She looked away, annoyed that he should have seen her looking up and down the street. Looking for someone. His grin got wider with every step he took, teased by every novelty he was able to detect about her, even from that distance — new hairdo, make-up, nails, new clothes (nice little figure), my God — so that by the time he had reached the bus-stop, James Dunbar was brandishing the irrepressible smile of an admirer.
“Good marning.” She could hardly keep her smile back, either.
After swallowing, “… who’s the lucky man, then?”
“Is wa yu mean?”
“You off to get married, or somefing?”
“Me? Married? Yu too styupid! Yu tink if me going to get married me would stan up here at di bus-stop?”
“That’s right. A Rolls for you… anyhow I’m glad to hear you’re not getting married.” He couldn’t tear his eyes off her.
“So am I.”
“Emily… you… you look absolutely stunning. Took my breff away when I saw you just then.”
She chose to say nothing.
“I think about you quite a lot, you know, Emily. I know I don’t stand a chance, but I like to think about you.”
She remained silent.
Jack: We’ve been meeting all these months, and I really look forward ta seeing you every time. Seeing you warms me up so much, it makes me start the day on a good note, know wot I mean? Anyone who had you for a girlfriend should think himself lucky…
He’d been practising for ages, all the things he might say, he could say to get her to go out with him. He had worked out how he would stand and what he would do with his legs, with his hands and that. And now that she was standing there before him like some beauty queen, he could feel himself bursting to say something, but dammit, he couldn’t remember his lines.
Jack: There’s a mixed couple round where I live they look so good together. They’re the other way round, mind. She’s white and he’s –
He’d never actually said the word black to a black person before. He didn’t know if she would like it.
Jack: Well, they’re the other way round. Not like –
and that word us got stuck in his throat.
Jack: Always holding hands, they are. Real in love, like. (sigh) Lovely, innit?
Then, wetting his lips,
Jack’s inner voice: Go on, Jack! Get it out. Now or never!
Jack: It’d be so nice if I could just take you out one afternoon. You know, we could go for a walk somewhere nice and have a nice meal somewhere… the summer’s over, we won’t have that many sunny days left n it’s already getting darker quicker in the evenings…
Jack’s inner voice: There! You see! Weren’t that hard, was it? Give yourself a pat on the back, mate (laughing proudly). A whacking great pat on the back!
Jack: Emily, what do you say?
Emily (in a no hurry): I’m a very busy person. Me don’t have no time for tings like dat.
Jack (panting): Whenever you’re free, I’m free. What about weekends?
Emily: You tink me gwine go out wid some white man me know notting ’bout part from him name Jack?
Jack: What about a Sunday afternoon?
Jack’s inner voice: She hadn’t said no outright, had she? She hadn’t said no…
Emily: Must tink me no have someting better to do wid me time…
Jack (persisting): Nobody works on a Sunday afternoon…
Emily: … tink we let go and loose like fi unnu woman dem.
Their bus chugged its way up to them he ignored it they could catch the next one –
Emily (irritated): Cho man, me ears deh eat grass! (shrugs her shoulders at some botheration)
Jack: Beg you pardon?
Emily: Say me fed up a hear about it!
Ding ding! The conductor rang the bell twice. The bus, obedient, tame, pulled away. Jack hopped round to the other side of her.
Jack: Wot is it you’re afraid of, tell me. You afraid you might actually like it, perhaps?
Emily: Me nat afraid a anyting you can do me. Me got me Protector.
Jack: Then why don’t you come! (imploring) Emily!
Couldn’t she see what she was doing to him, couldn’t she feel that he would walk the earth for her – could she really not?
Jack: It would do us both the world of good…
He could think of nothing more to say as he stood beside her, staring ahead sullenly, irked by the mindless chatter of the people around him why the hell didn’t they just shut their traps!
Battle break out on Emily Thompson face but she keep her mouth tight shut, yaa. The next bus just turn the corner and she can’t afford to miss it –
Jack: Shall we meet at one?
Emily: One is too early, man!
Jack: What about at two?
Emily (brief pause): Where?
Jack: Wot’s wrong wiv ’ere, at the bus-stop?
“Two please, mate.” He held his hand out for the tickets, “Taa, mate.”
Both stared straight ahead, their bodies erect, not saying a word to each other, like a couple after a quarrel trying to play it down in public.
“Pollard’s is the next but one,” he said, still smiling. “Shall I get off here?” his head inclined a trace in her direction. Red fingernails, she had. Just like a lady.
“Not if yu don’t want to.”
“Oh, right,” he whispered.
Rose tug on the cord and it go Ting-ting!
Jack scurried to his feet, holding his unbuttoned jacket against his chest, out of her way, his eyes on her the whole time.
Rose looked down at him, wanted to say –
then made her way to the back of the bus.
‘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 English man at the bus-stop who fancied her. It was out of the question. She never mentioned it again. But my mind 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)
‘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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