‘Cash and Carry’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Is the first time I going to Kingston and is ‘cause I going to find my Daddy. I don’t know what my Daddy look like and him don’t know me.
Granny and me squeeze into a jam-packed country bus. The sun hot like it beating you skin with a rubber strap. The whole load of we in a giant cake-tin hotter than Granny’s oven. The old bus creaking and shuddering every time it drop down a pothole. Mi blouse and training bra wet with sweat. Mi close mi eyes and pretend we inside a hot and dusty Egyptian tomb, like that Indiana Jones movie mi watch at Sue-dean’s house last week. Half the latches on the windows not working, so mi can’t get air. Mi feeling too dizzy to look out the window.
Granny asking me, ‘Pickney, yuh alright?’
Mi don’t answer ‘cause at that moment is like mi tongue swell up and heavy in mi mouth.
From the corner of mi eye, I see green from the farms and fields we passing, bleeding away to bauxite-dirt red, then to a brownish-grey blur of concrete buildings. Mi keep mi eyes on the back of the driver’s oversized red, black and green tam that his dreadlocks bulging out from. Hanging from the rear view mirror are crosses, fuzzy dice, pictures of Haile Selassie and a lady in a yellow bikini sitting on a motorbike. I want him to go faster so we get there quicker but he already overtaking plenty cars and we flying around every corner.
‘Blessed Saviour! Why dis man nuh slow down? Mi nuh want to reach Kingston dead!’ Granny shouting.
‘Yuh have a ginger mint?’ mi whisper, and when she give mi, mi put it under my tongue quick-quick.
Mi rest the back of mi head against the sticky seat. As mi close mi eyes, mi picture the bus going over the gully into a river. Mi nose start to itch.
‘Joelene, how come yuh nose big so?’ Mi can almost hear Sue-dean saying now. She tell mi so plenty time. The other pickney dem at school say so too, but it hurt more when is you best friend say it. Cut like a machete chop every time. Especially since mi just turn thirteen and start to like boys, and every time I go next door to Sue-dean’s house, she always saying it in front of her big brother, Mark — Mark with the dreamy brown eyes and long eyelashes. Mark who mi love and just know from the bottom of mi soul, mi going marry one day.
Sue-dean have dark spots full up her leg dem, which is why the boys at school call her, ‘Polka dots.’ How she would like if mi call her that? I ask her why she keep scratching her legs and scarring them but she never tell me.
Teacher says mi nose ‘aquiline.’ That mean it curve like an eagle’s beak. When mi was small I used to flap my arms in front the mirror and pretend mi was a bird about to fly away.
Sue-dean say I talk funny too, but mi can’t help it if my mother was an English teacher who always feed me on books and cornmeal porridge. Sue-dean says I don’t twang like a Yankee, like her uncle Ricky who them just deport few months now. She says if there are a million ways to do a thing, Ricky going find the one way that illegal.
Mum said when we moved to the US, mi was the size of an orange seed inside her belly. That time, the New York Department of Education was looking for bright young teachers from Jamaica. We stayed there until mi was eight, living in a damp, dark walkup on Prospect Place in Brooklyn. Mi get used to seeing grime and graffiti, so when we come back to Jamaica, mi had to get used to all that greenness and fresh dirt you could sink your toes into.
Mum said she moved back to Gran’s house in St. Ann ‘cause it too damn cold in that God-forsaken place. But I hear Gran tell Noni that Mummy had what they call nervous breakdown — too many rude children who want to call you by you first name, like you and dem is companion, instead of ‘Miss so and so’, like respectful, proper schoolchildren, and who you couldn’t beat or else they’d call police and ‘foreign police don’t play with black people, so it better she bring her tail back to her yard before she get charge for murder.’
And Gran said that day when she looked out her window her bones — the bones I rub with rubbing alcohol most nights — instantly turned to water at the sight of her one girl-chile at her gate, suitcase in hand, with grandpickney behind her, ‘cause nobody told her they were coming. Sudden suh.
