It’s months after Carnival time. Ash Wednesday put to bed. We shoo out Lent. Fish and fasting done. Church people could stop pretend they don’t listen to soca now that they wave coconut leaves for the rising son. They don’t have to bend up they nose and say take that rubbish off the radio.
They get to show off they new clothes the seamstress have time finish before Palm Sunday. Red plaid aprons, 2ft-high silken yellow headties, lilac waist sashes, fitted white dresses with anglaise eyes. New patent shoes they take off on the concrete church steps to leave by the mat get put on display. Everybody make they name come Palm and Easter Sunday.
Now church service gone back to its regular sixish hours in which to dance, ketch power, kneel and pray. To shout aloud they praise as Spiritual Baptists couldn’t legally do back in the day when my great-grandfather, Grampa Biscuit, help found the church. Back before 1951 when practitioners of religion too closely resembling anything suspiciously African found themselves in a lurch and lock up in jail.
Now, ever since the ban lift, it’s like they use every Sunday to proclaim the triumph of ancestral ways. These Covigne Road and Factory Road devotees – teachers, cleaners, accountants, secretaries, bus drivers, gardeners, mail carriers during the week – all assembling to lay they burdens at the foot uh de cross and behold somebody standing there.
We hear them all the way up here. My grandmother’s mournful warble leading the off-tune hymns. Tanty Marilyn scratchy throat sounding the duption riddim. Grampa arthritic gold hands, still strong enough to massage jumbie outta neighbours’ joints and work his fertile land, clapping like cymbals in a band. His unflagging energy issuing a command heard passive aggressively among the Dominic family to step up the pace.
Across the aisle’s divide, the Dominics, Mount St. Rose’s other family that only ever sits on the righthand side, attempts to match, then beat the stride of this family of mine in their race to own centre stage. The claim to fame – a four-room church behind a tall red gate on a tucked in corner of a badjohn road.
I hear the duelling hallelujah, tank yuh lawds goad more praise you fadda, de alpha an de omega, and my mind shows these stooped little church people as jousters with bible swords. Their shouts charge forward. The congregation’s increasing volume mounts the air, jockeys up the hill, gallops into bedroom, taking me out of there.
I laugh in my head. But I keep my face clear. My mother will sneer and ask what so funny, Camille. And then skin up her top lip and say psychology prove people with imagination actually crazy, she hear it on a documentary on tv.
And then she will bad talk those people who have community. These church people down the hill dressed in they boring whites. And she’ll say all the reasons it schupid to pray. And how they does look down on her for staying home Sundays, though they fake. And how she doh want to be in they old church anyway. Though three years later I will see her hide in the backroom. See her cover her head, light a candle and chant psalm 27, tears sliding down her face, when she decide she alone need to escape.
It is because I am trying to have some calm. My own little joy. That I find it on the page. That it earns me my teachers’ warm pride and affection for high advancement beyond my age that she comes. And she stays. My mother sits across from me scrutinising my face for the slightest fray. To tear.
Scans from my hair in one-one, big belly plaits that she knows I don’t like cause they make me look like a little child. Plaits she insists on putting while I always ask her on Sunday nights to canerow my hair in a some up-some down with a muff style that suits my face and makes my cheekbones look high. A request to look pretty and have some agency she denies.
She skims to my little gold hoop earrings, then the old comfortable jersey I am wearing. Across to my long fingers with grown out nails holding my book aloft. I feel self-conscious as her eyes scan my big bambam that doesn’t lie down when I do. The butt that hardback men down de road men call cocked. And then back to the top of my heels kicked up, with soft calves melding to my thick thighs.
I have her pear shape, her dark complexion, her full hair. But not her white people nose nor her protruding eyes. I have rounder lips, bigger feet, am growing taller than her and more lean. And my unbreasted chest is, at nine, already drawing the eyes of wutless men out the road counting off the time. Men inspiring my mother to put down my body and me criticise for the attention she now has to divide with her not-first child.
She, this mother, is still on the bare thread count sheets. Her googly eyes do not blink at me. They resemble the illustration in the last children’s classic I just finish read. My mother’s are both the size of the one hated vulture eye. That orb that drove the mad man to commit his crime of burying the old neighbour and his loud, demanding, endlessly ticking heart. Their white circumference swallow up the pupils’ dark.
My mother scans and skims my body and I brace for one of her well-meaning inquiries like whole mornin yuh get up yuh mean yuh en go and clean up and even wash yuh pinkie. Nobody ever tell you daz de firse ting yuh supposed tuh do. Yuh doh wait quite till yuh bade in de afternoon. And yuh nuh gonna put on a vest self tuh hold yuh? Yuh doh want tuh get saggy too soon.
And why yuh doh pull up yuh nose some more while yuh juss lying dong here? Yuh want it tuh stay so flat and wide? Allyuh geh dah nose from yuh fadda side. And yuh doh tink yuh hair back from yuh face does show off how wide yuh forrid is? And, Uricka, yuh doh tink is time yuh cut dem nails? If yuh want them long yuh should take cyare uh dem like dis. While she stretches out her palm to demonstrate.
