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Rum an Coke

About the author
Jacob Ross was born in Grenada, and has lived in Britain since 1984. He is a poet, playwright, journalist, novelist and creative writing tutor.


Norma Browne got up early, cried a bit, stared at her hand and muttered to herself with a reluctant, bitter conviction, ‘Was a waste. A waste!’

Nobody heard her except perhaps the boy; but even if he had, he would not remember much, come daylight.

Come daylight, he would lurch out of the house hungry, ill and angry, his body starved of something that neither she nor any food on earth could satisfy. He would be away a couple of hours or maybe the whole day and then he would return to lie below the house, the turbulence gone except in the working of his eyes. He would not be able to look at her, not until the shivering started again very late in the evening and he began, once more, to hit her.

She got up early because a thought had nudged her out of sleep, an idea – amazingly straightforward – which, with the coming daylight became a focused resolve.

She waited until he left, then dressed herself clumsily but quickly in the light blue dress that, fifteen years ago, she’d bought for his Christening and which ten years later, she also wore to take him to that special school in St. George’s.

He was a beautiful boy then, clear-eyed and quick, his little body full of purpose and surprises. ‘Remarkably intelligent’ was what the teachers said; and to prove they were not lying, they’d written it on a pretty piece of parchment paper, framed it and handed it to her.

Not like now, she thought. Not like now at all – because what she used to feel then went way past pride. And if, in those days, she felt embarrassed or even terrified, it was only because she could hardly believe that someone like her could be so blessed.

With the same awkward haste, Norma Browne knelt and reached beneath the iron bed. She dragged out what looked like a pillow and emptied its contents on the floor. Several objects rolled out of the wads of fabric she would never use for anything but kept anyway, ‘just in case’: a couple of heavy silver bracelets, a ring of pure Guyana gold, an old passport with a very clear photo of a man that looked exactly like her son and a small blue book on which ‘The Co-operative Bank’ was printed in large letters.

She took the little book, stuffed it down her bosom and went to the main road to wait for the only bus that travelled twenty miles, twice a day, to and from St. George’s.

It was evening when she returned. The migrating birds that spent the November and December months in the swamp half a mile away, were already dropping like black rain out of an inflamed sky and settling on the mangroves.

She went straight to the bedroom to replace the book and leave a small but heavy parcel beneath the bed. Then she began to look for things to do. She would have gone to the garden the top of the hill above the village but she’d already sown more corn and peas than she had ever sown before, she’d weeded the sweet potatoes, reinforced the mud rows with wattle and bamboo, trimmed the bananas and cleared the stones which, every year, appeared miraculously in the soil. She’d put new campèche pillars under the house, added a kitchen and re-laid the yard with stones that she’d gathered from the roadside. Anything that hard work could possibly achieve to ease her days, she’d already done. And if it were possible to undo it all and start again she would gladly do so, because hard work saved her from remembering – even though she’d learnt that not remembering was not the same as forgetting. Not remembering was holding back the shame, or redirecting it the way the drains she dug during the Rainy Season turned excess water away from her garden.

She saw him coming and she got up, studying his face, his walk, the set of his mouth. It was always important that she catch his mood, because it determined how her day went, although when he returned he was never violent. He would have gone over to Teestone’s house next door or to some friend of his and pumped his veins with a needleful of that milky stuff which did such dreadful things to him.

The milky stuff, she did not understand. She thought she had already seen or imagined every awful thing there was but nothing in her life had prepared her for what they called de niceness: niceness, because of the way it made them feel, they said; niceness that had sucked the life out of her child and replaced it with another sort of existence, an animated deadness that had reduced her to nothing in his eyes.

Before the deadness was the hunger. He was hungry all the time and she fed him more and more while he seemed to grow thinner by the hour. He’d also become secretive and had lost the quiet temper he was born with. When the shivering started and there was nothing she could do for him, he would scream at her and hit her.

And sometimes she wondered which was worse: his torment or her own shame before the village. Once she caught him doing it to himself panic-ridden and slobbering until he’d fed the beast inside his veins.