The flesh behind my knees sticking to the plastic covering the bus seat. I try holding on but my wet palms keep slipping off whenever the bus swing around a corner. Mi tummy tight like I going throw up, but mi remember mi never eat no breakfast. Gran dozing beside me now and her snores rumbling slow from her chest. Mi wonder what I will say to Daddy. What if him not there today? Or off sick?
How I going convince him to come see Mum? How he going treat me? What will my Daddy say when he meet me, his full-grown daughter, no longer the baby him never know him did have?
Whenever I ask Mum who my dad is she don’t answer.
‘That was a loooonggg time ago, Joelene,’ she’d say with a faraway look, as if my father was an event she want to forget.
Gran don’t know neither, ‘cause she said her daughter never had no boyfriend. No man ever come to the house asking for her and she wasn’t one of those ‘flighty-flighty girls’ who sneak out of their parents’ house at night, so Gran was as shocked as anybody when Mum called her from Brooklyn to confess she was pregnant when she leave Jamaica.
‘Yuh daddy must be white,’ Sue-dean says, ‘why yuh nose so long.’
My nose is kind of tall and high, not broad and flat like Mum’s. My nose not thin and nice like Sue-dean’s either.
Mi know I have my father’s nose. What kind of man is my Daddy? Sue-dean’s dad is a good-looking Indian man with long hair, who Gran calls ‘straptin’, meaning ‘strapping’. He comes to see Sue-dean and her brother most Friday evenings and then leaves Saturday evening, to go back to his family in town. One time, mi ask Sue-dean what her dad’s other family was like, if she ever meet them. She look at me like me fool-fool and it was the dumbest question in the world. So mi went back to brushing her straight, pitch-black hair that fall to her lower back. That time we were in her room. Mi did slip into her house through the back door, which Sue-dean’s grandmother, Noni, never locks.
Sue-dean lives with Noni, her brother Mark and her uncle Ricky. Uncle Ricky is short, stocky and dark but his fingers are long and slender like a woman’s. Sue-dean’s dad and his brother Ricky grew up with Noni next door. They moved there when Mum was a young girl and they were teenagers. Gran said it was a good thing Sue-dean’s daddy, an accountant, was nothing like his worthless brother Ricky, who loaded produce on trucks going to the market. Ricky always smell like sweat and wet earth. When he smile, all of him teeth show and his moustache is so thick, you can’t see him top lip. Sue-dean and I stay away from him.
One time when Gran was talking about Sue-dean’s dad and Uncle Ricky, Mum start to babble about mongoose going into henhouse and gobbling baby chicks. By then, Mum was saying strange things. She start do strange things too. Taking random things from the kitchen at night and storing them in her room: eggshells, banana peel, orange skin, used matchsticks, a cracked plate, cups with their handles broken off, rusty nails and a knife.
The bus pulls off the road, swirling up a cloud of dust and smoke. The passengers asking why we stop and the conductor grunts, ‘flat tyre.’ We all have to come off while he change it. Gran offers me some potato pudding, but I can’t eat. Instead, mi watch the tyre being changed. The black rubber of the worn tyre reminds me of my ugly skin. Gran tries to make me beautiful by using her Ambi vanishing cream on mi face every night but it just burns and my skin absorbs the cream like rum poured into Gran’s Christmas cake batter. Nothing changes.
Sue-dean tells me not to worry about my fruit-cake face, marked by acne and blackheads. Sometimes, Gran squeezes my nose at night, pinching it hard, as if trying to reshape it.
‘Don’t make it get too big,’ she says, as if mi can help it. Then she says with pride in her voice, ‘Mi ever tell yuh that mi great-great-grandfather was a Scottish planter and that him did have a mulatto daughter with a African woman and that daughter marry a Maroon?’
That’s where Gran got her long wavy hair from, she said.
