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Authors: Lindsay Ashford

The Color of Secrets

BOOK: The Color of Secrets
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

Text copyright © 2015 Lindsay Ashford

All rights reserved.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.

 

Published by Lake Union Publishing, Seattle

 

www.apub.com

 

Amazon, the Amazon logo, and Lake Union Publishing are trademarks of
Amazon.com
, Inc., or its affiliates.

 

ISBN-13: 9781477828434

ISBN-10: 1477828435

 

Cover design by Connie Gabbert

 

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014955245

In memory of my grandmother, Evelyn Mary Groom

Prologue

O
CTOBER 1993

The photograph still startles me, even though I’ve looked at it a dozen times since it landed on the doormat. An elderly white woman with her arm around a beautiful black girl. The magazine has put us on its front cover with the line: “Mixed Blessings—Rhiannon’s White Family.”

The article is to help publicize her new show. I understand that, of course, but I was worried when she told me about it. Afraid of what she would say about me. She knows only the bare bones of what happened because I didn’t want to tell her. That was a terrible mistake.

I wondered if she would tell them that my stubborn silence almost proved deadly. Thankfully she told them the truth, but not all of it. She painted me much better than I am.

And the real story? That will never be told. Not by me, anyway. Some things are too painful to put into words.

Will
he
tell her?

He stares out at me from the inside pages of the magazine. It’s a picture of the two of us, taken that summer of 1943. There was a time when I couldn’t have looked at it. Even now I’m fighting back tears. But Rhiannon smiles at me as I turn the page over. I can hear her voice, as clear as if she was standing next to me.
Don’t cry
, she says.
Look at you and Granddad: you were happy, weren’t you, in the end?

It’s a question she has never really asked me. Perhaps she doesn’t need to. Perhaps she thinks she knows the answer.

Part One

E
VA

Chapter 1

J
UNE 1943

Eva sensed what was coming before she saw it. She could feel it through the soles of her boots. Catching her breath, she tasted smoke in the air. She heard the rumble of the wheels. It was the rhythm of carriages, not the usual clatter of coal wagons. Wiping her forehead with the cuff of her jacket, she leaned forward on the handle of her spade.

The other women had heard it too. Shovels, rakes, and pickaxes were cast aside as they shaded their eyes against the sun. Some pulled off their hats and scarves, trying to fluff up hair gone limp with perspiration in the unexpected heat of an English summer morning.

As the train slowed to a crawl, eager heads leaned through the windows. They were wearing squashed-up caps the color of sand. Some were blowing kisses. A cargo of men, carriage after carriage of them. About to pile out here. In this town.

The women started cheering, waving, but Eva’s hands never left the wooden shaft of her spade. She couldn’t do it. Couldn’t bring herself to smile at the faces gliding by. The sight of so many men in uniform triggered a dull ache below her ribs. She was searching each passing carriage, as if she might spot Eddie’s face among these American soldiers.

Idiot
.

She made herself stop, look away.

He’s not coming home because you don’t want him to.

The words dropped into her head, as clear and brutal as a telegram. Was it true? Had she done it by some sort of telepathy? Jinxed him?

A loud wolf whistle cut through the engine’s noise. One of the older women was wiggling her well-upholstered behind at the men hanging out of the carriages, sending a peal of raucous laughter down the line. Something flew through the air and landed a few feet from where Eva was standing. A brown tube, like the inside of a toilet paper roll. A little scuffle broke out. The winner was a woman whose head looked too big for her body, swollen with rows of curlers crammed inside a workman’s cap. She waved the tube in the air and it rattled. Then she cupped her hand around her mouth and yelled at the passing carriage.

“What is it?”

“M&M’s! Candy!” the men shouted back.

Eva felt a trickle of saliva run beneath her tongue. Funny how the very thought of sweets did that to her now. And these Americans were throwing them from trains. She swallowed and reached for her spade, trying to think about something else. But not Eddie. She mustn’t think about Eddie.

“Want some?”

Eva looked over her shoulder. “Me?”

