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Authors: Makeda Silvera

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BOOK: The Heart Does Not Bend
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“Can I see yuh again?” Frank asked Uncle Mikey.

“It all depends,” my uncle said in a flirtatious voice. I couldn’t see his face, but I knew he was smiling. Frank squeezed him tighter and stole a kiss.

“Naughty, naughty,” Uncle Mikey chided, and settled more snugly into Frank’s arms. At the end of the song they left the room. I didn’t follow. I was watching Helen and Angela dance. They danced slowly, their bodies pressed against each other in the heat, the hems of their dresses above their knees. Beads of sweat had formed on Helen’s
upper lip. I stood nearby, their bodies brushed mine, and I trembled.

Frank came to visit often, and Uncle Mikey blossomed. He became more talkative, seemed more comfortable with his small, thin frame. Frank was a real charmer. He’d bring fresh-cut flowers for my grandmother, even though we had a gardenful. I especially loved that he brought me bars of chocolate, which I handed out to my friends on the street. He was a sharp dresser and his shoes gleamed with polish. He bought a brand-new black BMW, the first ever parked on our street. We didn’t know much about him except that he was the son of a successful hotelier. He told my grandmother that he worked with his father, a man she seemed to know by name and reputation. She didn’t say much, just “Oh, dats yuh father?”

Frank and Mama chatted a lot on the verandah. She was, I learned, knowledgeable about the North Coast hotel business, where she had worked many years as a cook. “Is a growing and profitable industry,” she often said.

Looking back, I can’t say that my grandmother was unfriendly toward him, but during the Sunday parties she began to dance less and watch more. As time went by, Uncle Mikey began to spend part of every Sunday afternoon in his room with Frank. Once, on my way to the bathroom, I noticed Uncle Mikey’s door was slightly ajar. I peeked in and saw them kissing each other’s mouths. Frank’s shirt hung neatly on a rack above the closed window. When I walked back from the bathroom, the bedroom door was shut. I pressed my ear against it and heard the slight creaking of the bed and my uncle’s voice sounding like a sparrow’s cry.

Hours later, Uncle Mikey’s friends were still dancing and eating and talking in the living room, oblivious to his absence. Mama sat crumpled like cardboard.

Myers left for the country that September to get married and be a father to his three children. I cried for a long time, and even after I stopped crying, my throat ached each time I looked at the garden and my small bed of flowers. He promised to come back and see me, to bring his daughter who was the same age as me, but he never did.

Uncle Mikey began to spend more time away from home, and Mama took it badly.

“Is Barbican yuh live now?” she asked him one night when he came home late. She had waited up for him and I was in bed.

“No, Mama,” he said in a light and happy voice. “Ah just working out some plans with Frank. Ah going to try mi hands at designing a signature set of towels, bedsheets and napkins for the hotels, so dat’s why ah not around as much.”

“So what ’bout yuh present job?”

“Dat going well, but ah just feel dat ah need to branch out, try different things. Frank thinks it would be a good idea, him say de hotel business profitable.”

“Yuh just be careful,” Mama warned. With that she left him in the living room and came to bed.

Uncle Mikey didn’t heed her warning, and Mama began to drink more heavily. It was no longer an afternoon at Olive’s, or a drink or two on the verandah, or a nightcap at Shady’s after our movie. She’d drink for a week straight, beginning at
dawn. Some mornings she left when I left for school, stopping at Olive’s, Shady’s or her new place, Johnny One Stop. In the evening she’d stagger down the street. Sometimes she’d be sitting on the verandah, nodding off when I came home from school. Sometimes she wasn’t there when I got home. I’d fix myself something to eat, then play on the street with Punsie and the others. When she didn’t come home by dark, I’d search the different rum shops till I found her.

One evening when I was almost thirteen, I came home from school and saw Mama nodding off on the bed. I changed my clothes and was about to go over to Punsie’s, when she suddenly asked, “Where yuh going?” Her voice was slurred.