For this – for this especially – she did not blame him because he was her child and once, she had known him differently. True, she’d seen him do a few things, some of which were a violence against her sense of decency – like the time she caught him with his cousin, younger than him by two years on her bed and she’d almost killed him – but apart from that Daniel was a perfect boy.

pure niceness
She would never know how it started, or what it was she did or did not do that made him need ‘de niceness’ which consumed him so completely. But now she knew who gave it to her boy and that was partly why she went to town. Nobody had told her; they’d only confirmed the truth for her.

It was that gold chain she bought him as a present that made her know. He’d asked for it before he did the exams, set himself his own condition, told her if he got an ‘A’ for all of them, she should buy him a gold chain with his name written on it. And of course she’d sent her macmère Grace, to St. George’s to get it straight away. Then she hid it in her pillowcase and waited. And when he came home one day and told her that he’d got all his ‘A’s, she went straight to the bedroom and brought it out. That amazed him, not the chain but the fact that she believed he would get the ‘A’s just because he said so.

So when she saw that gold chain around Teestone’s neck it suddenly made sense. Everything made sense: the house Teestone was improving, the way the children flocked to him, the girls warring amongst themselves for his attention.

And from then, over the months, she’d studied him. Teddy Stonewall – that boy! That boy who’d never seen a classroom in all his life, who’d never lifted a finger for his mother, who’d grown up by the roadside near the rumshop watching the world slip past; that boy who, having worked for nothing, wanted everything. And over the past months she saw the way it all came to him: the pretty clothes, the new, red Suzuki bike, other people’s children. Then the large cars with darkened windows began to arrive from St. George’s.

She would watch them come and go till well past midnight or till the beast awakened in Daniel’s veins and she had to turn to him.

At first her interest in Teestone was incidental, no more than the curiosity of an adult in the goings-on of the young. That was in the early days when she knew nothing of the powder. She had seen Daniel suck it up his nostrils a couple of times and believed him when he told her it was no different from a sweet, a new something to tantalise the young; and she thought that it would pass like those little obsessions her boy developed from time to time and then relinquished for his books. Besides, it didn’t use to make him ill and he hadn’t begun to hit her.

Why she didn’t think of going to see Teestone sooner amazed her. It was as if the idea had been ripening inside her and now that it had done so, she couldn’t wait to meet the young man whom a powder had made so powerful, the whole world was frightened to displease him.

The rest of the day burnt itself out rapidly. Its charred remains hung indecisively over the houses of the village. Her boy had begun to stir in sleep.

With a series of rapid, nervous movements she straightened her dress, left her house and crossed over to Teestone’s yard.

He came out when she called, his body blocking the doorway completely. She had to look up to examine his face against the darkness of the door-mouth. This she did quickly before bringing her head back down. Now she watched him with her eyes upturned.

‘What you want, Miss Lady.’

‘I want to come in,’ she said.

‘Come in where!’ He glared down at her. ‘Come inside o my house! What you want in my house?’

‘Is someting,’ she lowered her voice and her eyes, afraid that he would not let her in. ‘Is someting I want to buy. I kin pay,’ she added hastily.

‘I tell you I sellin any ting? What you waan to buy!’ He was still fuming but his voice, like hers, was lowered.

‘I waan some niceness,’ she said flatly and lifted her eyes at him. He paused a moment, shifted his body and she slipped under his arm. Teestone pulled the door behind him.

Now that the door was closed, he was suddenly transformed, almost like another person. Relaxed, smiling, he drew a wooden stool from under the mahogany table in the middle of the room and placed it before her. Carefully, Norma Browne lowered herself.

Teestone grinned at her unease. ‘Miss Norma what you say you want?’

‘I jus waan some, some of dat ting dat make my son, make my son so happy.’ She halted on the last word, made it sound like the most frightful thing on earth. But she managed a smile and that put Teestone at ease. He seated himself a few feet in front of her. He smiled wider and she noticed the gold tooth. She did not remember him having a gold tooth. He had bad teeth anyway, the sort that prised his lips apart permanently.

The shirt she also noticed, was of a soft material that dropped as if it were liquid; made, no doubt, from one of those fabulous materials she had seen in pictures in Grace’s magazines, and in the large stores through whose wide glass windows you feasted your eyes but never entered because the light-skinned woman at the counter and the way everything was laid out just told you that you! you’d better not come in.

