This is a short story I wrote a few years back which explores a terminally ill working-class girl’s first encounter with an Afro-Caribbean man in 1960’s England. The story is told through her eyes.
THE DOORSTEP GIRL
© David Milligan-Croft.
I could never reach the door knocker, so what I would do was put my feet in the cement grooves between the worn red bricks on either side of the door frame about two foot off the ground. I must have looked kind of funny though; it felt like I was almost doing the splits. But it was the only way I would ever be able to reach the door knocker and let Jamesy know I was there.
A couple of times in the past, before I perfected my technique, I knocked over the odd milk bottle which didn’t go down too well with old Jamesy. He would complain that he didn’t have enough money for clumsy mistakes such as that, but really I knew he didn’t mind too much because he was pleased to see me.
I would visit Jamesy every Tuesday after school until I got too sick to go. Then Mam wouldn’t let me go out on account that I had to stay in bed and shouldn’t tire myself out.
I met Jamesy in the park one summer a long time ago. I was riding my bike when some boys started throwing sticks at me. I fell off and grazed my knees and palms. Jamesy ran over, though I didn’t know his name was Jamesy then because I’d never met him, and he chased the boys away. Jamesy straightened out the wheel of my bike and walked me back to where I told him I lived. He said he lived on the way and that I could come in and have a glass of Dandelion and Burdock if I fancied, which I did. The fizz tickled my nose as I drank it. Jamesy didn’t say much at first so I would talk about my Mam and my older brother and school and what I liked to play at and what I liked to eat.
There was always a bit of a funny smell in Jamesy house. It smelled sweet, but not like the sweets I would eat. At first I didn’t want to be rude and tell him that I thought his house smelled so I asked him what his favourite sweets were and he said that he had never eaten sweets; which I couldn’t believe. So then I asked him what his favourite food was and he said it was curry, but I didn’t know what that was.
Jamesy got out of his chair quite slowly like it was a bit of an effort for him and he went into the kitchen. He had lots of funny things in his parlour like scary looking wooden masks and little statues of men and women. When he came back he was carrying a big pot. He set it down on the table and took a spoonful of whatever was inside and walked over to me. His other hand was in the shape of a cup to catch any drips that might fall out. I tasted the reddy stuff and curled up my nose a bit. Jamesy thought this was funny. He said he did exactly the same thing first time he tasted our bread and dripping. The red stuff was sweet at first then it began to tingle my lips, then it started to burn my tongue. I gulped my pop as hard as I could to stop my mouth from burning.
After he cleaned my knees and palms I went home. Mam asked me what happened and I said I fell off my bike because the boys from the estate were throwing sticks at me. She was busy cooking stew in the kitchen so she never asked me any more about it. I didn’t tell her about Jamesy. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong but I also knew she wouldn’t be too happy if I told her so I just said nothing.
The next week when I was coming home from school our Kevin ran past me and pulled my satchel off my shoulder. He said he was going to throw it in the river. I said that he could if he wanted to and that he’d be the sorry one when I told Mam what he’d done. This made him more angry so he tipped out all my stuff onto the road and ran off laughing. I was really vexed with him and didn’t feel like going home right away so I thought I’d call in on Jamesy.
He seemed a bit surprised to see me, standing at the doorway in his slippers and cardigan. He asked if I’d like to come in, so I did. He made a pot of tea and put four sugars in his cup when I only have two. Mam says I can’t have anymore than two because otherwise it would rot my teeth. So I asked him if he had any teeth and he laughed and said he had some in a jar that he kept by his bed. I knew what he meant because my Granny did the same thing. I used to hate it when she would give me a gummy kiss. Jamesy asked me if I liked school and I said I did except for when people teased me because I didn’t have any hair. This seemed to puzzle him a bit because I had lovely long brown hair sticking out from under my woolly hat. So I told him that it wasn’t real hair, it was just clipped to the inside of my hat so people would think I had hair. But everyone knew that I didn’t because I was the only one in school that would wear a hat all through class. Some of the boys would try to pull my hat off at breaktime but I would hit them or kick them. The girls would call me baldy Janet and pull their long hair over their lips like a moustache and ask me if I was a man instead of a girl. It upset me at first but Mam told me not to pay them any attention; so when they called me names I would stick my fingers in my ears and hum a tune really loudly, like this.
Jamesy said that he had a daughter too and that she lived in a place called Trinidad which was at the other side of the world almost. He showed me the little place on a map and said it was really hot there and I asked him if that was why he had brown skin on account it was really sunny all the time and he said that it was. But then he said that he wasn’t originally from this little island but a big place called Africa which confused me a bit because how could you be from two places at once? He said that he wasn’t from two places but that his ancestors were from there. I must have still looked confused because he said that ancestors were people who were older than your gran or grandad. I told him that my Grandad was from Rochdale, but the rest of them were from round here as far as I knew.
He showed me a picture of his daughter and told me that her name was Natalie. But she wasn’t a daughter like me, she was much older, like a woman. She wanted to go back to her roots to find out a bit about were she came from. I said that was a bit like me going to visit my Grandad’s relatives in Rochdale and he said that it was.
Mam asked why I was late home from school so I told her that it was because our Kevin threw my stuff all over the road and it took me ages to pick it all up. She gave our Kevin a clip round the lug hole and told him not to be so nasty. When Mam went to the loo he pinched my arm making me cry out loud and said I was a squealer.
Kevin was fourteen and didn’t like me very much which Mam said was because Dad wasn’t around anymore and because I got a lot of attention because I was sick. So I said I didn’t want to be sick. I didn’t want people fussing round me all the time.