“Over to Punsie, Mama, ah going to look for little Freddie.”

“No, tek off yuh clothes. Come lie down wid mi.”

My anger stewed as I lay there beside her, smelling her rum breath, seeing her mouth drooling saliva onto the pillow. When she began to snore, I tried quietly to get up, but she grabbed hold of my hands.

“Stay, don’t go out dere. Mi nuh want nutten happen to yuh. Mi have to deliver yuh to yuh mother in good condition.” I could hear my friends playing hide-and-seek, throwing balls, could hear their light-hearted laughter.

“She have yuh when she just turn fifteen, and yuh not far from dat. Yuh soon turn thirteen, mi want hand yuh over to her widout any damage. Mi was fifteen when mi had Peppie, spoil mi years. Mi was a good girl, obedient, mi never bad, or run up and down, mi just fall in love too quick. But him mother had big plans fi him, and mi never in de picture, mi family too poor, and mi mother couldn’t read or write.
Quick-quick she send him go England, and mi never hear from de bwoy again, not one letter, not even a postcard. When Peppie born, de woman say a not her son pickney even though him was dead stamp of him. Mi had it rough, life never easy fi mi, even now.…” My grandmother’s voice had a regretful edge to it. She held on tightly to my skinny arms and dozed for a minute, then went on.

“A nuh likkle try mi try wid all mi pickney dem. Mi really try. An’ de second man mi fall for was Oliver, and him worse. De only thing him ever give mi was a wedding ring, which mi had to sell, fi feed de pickney dem. Man nuh good, yuh can’t depend on dem. Dem is just a necessary evil. Ah glad Freddie left de island. Peppie will tek care of him. Teach him responsibility. Thank God Glory gaan. It would a pain mi fi see her go through pickney after pickney wid dem wutliss man, wid not a penny in a dem pocket. All dem have is promises.…” She drifted back to sleep.

The binge lasted five days. Each night I had to go to bed early. I was glad when the drinking ended and I could be back outside with my friends. Punsie had come by every night, but after getting no answer at the locked door, she gave up. It was the same with Petal, who’d called over the fence. It didn’t take long for them to know why I couldn’t come out to play. Sometimes when Mama lost herself to the rum, her feet would become unsteady and I’d have to hold her arms and support her as we walked down the dead-end street.

After the binge had ended, I was playing marbles with Punsie when she asked me if my grandmother was okay again. Even though she was one of my best friends, her question embarrassed me.

“What yuh mean?”

“Ah mean if she stop drink now.”

I knelt in the dirt and looked steadily at the marble in my hand, unable to answer.

“Is nutten to feel any way ’bout, everybody pon de street know dat yuh granny drink and drunk and stagger up an’ down de street,” she laughed. “Look pon fi mi father—him do de same, except him a man.”

She hadn’t said it in a mean way, but I didn’t care. She had no business. I got up from the ground, seized her and punched her in the mouth.

“Shut up,” I said.

She punched me in the stomach and I fell down. Punsie came at me again, but I was quick and grabbed her plaits. We rolled around in the dirt until her brother Dennis pulled us apart.

“What unnu fighting ’bout? Unnu a gal pickney yuh know, it nuh look good.”

Punsie flashed her hands and cut her eyes at him.

“So what de fight about?” he insisted.

“Nutten,” Punsie said. She brushed herself off and strolled up the street toward her yard. I went home feeling mixed-up but justified in hitting Punsie.

After the fight, I spent less time outside. Instead, I sat watching Mama prepare pastries for Grand-aunt Ruth’s and the Chinese shops. She looked so different then, no hint of the other woman who had kept me hostage, no sign of the woman who had cried and railed about life.

“How come yuh not outside playing wid yuh friends?” she asked one evening.

“Nutten, ah just have lots of homework, and ah borrow gardening books from the library to read.”

“Dat good, girl, maybe yuh can tek over Myers’ job,” she teased.