‘What you offerin?’ he whispered, and for a moment she did not understand him. ‘What you have?’ he repeated.

She allowed her eyes to wander around the room before easing her fingers down her bosom and pulling out an old handkerchief. It was rolled into a knot. The thin hands held it curiously, the curl of the fingers accentuating their frailty. There was a scar at the back of her left hand, as if she had been burnt there, very badly, once. The fingers un-knotted the bit of cloth to reveal a ball of crumpled notes.

‘A thousand dollars,’ she said and dropped it on the table. It was all she had. The gesture said so, that and her trembling hands. She was never likely to have that much again, for it had taken a lot from her to get it. One thousand dollars that would have gone to her boy along with the house and the piece of land that had been in the family for as long as anyone could remember.

Teestone did not reach for the money, in fact he looked at her as if he were seeing her for the first time; a sudden probing interest, and something like suspicion because she was offering all of it to him. But she was an old woman, in trouble and confused because her son was in trouble and confused. Because now, her son belonged to him, his eyes barely concealed his hostility. The stupid kind. The kind he despised most: those women who would do anything to please their sons, who never saw the sky because, all their lives, they were too busy looking down, digging and scratching the earth; demeaning and denying themselves for what? It always puzzled him how people like that ever came by money. A thousand dollars! And it was already his. All of it. It had always been his! For if she had not given it to him herself, her son would have, eventually, bit by bit. They were all coming now, these old women. When their children could no longer get to him on their own, they were the ones who came and begged for them. Norma Browne was not the first, and she would not be the last. And the best part was, these days he did not have to do a thing. These days money wherever it was, made its way to him.

‘Hold on,’ he told her, opening the door behind him and disappearing into his bedroom.

Slowly, her eyes travelled around the room.

In the centre of a tiny table in the corner there was a framed picture of Teestone, his mother, and the man his mother had lived with but who, she knew without a doubt, wasn’t his father at all, although she’d made the man believe he was. To the right of that there was another photo of a child.

Having nothing better to do, Norma Browne examined the picture of the baby sitting on a straw mat staring out at the camera with a child’s wide-eyed, open-mouthed bewilderment. He hadn’t grown out of that wide, wet mouth, nor indeed those eyes that seemed smaller than they really were because of the heaviness of the lids. She replaced the picture, cautiously.

He was rebuilding the house his mother had left him, or rather he was replacing the wood with concrete, which meant erecting blocks against the board walls outside. When they were set in cement he would knock the planks out one by one from inside. Now, even before he’d done that, the wet concrete was seeping through the boards, leaving a pale sediment which, when she passed her hand along it, left an ugly trace of powder and tiny bits of wood on her fingers. Electrical wires ran everywhere: along the floorboards, the ceiling and the walls, and she realised that the rumours she’d heard were true. Teestone was bringing electricity to his house. Or he was having that man who came in the long, black car on Fridays – that man they called The Blade – make the government do it for him. A couple of large, soft chairs lay upturned in a corner, completely covered with transparent plastic, and to the left of her there was a gaping hole through which she could see the earth below the house. Perhaps they had opened it up, she speculated, because he was replacing the wooden pillars too.

The smell of concrete was everywhere: intrusive, corrosive – as brash as the youths who, wherever she turned, were remaking everything, upsetting everything, undoing everything – the way wood mites secretly hollowed out a house and all the while you did not know that you were surrounded by nothing until a small wind passed one day and blew it down around you.

She was still contemplating this scene of quiet devastation when Teestone came out with a small brown bag, the type the shop sold sugar by the half pound in. He did not place it in her hand but on the mahogany table in front of them. She took it up with a confident gesture and for a moment, in fact for the first time, she seemed different, self-possessed.

She opened the bag carefully and clumsily dragged out the small plastic sac that was folded inside it.

‘S’not a lot,’ she said, shocked. ‘Not a lot for all my money.’