Last year, someone wrote me a note at school to say how mi black and ugly. And when I picked it up off the floor by mi desk, Teacher thought mi was passing notes and she asked me to come to the front of the class and read it, since I was bright enough to use her class as a messaging service.
Mi cleared mi throat but the words stuck there anyway. Mi choke out the first line and the girls hid their faces behind their hands and snickered, except Sue-dean who looked ready to fight. Teacher told the girls they should be ashamed of themselves and that beauty comes in all forms.
When we pile back onto the bus, the driver starts to play Buju Banton’s Love Sponge and I think about Mark.
‘Yuh know what a faggot is, right?’ Sue-dean did ask me last week, her lips peeled back as if she allergic to the word or it taste bad. I pictured a funny-looking pink maggot writhing and wriggling.
She looked at my face and must have read my blank expression. ‘Dat’s the American name for what Mark is. Yuh don’t know nothing, Joelene? Dat’s a batty-boy,’ she said and steupsed. ‘That’s why Mark never going love you.’
My heart dropped to my foot-bottom.
She balled up her fists and said, ‘But mek anybody call him dat let mi hear and see what happen to them!’
I didn’t understand it at all. To call someone she loved a dirty word. Mark, who thinks his sister farts marshmallows and her dodo can make patty.
‘Anyway, come mek mi pinch yuh nose,’ she said and ran after me, calling, ‘Whitey! Whitey!’ like it was funny.
Mi didn’t find it funny ‘cause back in the States white kids called me ‘nigger’ and said I should go back to Africa to climb trees and eat bananas ‘cause didn’t I know my mother screwed a baboon? One of the boys gave me a picture he had drawn of me being conceived. My dad had a giant monkey penis.
Tears stung mi eyes.
‘Eh-Eh! All yuh trouble she and ah go do fuh yuh!’ Doreen had yelled at them in her singsong Trini accent. The year before, Doreen and her parents had moved to the US from Trinidad. She always wore one sock that nearly came up to her knee while the other lay down around her ankle. Mi don’t know why I did it, maybe mi didn’t want her protecting me, like mi couldn’t fight my own battles, but I shoved her. She fell down, skinning her knees and the boys laughed and I was sorry but it was too late for sorry. We left for Jamaica four weeks after that.
The bus jerks suddenly and mi hear the blaring horn of a passing truck that the passengers start to cuss the driver for nearly crashing into. People shouting and the driver telling them to hush up or he going fling them outside.
On my thirteenth birthday, I had gotten angry. Not ‘cause I didn’t like the cake Gran had baked (chocolate was my favourite) or my gift (a pink blouse Gran sewed), or that Gran killed one of her pigs and roasted pork. Not ‘cause of the off-key way Mum sang Happy Birthday. Mum hardly sings these days but stays in her room with the door closed, in the dark.
‘It musty in deh,’ Gran says and shoos her out for the cleaning, dusting and changing of sheets every Friday. Then Mum goes back into bed, curling up like a shrimp on a plate.
Mi did angry ‘cause I wanted to know who my dad was who gave me this big nose that everyday look like it getting bigger and bigger and swallowing my face. That day mi decide I going to find out.
Dad seemed to me like the seam in a blouse…in the fabric of Mum’s past.
I wish Mum was here on the bus with us. Gran says Mum was always a homebody — mostly either at home or school. But mi find out from Gran that when Mum was young, she loved shopping in downtown Kingston. When she was really little she would press her face against the glass and, as Gran said, ‘shame har modda’ like she was never used to seeing nice things. As a teenager, Mum would take the country bus there on Saturdays. That’s how mi figure out I should look downtown for my dad. I would know him by his nose.
He must be a Syrian vendor who own a wholesale. Maybe he’s rich and going free me from country life. Country life would have been alright, except that I sick of spending weekday evenings in church, and Gran don’t believe in cable TV, computers or cell phones, video games or ‘anything young heathens doing in these last days.’
