Tag Archives: Long Time Walk On Water

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.


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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 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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From the corner of her eye

Ruby checked her from the corner of her eye. Checked her daughter bending over her book, but not seeing a goddamn thing that was marked on the page. Ruby could smell trouble from afar, it having acquainted itself with her so intimately for so long. She looked at her daughter. And knew. Watched her. And waited. She herself would do nothing. Was Gertrude waiting for her to charge in and accuse her? She would not. Gertrude would have to come to her. Her thoughts turned to her eldest son. My son, she thought, I did you wrong. I did you wrong…

A gospel broke from her lips, pushing its way up from the back of her throat. Curling and twirling like smoke around a spotlight. Gertrude turned an ear. And knew. The melody swirled over to her and told her what it knew. Told her of pain and shame. Of faith and broken pride. Told her of visions and promises. Of endurance. Ruby closed her eyes, bulbous tears flowing on the inside to the bitter-sweet tune outside. She hummed the melody which spoke to her daughter as a secret mother tongue. The last time she had sung like that was when her man had taken it into his head that life would be better without them. He went. Ruby had sung the whole evening. She never sang when there were men in the house. She sang now, and Gertrude drank her pain and shame. Stroked her faith. Her broken pride. Saw her visions. Heard the promises. Witnessed the endurance. And she felt dirty. Too dirty to be in the company of this woman with gospel curling from her mouth. Ruby closed her eyes and sang. And when she sang, the music unbuttoned her pain with its gentle fingers and stood aside to watch it chiffon to the floor. And when she stopped, the air was full of her presence, and she knew that she was now sitting there alone.


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Gertrude: the long way home

Gertrude hauled her purchases home along the long, well-known dirt road. She kept as close as she could to the edge, sometimes having to pick her way through the discarded rubbish strewn along the way; to step past the rusting Coca-cola cans or the squashed Red Stripe. Boxes and wrappers bleached by the sun skirted the road with their dry leaves or else formed a grey mash after the rains had fallen. Every now and then, a tree cast its shade thoughtfully over the villagers on foot with their heavy bags, their chickens hanging upside down clucking away at a nervous premonition, or the children who grew tired along the way and tried to play up. The villagers on foot. Weren’t they all. The sun lashed down on Gertrude as she stopped, put her bags down for a fraction, changed them over and picked them up again. She wished that for once, just for once, someone else would put this hour-and-a-quarter stretch behind them. Two strapping brothers, but it was always her. They’d lie around doing nothing, sit back with a beer in the hand or else be off gallivanting somewhere whilst she, she had to work like a horse for them. Buy and fetch and carry and cook. Wash and iron. Sweep and wipe. Polish and pluck and peel. And there was no use protesting. She was her mother’s only girl. Their father had upped and left as they all did sooner or later, having been brought up with very little respect for their female counterpart, and immune to the notion of responsibility. And if by some chance you found yourself with one of the good ones, you’d have to beat the other women away with a stick and plague yourself daily with the thought that today someone else might have won him to her. So you question and you dig for secrets and sooner or later he can´t stand it anymore so he ups and goes anyway. Menfolk. Sought and coveted and pampered and loved. Attacked and hated and forgiven. Menfolk. Soft as a raw egg and no woman will respect you. Hard as a stone, you’ll find those who like it, but every woman – every head in a scarf, every heart in a chest, every bottom in a tight skirt – was on the lookout for a piece of toast – hot and rough but melting in your mouth. Toast, golden brown, coated with a spoonful of honey to run down the side and stick to your fingers… Menfolk. Laugh, flirt, drink beer. Spit. Strut. Slap. Sing. Fall into a chair and wait for dinner. Pull you close. Touch your breasts. Ride you. Love you. Leave you. Need you. Menfolk. What else was there to do but to resign to them, yield up one’s flesh and string together the precious happy moments, like pearls; resign and yield whilst you still could, and afterwards to collect your due in the perfumed balm of sisterhood.


from Long Time Walk on Water, available at:
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