Teestone laughed then, laughed till the fat vein at the side of his neck stood out. Fascinated, she watched that neck-vein throb and pulse with laughter. ‘S’what you expect? Dis, dis worth more dan it weight in gold, y’know dat? More-dan-it-weight-in-gold.’ He spoke the last few words as if they were one, as though he’d rehearsed it till it sounded that way: rhythmic and convincing. ‘Ask anybody.’ Teestone added, emphatically.

‘Didn know,’ she apologised and then she brought it to her nose. She froze, fixing very dark eyes on him. ‘It s’pose to smell like dat? Like, uh, baby powder?’ She was looking at him closely but he did not notice this. What he saw was a small woman, old before her time, almost doubled over with hard work, with a nervous hand and a frightened voice, trying to get some stuff off him. His contempt had denied him any of the details. And so he had no sense of her: the very, very steady eyes, the tight-set mouth that had lost or given up the habit of laughter, a generous forehead partly covered by an old head wrap and a tendency to follow his every movement.

Her question took him completely by surprise. The slight narrowing of his eyes and the way he tried to close his mouth without really managing it, confirmed her suspicion.

‘It not s’pose to smell o baby powder,’ she told him quietly, a new hardness in her voice.

Is so it smell, he was about to tell her, and ask her what de hell she know ’bout, niceness anyway, but her directness stopped him, that and her very steady gaze. He snatched the packet off the table and went back inside the bedroom. This time he returned sooner, dropped a different packet on the table and sat back heavily.

Norma took it up and passed it under her nose. She could see by his expression that he wanted her to leave. He was tired, or perhaps, now that his business with her was over, he wanted to get rid of her. But she was not finished with him yet.

She wanted to know how she should prepare the stuff and he showed her. Her hands shook when she took the needle to examine the thin, evil thread of metal that slipped so easily into flesh. The first time she saw her boy use it, it had made her sick. He had taken it standing and had fallen straight back against the floorboards, his body rigid, like a tree deprived suddenly of its roots, doing nothing to break the fall. He’d cut his head badly and did not even know it, just laid there with that smile, that awful inner peace, while she turned him over and tended to his wound.

In her hand the metal shone like an amber thread of light against the lamp.

‘All of it is for de boy?’ asked Teestone, showing her his tooth.

Some was for her son, she answered, and well, she was goin to use de rest. Was de niceness nicer if she used all of it in one go?

No, he told her, and the gold tooth glimmered in the light. If she used more than he just showed her – at that he pulled out a pack of razor blades, extracted one, opened the packet he’d handed her and separated a small portion, working it with the same care that she used to mix medicine for her boy’s illness when he was a child. If she ever used more than that, he pointed at the tiny heap he’d separated, it would kill her.

‘Too much niceness does kill. Y’unnerstan?’ He laughed at his own joke, lit a cigarette and leaned back against the chair. That too was new, the long cigarettes with the bit of silver at the end; in fact everything about Teestone was new, even his face. There was not the redness in the eyes, the dreadful tiredness that went deeper than age, the loosening of something precious and essential in the face, the damp surrender of the skin – once smooth and dark and beautiful with youth – to that terrible hunger that made her son strike out at her. Teestone looked fresh and happy and as alert as a cat. Money had made him handsome.

Suddenly she felt relaxed. ‘Could ha been a nice house,’ she said, looking around the room, smiling the smallest of smiles, happier now than she had been for the past twelve months, from the time she discovered that her son was stuffing his veins with poison.

It was perhaps out of that odd sense of abeyance that she reached out suddenly and fixed Teestone’s collar; or, she might have been prodded by a desire to get an idea of what that shiny material really felt like. Her fingers brushed the side of his neck, touching the laughing vein which made him recoil with a violence she thought entirely undue.

She pretended not to notice his outrage, got up slowly and shuffled towards the door. There, she stopped and turned back to Teestone.