Dennis came sometimes to help with the weeding, and I kept up with the watering, but the magic was gone and even the flowers looked faded.

Punsie and I resumed our friendship. It was hard to stay angry for long on our street. Everything took place outdoors and you had to pass people’s houses to get to the main street. It wasn’t the first time Punsie and I had fought; it was just the first time we’d hit each other.

One day I came home from school to hear shouting coming through the windows of our house. I lingered outside in the front yard and listened.

“Ah telling yuh fi yuh own good, it nuh right to be so brawling. If yuh a go do it, do it under cover. A danger yuh putting yuhself in.”

“But Mama, what mi doing? Him ask mi to come to de country wid him for de weekend, what wrong wid dat?”

“Yuh nuh see nutten wrong wid dat? Suppose man come in wid gun and machete fi kill unnu ass?”

“Mama, it safe. Frank go dere all de time,” Uncle Mikey pleaded.

“All de time? Ah sure yuh just another in a long line a man. Yuh be careful, dats all I haffi seh, because dem money man will run lef yuh at the smell of trouble. Remember yuh is a poor uneducated bwoy.”

I made a lot of noise slamming the gate and went inside.
Mikey had a small suitcase beside him and he was sitting, looking up at Mama like a little boy as she stood by the stove cooking.

“Hi, Molly,” he greeted me, “how was school?”

“Fine, Uncle,” I said, and went straight to my room.

A car horn blew shortly after, and through the window I could see Uncle Mikey climbing into Frank’s car. When we sat down to have dinner, Mama’s face was a dark cloud. “A trouble him a head for, yuh know. Mi see it, as sure as God mek apple.” She spoke with finality.

I didn’t respond. Nobody had explained anything to me.

That evening Petal came to the fence. “What going on wid yuh granny and uncle?”

“Nutten,” I said. “Nutten, yuh too fast.”

“Mi know is what. Mi mother and father say him like man. Dem say Mrs. Galloway son is a battyman.”

“Yuh lie!” I shouted at her.

“Yuh uncle is a battyman, yuh uncle is a battyman,” she sang.

I started yelling names back at her: “Dundus gal! Dundus gal! Yuh ugly like mi don’t know what. Yuh face favour when bammy eclipse. No wonder yuh nuh have no friends. Yuh would frighten God himself.” I went up on the balcony shivering with anger. That was the last day I ever talked to Petal. She’d come to the fence and call out to me, and she even slipped a note through the fence saying she was sorry, but I never forgave her.

Before I turned fourteen my periods started. Mama lectured me about not getting close to any boy, not a touch, not a kiss. By then, I was spending more time with Punsie, and I was interested in a boy who lived down the street. Punsie was the first
one I told. Although we were just a year apart, she had all the answers, and she enjoyed teaching me.

“Punsie, mi granny say if a boy kiss mi or touch mi, ah can get pregnant. Is true?”

She laughed loudly, then said, “Yuh too fool. Come mek mi talk to yuh some more ’bout de birds and de bees.”

We hurried around to the fowl coop where we would have privacy and sat on an old bench.

“First of all,” she whispered, “a boy have to put him thing inside of yuh fi get yuh pregnant. But yuh can’t get pregnant wid a kiss, or even if de boy feel yuh up.”

“How you know that?” I asked.

“Mi know, mi try it already, and remember, mi have a big sister and brother. Anyway, Junior like yuh. Him say mi must tell yuh.”

“Don’t fool wid mi!” I exclaimed proudly. “Yuh sure?”

He was one of the most handsome boys around, and I hadn’t expected him to take a second look at me. I wasn’t a pretty girl. I was skinny and tall, taller than Punsie. My only redeeming features were my eyes, bright and shiny like ackee seeds, and my large breasts.

Punsie nodded. “What mi must tell him?”

“Tell him mi like him too. But him can’t come to mi yard. Ah will meet him over at yours.”

BOOK: The Heart Does Not Bend
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