“Yes, you!” The woman held out her hand, revealing a perfect little disk the same vivid yellow as the curlers poking out of her cap. “Plenty more where these came from, eh?”

Eva hesitated. The woman’s smile was conspiratorial, the implication obvious.

“What’s the matter? They’re not poisonous!”

Eva felt something shift in her stomach. It had been hours since breakfast. She stretched out her hand. “Thank you . . .”

“Iris.”

Eva nodded. She popped the sweet into her mouth. As her tongue brought it up against the roof of her mouth, the candy shell disintegrated, releasing the long-forgotten taste of chocolate. She tried to hold it there, but she could feel it melting away, dissolving so fast that she just had to swallow.

“Mmm
. . .
sex-starved Yanks! Yes, please!” Iris arched her eyebrows and cocked her head at the train. “Thirteen carriages so far—and there must be about sixty or seventy in each one. That’s
. . .
” Her look of concentration vanished as the last carriage rolled into view. “See that lot coming now,” she said. “At the back?”

Eva followed her gaze, her eyes temporarily blinded by the sun glancing off the windows.

“Look at their faces
. . .
” There was a breathless curiosity in her voice, like a kid seeing someone naked for the first time. “You know what
they
are, don’t you?”

Inside the last carriage one of the soldiers was fast asleep, a beam of light falling on the sweep of skin between his collar and his jawbone, making it glow like tortoiseshell. Bill was dreaming of home. Of New Orleans. Of slipping nickels in the drugstore jukebox on a slow afternoon. The first few beats of “Drum Boogie” making milkshake glasses wobble on the counter as the girls came shimmying out of the kitchen for a jive.

They were there in the kit bag at his feet, the drugstore girls, members of the grainy gallery of faces smiling out from between the tissue-thin pages of a US Army–issue Bible: Alice, Pearl, and Cora-Mae in Genesis; his mother and sister in Psalms; and Rita Hayworth in Revelation. Only Rita was in color. A glossy head-and-shoulders ripped out of
Billboard
magazine.

“Wake up, man!” Someone was shouting in his ear. “This is it! End of the line!”

Opening his eyes, Bill saw the back of Jimmy’s head as he turned away, scrambling for a space at the open window. He jumped to his feet and plunged into the tangle of uniforms until he felt a rush of smoke-tainted air on his face. He glimpsed dirty factory chimneys, a mud-colored canal. And then he saw what all the fuss was about.

“What kind of place
is
this?” He craned his neck, holding on to his cap. “They’ve got
women
working on the railroad!”

“Jeez!” Jimmy was standing on tiptoe, trying to get a better look. “What are they doing?”

“Laying track, looks like.”

“No way!” Jimmy gave a low whistle. “No wonder they need
us
. Hey, Bill—look! They’re waving at us!”

“Well, they sure have pretty smiles.” Bill scanned the line of women in caps, donkey jackets, and wide-legged trousers, a wry grin on his face. “But hey, you seeing what I see?”

“What?” Jimmy yelled back, struggling to make himself heard over the clapping and cheering.

“No colored faces—not a single one!”

Jimmy stuck his head out farther, his knuckles tight as drum skin as he clutched his cap. “Holy Moses,” he groaned. “What we gonna do for girls?”

Eva tried not to stare as the train emptied the final group of GIs onto the platform. Other than in films, only once had she seen a person with skin the color of the men in this last carriage. He had come to the house selling brushes. She must have been about eight or nine years old. Her mother was busy in the kitchen and had called out to her when the bell rang. Eva had let out a scream when she saw his face, thinking it was someone in a mask. He looked like a forgotten apple, wrapped and tucked away for Christmas in a dark corner of the larder and unearthed, brown and wrinkled, long after it should have been eaten.

At the sound of her scream Eva’s mother had come running from the kitchen. She had a tea towel in her hand, which she flicked at the man like a whip, catching his ear. She shouted abuse at him as he backed away, staggering with the weight of the brushes he carried on his back. Eva could still remember the look in his eyes, a wariness tinged with resignation, as if this sort of treatment was no more than he expected. And she had felt an odd mixture of fear and shame at the sight of her mother lashing out at someone who, for all his strangeness, looked very, very old.