Maybe I’ll live in his fancy white house with my Syrian half-brothers and sisters, and his wife. And my stepmother will cook foods with Middle Eastern spices tickling my nose. Maybe at first she wouldn’t want me to live there but she’ll grow to accept me, ‘cause we would all have the same nose.
‘Mum,’ I said, when she was brushing my hair after washing it. I was sitting in the chair in her room and she was standing behind me. Mi damp hair is like elastic bands that stretch to twice its length every time she brush it.
‘Which store in town yuh did love?’
‘Discount Cash and Carry Emporium,’ she said automatically. In the mirror I saw that she had the same empty-eyed look she’d started just before we left Brooklyn.
‘What did so special ‘bout it?’
‘Dem sell fabric, lace, silk, ribbons and anything you could want to make dresses, and your Gran could sew, yuh see!’ Some light came to her voice and her cat-eyes glowed. Then, just as quickly, she sighed, exhaled deep-deep and her shoulders slumped.
‘Mi going to town wid Gran Saturday,’ I said. Gran wanted a new pressure cooker — the only modern thing she allowed in her kitchen, apart from the freezer and gas stove. She wanted one from downtown because ‘the new stores in the area tief and just take Chiney tings and dump them on ‘unperspecting black people’ but I didn’t argue with her that everybody downtown was probably selling the same things from China.
‘Yuh coming to town?’ I asked Mum, already knowing the answer. She shook her head and brushed harder.
After what feel like forever, the bus reach Kingston. It humid. The kind of day where clothes stick to you body. The mountains in the distance like squatting giants, blocking the breeze from reaching the city below. My ears ringing. Before the bus got to town, a lady in a black dress came on and start to preach loud-loud about repentance. Gran joined in on her sermon, so the hours-long drive was full of their frenzied shouts of Hallelujah and when we got to town, them part, with Gran telling the lady to keep encouraging everyone to ‘digi-lengthly seek the Lord.’
The first thing that hit mi is the smell of urine, especially near walls with yellowed signs marked, ‘Nuh piss ere nasty boy’. Flyers on light posts advertise street dances like ‘Pinky aka Luscious Laverne’s 40th birthday bashment.’
There is graffiti on the walls telling you who ‘waz ‘ere’, and when. Potbellied, mangy dogs glare at me. A dead white cat lies on its side, its legs sticking out. Trying to cross the road, we nearly get knock over by a silver minivan with the words ‘we run tings, tings nuh run we’ across the windscreen. ‘The blood of Jesus is against yuh!’ Gran yells at the driver.
How Mummy could love this place? Mi long for the cool, fresh country air and Gran’s backyard that seem to stretch forever.
‘Nuh hold mi up, pickney,’ Gran says, as mi slow down. She grab my hand and squeeze it. Normally mi would sulk and mutter under my breath that mi wasn’t no child, but town is all noise and chaos. Like anything can happen. Gran’s grip makes me feel safer.
Gran wedge her handbag under her armpit. The bag just a decoy — bait for robbers so them will miss the money she hiding in a handkerchief inside her bra. She left her gold ring and chain that Grandad gave her, at home. She cherishes them as much as the memory of her husband, who pass away when Mum was a baby, so it strange seeing her not wearing them. I ask her where to find Discount Cash and Carry Emporium.
‘Look here, chile, we come to buy pressure cooker and not for foolishness.’ Gran’s temper was like what she called ‘dandy-mite’, so I was careful in what I said next.
‘Is for Mummy,’ I plead, and that soften her. Gran know her daughter is now almost beyond reach. Lately, nothing coaxing her from that stink room. Not visitors. Not Pastor. Not food. Not me. Nothing.
‘So what business yuh have dere?’
‘I buying a scarf.’
She look skeptical.
‘Something soft. In green. Her favourite colour that going cheer her up.’ Mi feel a little guilty lying to Gran. Mi look down at my purple sneakers.
‘Wait, yuh have money?’