I brace, my muscles clenched against the rip current those questions always channel through the placid sea of a quiet room in which I have gone to read. Alone. But this time my mother is sweet.
Honey works better for flies. Ply them with acid and they’re less inclined to be loving, to draw close, to stay in line.
My mother doesn’t have to persuade me to go in the parlour. She doesn’t have to coax me. I am her child. She is giving me a directive and I have to follow whatever invective I want to spew. Whatever grief I feel over what she’s making me do. Whatever injustice rankles that I have to walk down Covigne Road and on a Sunday to boot. But she tries.
She smiles. Why yuh doh wear yuh nice lil Carnival outfit? Look how good yuh does look in dat. Remember how nice yuh feel when we went around the Savannah in it? It come out so good. She chuckles, we finish it just in time dat night eh?
The we is back. The plunge into memory’s stream – its warm, lapping, nostalgic attack – prompts me to give the expected smile. It is close-mouthed. And I turn on my side to face my mother while I am silent, demurring in the face of the hug reaching out to me from her eyes.
We are connected across the rough-carpeted bedroom aisle by my cute carnival outfit that’s a good way to remind us of all the time we spend together and the nice things she does for me and the ties that bind.
Yes, mummy. Fifteen more seconds before I’ll rise. Hold in the sigh. I could put on that. Let me just go and brush my teeth and hurry up and go before Spikes close. I could reach by Ounce and buy a Sunday Express, too?
No immediate consent. There must be a questioning before she relents. Wah you want de paper for?
She knows I like the Sunday magazine, that I read the in-depth features, the comics, the profiles of accomplished local celebrities, and most of all the stories. And that they can get the tv guide. But I still answer why. For the Junior Express section, mummy. She nods, arrite.
It isn’t a lie. My mother just isn’t aware that I also get The Express or The Sunday Guardian to read her weekly Libra horoscope. If I could see what coming it might help me stay out of her way or buy extra chocolate and nuts Nuggle and Peanola bars to make her feel better on a particular day. Or it could let me know which evenings to leave the Childcraft reading and go down by granny and play with my cousins.
And she, my mother, also wasn’t aware that in a year, at ten years old, when I check out the gigantic Children’s Bible tome from Diamond Vale Primary School library it’s because the horoscopes wasn’t helping me diagnose how it is my mother so.
How a mother could be so? Why when she’s in the same room with me I feel swallowed up by a heavy coat pulling me down? And why she always want me sad when we sit around looking out the living room louvres?
And why iz always me she telling me how she had to quit the sewing class? And again had was to leave the evening literature lessons. And wouldn’t finish the instruction to get her high school certification wid dem people? While I am watching with crunching anxiety.
Watching every evening, to see down the hill into the street. To see my father grey van bend the corner by Wendy shop who does sell pholourie. Waiting intently to see when he coming. So I could make sure my mother have all the snacks and one-more-day inspirational speech she needs. So I could go inside before he reach. Before my father breach the front doorway and the tension start to creak up the Popeye and Bruno high-striker tower to hit the bell for all hell to break loose.
Or why, when she’s a little lighter, sewing at her Singer machine – not a Serger, steupsss – and I just want to have a happy conversation with my mummy she’s always telling me how yuh fadda say he going and leave? Whereupon my belly does start to gripe me. Because how we going and eat when he’s the only one with a salary?
And she does say he might still drop some money buh he want tuh be wid one uh his new woman. And my mind grapples to understand how marriage could be so unsolid and left wide open to these possibilities where any day now a father could just pick up and leave.
She isn’t conscious, this mother, that a daughter could have dis-en-right feelings and that there are thus answers I seek. That my dissection isn’t built strictly on the information she feeds. My mother isn’t privy to just how much I perceive.
Her you-so-wise-fuh-yuh-age appreciation is centred around the comfort I give her to deal with the man to whom she stays married. It is not recognition of an independent trait that I carry.
There are certain personalities that do not love. They assume possession. They do not celebrate others’ strengths. They wish to harness them for their utilisation. This does not gel with a mother’s characterisation.
So, this Sunday when I am nine, before as an adult I reside in Brooklyn – the city to which my allyuh-go-be-alright departing from her children mother took flight. Before I am able to gain the long sought-after terminology from a learned therapist. Before I am reading academic works of psychology, I am asking to buy an Express newspaper, please. For research into this mother’s personality. And as a treat to me to read for having to venture on a Sunday down Covigne.
It is because of my abiding perceptibility.
She doesn’t move, though. Now that the bargaining is closed. Her spine slackens and my mother leans back on her Squeezy-coarsened hands and locks her smushy elbows. She stays in the second bedroom as I lift up from repose, swing my legs to dangle over the side of the top bunk, still watching my mother’s sloping forehead from on high.
I close the book on Fagin’s strut, his swaggering stride. And I slide Oliver Twist under the pillow to retrieve and read in my own bed tonight. My own bed where I’ll curl up. Knees in my chest. Tucked tight. Avoiding stretching my feet into the nest of slithering snakes at the bottom of the bed. Snakes gliding over each other’s wet-looking scales as they settle in to spend another night with me. A pit of snakes only I ever see.