The men now spilling out of the train were quite different from the man her mother had driven away. Young. Confident. Smart in their beige uniforms. As she watched, one soldier broke into a little jive, his shoulders and hips swinging this way and that in a fluid, mesmerizing motion. His friends laughed and clapped and clicked their fingers till a sergeant bustled up and put them in line. They were still smiling as they marched off. They looked like people who knew how to have fun.

Eva picked up her shovel. A wisp of auburn hair, damp with perspiration, trailed beneath the collar of her jacket. Suddenly self-conscious, she tucked it in before slicing into the dry, gritty soil at her feet. What they would make of her, in these baggy workman’s clothes, hair stuffed inside a cap and sweat beading her face, she couldn’t imagine. Would they even be able to tell she was a woman?

In daylight hours she was a strange, sexless creature who dressed like a man and did a man’s work. And in the evenings, like a species of vampire, she turned back into a woman again. Or, more truthfully, a person who wore a skirt instead of trousers, shoes instead of boots. A person who had a child to look after. With a jolt of alarm she realized she no longer
felt
like a woman. She plunged the spade into the ground, scattering crumbs of earth all over herself.

“Eva? You okay?”

The speaker of these words had her hair bundled up in a sort of turban—a scarf of faded leopard-print silk wound around her head and tucked in at the back. There were a couple of pea-sized moth holes above her left eye.

“Cathy! I thought you were on the night shift.”

“I was. They called me in, though. One or two shirkers, apparently: not sure if it’s the weather or the Yanks!”

“Did you see them? I lost count of the carriages.” Eva smiled. “Hundreds of them, all in those very
. . .


Tight
-fitting uniforms?” Cathy’s eyebrows slid upward and disappeared under her turban. “You can’t really picture them doing anything energetic in those, can you? Imagine how long they’d last doing this!” She swept her hand, palm up, toward the piles of earth the women had dug up. “Anyway, how are things? You coping?”

“Sort of.” Eva looked away. Cathy Garner was the only person on the rail gang she’d had a proper conversation with in the two weeks since she’d started; the only person who knew anything about her. “David seems to have settled in at the nursery. I still feel guilty every time I leave him there, but I think it’s
. . .
” She couldn’t say it. Felt ashamed to admit that somehow it was easier to face things, working on the railway, than sitting at home all day with her son.

“I know,” Cathy nodded. “It’s hard to tell yourself it’s for the best when they’re clinging on to you and crying. I remember how it was when Mikey was that age. But you have to have something to take your mind off things.” Cathy reached for Eva’s arm. “Come on. Don’t know about you, but I’m starving.”

The smell of cabbage and mutton had seeped into the walls of the station canteen. No matter what was on the menu, the sour odor hung in the air, making Eva feel slightly ill as she walked in. But she was always hungry. All the women on the rail gang were. Too hungry to care about the smell, the chipped crockery, and the stains on the tablecloths.

“It’s Sardine Pancakes or Sour-Sweet Cabbage with Sausage Meat Cakes,” Eva read aloud from the blackboard over the serving hatch. “Followed by Mock Mashed Banana.”

“Ugh—not sardines!” Cathy grabbed a tray and peered up at the menu. “And what on earth is Mock Mashed Banana? Sounds absolutely disgusting!”

“Parsnips and powdered milk, probably,” Eva grimaced. “Don’t know why they bother. I’d rather have them as they are with the main course.”

“Me too!” Cathy slid her tray along the metal runway. As the sausage meat cakes landed on her plate, she gave Eva a sideways look. “Someone said the Yanks were throwing sweets from the train. Did you manage to grab any?”

Eva huffed out a laugh. “I’ve never been much good at catching. They were shared round, though. I’d forgotten how good chocolate tastes.”

BOOK: The Color of Secrets
13.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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