‘He lef school last year,’ she told him with a quiet, neutral look. ‘My Dan jus come an tell me dat he leavin school, and I say, ‘You can’t. You can’t because you always tell me dat you want to see de world, dat you’ll make me proud and build a nicer house for us when you become someting. You say you see how hard it is for me. How much I does do for you and how much I’ll always do for you.’ An he laugh, like he was laughing at someting he know inside he head. He say he don’t need to go nowhere no more to see de world, because he could see it from right dere where he lie down whole day on he back below my house. He tell me what he see sometimes and I can’t make no sense of it. Cos I can’t see inside mih little boy head. I can’t make no sense o people walkin over precipice an dem not dyin, o animal dat talk an laugh with you inside you head. I can’t. But he say he see dem and it make im happy.

But is when de niceness get bad,’ she added softly, apologetically, ‘and I can’t do nothing and I just hear im bawl an bawl an bawl, an he start hittin me, dat I does – well I does jus tek it.

Tknow sometimes he hit me – my son? Hit me like he father used to?’ Her voice had dropped to a whisper and it was thick and dark and gentle, and tinged with a terrible sadness. ‘I let im. I let im till he get tired an fall asleep. He don sleep no more like he used ter. Is like someting in he sleep, in he dreamin beatin im up same like he do wid me. All de time. Dat’s why – dat’s why I does…’

Teestone got up suddenly. ‘You get what you want, Miss Lady. Go!’

He’d already pushed open the door for her.

Trenchtown house

Norma Browne walked out into a close, choked night that had settled on the village like a blanket, and beyond which nothing – not even the screaming of those birds in the swamp – seemed to escape.

There were some girls outside, a few of them not more than fourteen years old, their precocious eyes fixing her incredulously, and then an instant later turning to the doorway with that still and hungry gaze she’d seen so often in her son during the quiet times when the shivering stopped and she’d force-fed him or tried to. She knew all of them. Some she’d even delivered before her hand went funny. Or, as children, she’d kept them for their mothers when they went off to St. George’s for medicine or some necessary thing that their hillside gardens or the sea could not provide.

At their age, she thought, life was supposed to be kinder – as it had been, even for her; an enormous promise which never lasted long, but was part of growing up. It belonged to that age. Was part of what kept you going for the rest of your life. And you should not miss it.

She decided not to go home. Her boy would be there now beneath the house laid out on his back sleeping or talking to himself. He would remain there until she came and brought him in. Or if she did not feel like it, she would leave him there until he was conscious again – perhaps some time close to morning – when he would beat her door until she let him in. Tonight he would not touch her because she had what it took to quiet him.

And that was another thing: he would not beg anymore, not offer Teestone anything – anything at all for the relief of a needle. Once she saw him beg and it had shamed her. Saw him do it yesterday and it had shamed her even more because Teestone’s refusal had brought him raging to her yard.

She took the track that ran off from the main road, which used to take him to the school he’d won the scholarship for in St. George’s.

It was a long, hard walk because the rains from the weeks before had made a drain of the mud track. The pebbles slipped under her feet and she was forced to steady her progress by grabbing at the bushes on the side. Ordinarily, she would have taken a bottle torch but that was only when she planned a visit; tonight, the parcel held firmly in her hand, it had suddenly seemed like common sense that she should visit Grace. It was Grace who first told her about Daniel: how on mornings when he left for school he got off the bus a mile away, and doubled back to feed his veins all day on Teestone’s powder. It was Grace who, without moving from her house, had found out where it came from and the nickname of the government man that visited Teestone every Friday night.

Grace was the only one to whom she spoke these days. Grace, with the cat’s eyes, who used to have the gentlest of husbands; whose five daughters had all gone away and sent her money every month, from England, America and Canada; who’d offered to buy her son’s uniform as a little present for winning the scholarship. Grace who always got much more than she deserved from life.

The back of her hand was itching; a deep, insistent itch that she could not reach because it was beneath the skin. Years ago, her left hand did not scratch that way, nor was there the white scar at the back of it where the skin had been cut away and then healed very badly. And it did not curl itself up as it did now. Many people, those who did not remember or rather those that forgot too easily, thought she had been born that way but Grace remembered that she wasn’t. Grace remembered everything.