Kevin used to run away from home or school a lot and said he wanted to go and live with Dad. But he would always come home again because none of us knew where Dad lived. I never missed him like Kevin did because I was very small when he went away so I don’t remember him that much. Kevin does though, and he says that Dad used to take him to watch football or would play toy soldiers with him. I wasn’t that impressed because I didn’t like football or soldiers. I liked drawing or reading and writing. I didn’t even play with dollys like the other girls. I liked the little dolls Jamesy had though. They were of funny looking men and women. He said that some were warriors, some were to frighten away bad spirits and some were for fertility which meant for when men and women wanted to have babies.
He showed me some more photographs of where he used to live and everyone looked happy and wet. I asked why he didn’t want to live there anymore and he said that this was his home now and besides, he couldn’t afford to go all that way and so he would have to make the best of it.
Some of the pictures were of a man in a soldiers uniform and he looked a bit like Jamesy and Jamesy said that it was him when he was a lot younger and that was why he came here in the first place to fight for England against the Germans. He did say though that he hadn’t come by choice and that he hadn’t got anything against Germans but everybody in the whole world was fighting them, except for the Japanese and the Italians who were their friends. I said that it was unfair when everybody picked on just one person but he said it was different because some of the Germans had been very bad to a lot of people and that’s why everybody else in the world was fighting them. So I told him that was different. But I wasn’t bad. I never hurt anybody but people still kept on being nasty to me.
Jamesy said that’s why Natalie, his daughter, had gone to find her roots because lots of people were nasty to her in England, so I asked what had she done to make everyone so angry and he said that she hadn’t done anything. He said it was because she was black like him and I said that he wasn’t black he was brown and he smiled. I told him that my Dad used to be black when he came back from the coal mines but that would wash off.
When I asked him where Natalie’s Mam was he looked a bit sad and his eyes looked shiney like he was going to cry. He said that she was gone and I thought he meant back to Trinidad but she hadn’t. She’d gone to Heaven. He said that she went to Heaven because she had cancer and I asked him if that was where I was going to go because I had Leukaemia. And he said that I was a poor child and he hugged me. I didn’t feel like a poor child. I know we didn’t have very much money but we weren’t as poor as the kids who lived on the estate or the children who lived in caravans because they didn’t have a house.
When I got home Mam was asleep in the chair; I tiptoed into the kitchen so’s not to wake her up and made myself a cheese and bovril sandwich. Mam was always tired after she came home from work at the biscuit factory. Her clothes would always smell sweet and the people at the factory must have been very nice because they always gave her loads of biscuits, though most of them would be broken by the time she got home. Sometimes she had to work right through the night which I didn’t like because that meant Kevin would have to look after me and he would just bully me or tear up my drawings. So I would hide in the pantry and read by using a torch.
After a few weeks I got too poorly to go to school which meant that I couldn’t see Jamesy afterwards. I couldn’t write him a letter because even though I knew where he lived I didn’t know his address and I don’t think I ever gave him mine. My bum got quite sore from being in bed all the time. I just stared out of the window and looked at all the other kids playing in the street which made me even more sad. I wished that my hair would grow back so that they wouldn’t make fun of me and would let me play with them. I wished that Dad would come back so Kevin wouldn’t pick on me so much and I wished Mam wasn’t so tired all the time from having to work so hard. But most of all I wished that I wasn’t sick so that I could see Jamesy. He’d given me a little wooden mask which was painted with gold and red and black. It had pointy ears and teeth like a dog and big bulging eyes. I said it was a bit spooky but he said that I shouldn’t be frightened of it because it was meant to scare away evil spirits. If any evil spirits came into our house it would frighten them away and protect me. So I put it on my bedside table before I went to sleep, but in the morning I would have to hide it under the bed so Mam or Kevin wouldn’t find it.
I went to the hospital quite a lot which made me feel even sicker and made more of my hair fall out. I decided to take the mask with me so it would scare the Leukaemia out of my body. I think it must have worked a bit because after a while I was feeling a bit better and could go back to school.
I ran round to Jamesy’s after school and got a bit of a shock when I got there. Someone had painted ‘Niggers go home’ on his front door and his window was broken. I straddled the opposing bricks and banged hard on his door knocker but there was no answer. I ran round the back and peered through a knot in his wooden gate but I couldn’t see anything there either. I went back round the front and banged even louder this time. I must have banged really loud because a grumpy looking woman from next door came out and asked me what all the racket was. I said I’d come to see Jamesy and she said who? So I said Jamesy, the man who lived here and she said, oh you mean Mr Vincent. And I said that I didn’t know what his last name was. And by this time I knew there was something wrong and I could feel my eyes starting to sting and the grumpy woman said that Jamesy was dead, that he’d died a couple of months ago on account of him being too old.
So I shouted at her, ‘I’m going to die too. But I’m not too old am I? You silly old crow!’ Then I ran off.
Mam thought I was upset because I was poorly, so I told her that I wasn’t and I told her about Jamesy, about how he wanted to go home to where his roots where and his family and the sunshine. About how he was made to fight people he didn’t want to fight, then the people who made him fight picked on him and his daughter. And Mam said that people could be cruel. But that most people weren’t cruel, most people were good inside.
Then I thought that maybe he had died because I had his little mask that scared away the evil spirits. But Mam said that he probably had another one, and that my mask probably wasn’t just for scaring away spirits here on earth but for scaring away spirits after I had gone to another place. She gave me a big hug and her cardigan smelled of pink icing. Then she said that I should keep it with me at all times and when I met up with Jamesy again I could ask him if he had a spare mask, and if he hadn’t, he could share mine.