by-some-indulgent-white-man-seemed-like-centuries-ago old brown suitcase that had been in Gertrude’s family longer than she herself had. Some grandparent or great-grandparent had brushed it off and taken it home. A woman, no doubt; the men too proud to sully their fingers with a handout however badly they might need it, nevertheless making full use of it and only too quick with the word my when it went missing and they went crazy, threatening to bust up the cabin and bust in heads if it didn’t turn up that minute. Ruby had taken it with her when she had left. Weren’t nobody in that house going nowhere apart from her. Apart from downhill. She had given it to Gertrude when the latter had brought home the best grades in the whole school together with a letter of congratulation from the headmaster. One-son wouldn’t be needing the case, the way things were going, Ruby figured. Ricky, neither, so she had given it to Gertrude, unceremoniously, telling her; wen is time fi yu go away an learn some more, yu gwine need a case put yu tings inna. One of the hinges was loose and the handle was fraying, so you couldn’t load it too much. As Gertrude walked down the street, the suitcase tap tapped reassuringly against her leg with every other step.

 

from Long Time Walk on Water, available at:
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She knew, alright…

Gertrude was putting on weight. She wouldn’t swear on it, but she thought her skin was changing. The colour ripened, the texture, well, and her breasts… were sore at times she would have to thumb them quiet.

She lifted the latch to the back door and stepped into the kitchen.

“Good aftanoon,” she said to her mother.

Ruby looked up from her sewing, “Good aftanoon.” Her foot-operated sewing machine stood in a corner, but whenever it came to stitching up hems or sewing on buttons, she would sit in the kitchen and listen to the garden noises. Taking the thread between her teeth, she would snap it in two, and think; thank God she learn a bit of sewing before him come along… She had no time for those women in the village who thought they should stay at home with the children and the man should bring in the money, is who dem tink dem is, white? A woman must have a trade and can earn her own money so when him bugger off she don’t stand there stupid. And she would think what might have happened if she hadn’t had hers. She heard Gertrude moving around the kitchen. She knew, alright, and she had been waiting over two months and Gertrude had not said a word. She watched her move around the kitchen and was furious.

She had been planning it, planning it all the way home from school; what she would say to her mother. How.

“Mummy – ”

“Wat yu want,” her mother snapped back.

“Me… me need some new bra.”

Ruby knew the time had come. And she was angry.

“New bra? Is how come yu need some new bra all of a sudden?”

“Me is pregnant.”

Ruby’s hands fell still. She put her sewing aside.

“Oh yes? Is how long yu know?”

Gertrude was silent.

“Well, me arsk yu a question!”

“Dis likkle while now.”

“An?”

“An wat?”

“ ‘An wat?’ she arsk me, like seh she no know is wat me deh talk ’bout. An who di farda?”

“Dat’s nat important,” she said quietly.

Ruby’s head jolted up. “Nat important? Nat important? How yu mean seh is nat important?”

“Is nat important,” is all Gertrude could repeat, foolishly.

“Yu mean seh yu no know?”

“Me mean seh is nat important.”

Gertrude waited. And waited.

“Yu wortless piece a trash,” her mother said quietly to herself as she resumed her sewing.

Gertrude didn’t know what to do. She hadn’t been slapped. She hadn’t been thrown out. Not yet, in any case. She hadn’t even been shouted at, yet she stood nailed to the spot as the tears gushed down her face.

Mother sewed.

Daughter cried.

Mother started to turn a tune around in the back of her throat, then broke it off, as if Gertrude wasn’t worth it, muttering to herself, “Wortless. Wortless.”

And when she heard the tune broken off, Gertrude felt her worthlessness fill the room and her tears would not stop.

You worthless piece of trash, her mother had called her. And for the rest of that day neither spoke another word.

 

from Long Time Walk on Water, available at:
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