Grace’s place was neat and small and full of colour. There were large blood-red hibiscus on her curtains and the enamelled bowls and cups, and the glasses in the cabinet had bouquets of flowers patterned all over them. Even her dress was a flower garden. God had given her eyes that shone like bits of coloured glass which, depending on her mood, were exactly like a cat’s. Her friend burned three kerosene lamps instead of one. Big lamps – the ones marked ‘Home Sweet Home’ in white on the shade – that they sold for ten dollars at Everybody’s store in St. George’s. Their combined brightness gave an amazing, shadowless quality to the room.

Grace settled her down and retreated to the kitchen. She returned with a bowl of soup and handed it to Norma who looked hesitantly up at her.

‘Eat!’ she grunted.

‘I done eat arready.’

‘Den eat again. When trouble eatin people, people have to eat back! So take de food an eat!’

The sweet smell of stewed peas and provision and salt meat almost made her faint. She hadn’t eaten and Grace knew that she was lying. These days, she’d lost her appetite for everything. Most times she forgot to eat at all.

She placed the packet on the table and took up the bowl.

Grace looked at the brown bag frankly, a question in her eyes.

‘How’s de boy?’ she mumbled, still staring at the paper bag.

‘Cost me everything. All dat was left; a thousand dollars,’ Norma said it as if the ‘everything’ was more important than the money.

‘What cost what?’ asked Grace.

‘Dat.’ Norma nudged the bag with the handle of the spoon.

Grace reached for it and opened it. The powder was on her fingers when she withdrew her hand. It could have been the effect of the candlelight on her silver bracelets but her hand seemed to tremble. The woman’s face went dead. ‘A thousand dollars! Fo-’

‘Dat,’ Norma Browne said, herself quietly appalled. ‘De rest of de money. What left. I draw it out today.’

‘Jeezas Christ, you, you buy dat poison for you boy! You mad!’

Norma Browne continued eating, but she looked up and exposed her face to Grace.

‘You think so?’ She muttered with complete unconcern. And that left a chill in Grace’s stomach.

‘Where he is?’ Grace asked.

‘Below de house. Sleepin.’ Norma swallowed. ‘He tired.’

‘Still – erm – hittin you?’ Grace went completely still.

Norma stopped short, the bit of meat held contemplatively between her thumb and index finger. She nodded.

‘First de father and den de son. God bless me I don have no boy chile. But I wish, I wish I had a boy to raise he hand and touch me! Jeezan bread, I wish dat if…’ she stopped breathless, eyes flaming in the lamplight. ‘God forgive me but I’ll make dat sonuvabitch wish he never born.’

Norma smiled, ‘Dat’s de problem. You don see? If he’s a son ova bitch, dat mean I is de bitch dat make dis son. I don wish he never born but sometimes, sometimes I wish he don live no more. To ease, to ease im up a bit.’ She looked up apologetically.

Grace grunted irritably. ‘You – you not goin to let im continue!’

‘Nuh.’ Norma licked her fingers. ‘Nuh, I goin stop im. Tonight.’

The certitude in her voice made Grace lean closer. ‘You goin ter… Jeezas, girl. Jeezas!’

‘I not goin ter, y’know. But like I say, I think of it sometimes – sometimes, all de time – for a whole day, I think of it. If y’all hear im bawlin, not to bother. Tell everybody not to bother.’ Something in her tone turned Grace’s eyes to Norma’s hand, the one that lay curled up like a bird’s claw in her lap.

That hand alone was reason enough for everyone to bother. What kind of woman would place her hand between the cogs of a machine so that she could get the insurance to send her boy off to a high-class school in St. George’s. Inside a canemill besides! And if she could do that to herself for him, what on God’s earth wouldn’t she do to make her sacrifice worthwhile?

‘Go easy,’ muttered Grace, taking up the bowl of unfinished food and heading for the kitchen. It was both a warning and a farewell and sensing this, Norma got up.

‘If you hear him,’ she started.

‘Uh-huh,’ Grace answered – a little too brusquely perhaps, without turning round. ‘Rum-an-coke is what dey call it,’ she called out from the kitchen. ‘Dey take dat ting and drink down rum right after. Dat’s what make dem mad an beat up deir own flesh-an-blood so bad.’

‘Ah know.’ Norma curled her hand around the packet. All of a sudden the room felt too bright for her. She lifted her bad hand above her eyes as if to shade them from the sun. She paused briefly at the doorway, made as if to say something then changed her mind before slipping out into the night.

Back home, she helped the boy from under the house and led him to the bedroom. He was quiet and aware of her but she knew that soon he would be shivering. She lit the lamp, undressed him and bathed him like she used to. The way she thought she’d forgotten. And then she went back to the kitchen.

There, she carved out a portion of the stuff exactly as she’d seen Teestone do. She knew where he kept his needle, knew what she had to do.

She went in. Laid the small bag down beside the door. He’d already begun to shiver.

‘C’mon Bumpsy, take this for mammy,’ she said, speaking to him exactly as she would to a baby; and he seemed, from somewhere deep inside, to recognise that tone; began curling his shirt ends between his fingers like he used to when he was a child, while he looked at her with a tired, helpless uncertainty.

‘Is for you. Tek it from Mammy,’ she urged, the voice soft and angry at the same time.

He took the needle and she watched him unflinching, while he served himself, so hungry for the ease it offered he was almost sobbing. And then while he recovered and then began floating away from her, she reached below the bed, opened the bag and took out the length of chain and the padlocks she had bought in St. George’s. Still cooing her mummy-talk, Norma Browne fastened her son against the bed.

If you hear im bawlin, she’d told Grace – who would, come morning, pass the message on to everyone – If you hear im bawlin, tell everybody not to bother. And she knew the bawling would begin soon, or some time in the morning, or perhaps the next day, and it would go on for a long, long time.

Back in the kitchen she mixed most of what remained of the powder in the paper bag. Finished, she leaned out of her window and observed the precocious girls, the motorbikes, the occupants of the occasional car sneaking back and forth between the road and Teestone’s house.

Soon the traffic would subside, the lamps go out and the whole world come to a pause while Teestone slept.

It is a warm, tense night – lonely too because there is nobody to talk to and the sound of the wind, and the great, starless emptiness above her makes her think of futile distances, of the irreconcilable vastness of the world, her own smallness, and the place she feels she no longer has in it. Because a time does reach, she thinks, when a woman can only hope for what come after she: she children and de children dat will come from dem, that would pass on and on and on, if not her name, then her blood and perhaps a memory of her; an acknowledgment that they were alive only because she existed once. Dat, dat’s what does mek life worth someting.

Her hand is itching again and she thinks that perhaps it will rain. Her hand always itches before it rains. She is slightly anxious. A low wind stirs the air, shakes the trees above the houses and leaves a smell of cinnamon, swamp and charcoal over the village. As if this were a signal, she straightens up, steps out into the night. Full height, she is much taller than most people have seen her, and she has lost her shuffle as she walks across the yard. She is as soundless as the shadows that move throughout the early night to and from Teestone’s house, and just as silent when she climbs his steps.

She remembers the hole in the living room and avoids it. She carries a very clear picture in her head of the house and everything in it.

The lamp is lit in his bedroom and he is asleep, rolled over on one side and snoring softly. He is naked. One of the girls lies curled up in front of him, naked also, the young hips turned inwards, giving her a curious air of innocence. Sleep has also stripped away what remains of the womanishness she wears by day, almost like another garment, and has made of her a girl again.

She kneels beside Teestone and he stirs, perhaps sensing her in sleep.

The jab wakes him. He erupts out of sleep, his hand clutching that laughing vein at the side of his neck, but she is strong and she keeps him and the needle there until she empties it of her thousand dollars worth of niceness. Eyes wide, Teestone stares at her. His fist closes on her wrist. It is the bad hand that he is crushing and it hurts. But she smiles that dark, beautiful and alluring smile; something wonderful to take with him, she seems to say.

He eases back on the pillow releasing her and sighing the longest, most restful of all sighs, his face still incredulous, still profoundly outraged.

The girl has not stirred from sleep, and for that Norma Browne is grateful.

She walks out of the house, turns and spits carelessly at the dark before crossing to her yard.

Before she goes in, she pauses, turns her face up at the sky and sniffs. She could smell the morning. But it is still dark. And the world and the birds down there are very, very quiet.

From: A Way to Catch the Dust.


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