I nod and touch my jeans pocket. Doreen’s mother, Mum’s friend, had stuffed a US $10 dollar bill into my hands when we went over to her house to tell her we were leaving the States. Doreen was in her room and didn’t come out and say goodbye. But I saw her watching us from the window above the fire escape when we walked back down the street. I remember the scent of Doreen’s mother’s curried duck, channa and dhalpuri roti that day. She wore a bright pink and green sari and smelled like jasmine when I hugged her.
I hear Gran inhale sharply. ‘Well, de night dem can get chilly. Okay, but we going for just five minutes, yuh hear mi? Mi nuh have time to waste.’
I smile and let her lead me through the streets.
We round a corner with a sign saying ‘Orange Street’.
A beggar stretches out his hand but Gran scowls and boxes it away. ‘Come outta mi face!’ she grunts, edging us forward against the tide of bodies coming from every direction. Mi not seeing faces anymore, just torsos in bright clothes, and arms brushing past mi. Body odour and food-smells assaulting my nose. In a big shiny, bubbling pot, heated by a coal-fire on the street side are massive yellow crabs. Mi couldn’t imagine a more painful death than being boiled alive. Poor crabs.
Amid the noise, I see a madman wearing a pink, ruffled ladies’ jacket and brown suede pants just standing there watching me with a strange look on his face. Mi look away ‘cause I ‘fraid of what him will do.
A sky juice vendor with missing top front teeth and a gold bottom row, grins at me. He’s in a stained merino and the way him looking at me make mi feel dirty. ‘Dawta, yuh sexy ennuh!’ he says.
Gran pushes out her lips and tells him he’s a child molester, that he has no shame calling out to a girl who hasn’t even seen her menses yet.
‘Sorry,’ he says, ‘but yuh nuh see how har titty dem stand up, Modda?’ pointing at my chest.
She rebukes him in Jesus’ name and I fold into myself.
Finally, we enter a lane and there, on a yellow and orange sign with green lettering, are the precious words ‘Discount Cash and Carry Emporium.’
So we at the place my father is or where somebody going know him and recognise his nose on mi face.
I picture Mum, young and pretty in an emerald dress strolling into that store thirteen years ago, and my dad seeing her and knowing that this woman is the loveliest thing he ever see. ‘So what you want, Miss? For you, it’s on the house.’
And Mum smiles at him and his funny nose.
I think of Sue-dean now and how I soon going be able to tell her that I, too, know my Daddy. That he not a nameless, faceless ghost left behind in a past Mum can’t speak about — a duppy she can’t shake. I could tell those boys he wasn’t a baboon.
Relief and joy mix together to lift mi heart out of mi chest. Mi breathing fast. Mi wipe mi sweaty face with a rag, straighten mi blouse and put a smile on my face to meet him.
When mi get closer, I notice the door padlocked with a heavy chain. The display windows have nothing in them. Strips of brown tape make big Xs across the front, like the eyes of characters in cartoons when them get struck unconscious. There’s a paper wall behind the glass, so you can’t see inside the store.
A pregnant lady walking by looks at our confused faces and says, ‘Dem close down three months now. Gone back to dem country.’
‘No!’ I wail.
Gran looking at me like mi just grow two heads.
Gran says, ‘Wah wrong wid yuh, chile? We can get yuh blasted scarf somewhere else! Is not the ongle store in town!’
‘But dem other stores not this store,’ I say, pointing, mi heart ready to break. I pull away from Gran’s grasp and refuse to budge. ‘He must be in there!’
Mi never realise that mi step into the road, until a taxi man blow his horn and shout at me, ‘Yuh must name Asphalt, since yuh want the car run on yuh! Some people is just a accident waiting to happen!’
Gran looks around, embarrassed that mi throwing a tantrum in the middle of downtown Kingston.
‘Mi say is what wrong wid yuh!’ She hisses.
Just then, a Rastaman pushing a cart with coconuts comes by.
‘Joelene,’ Gran lowers her voice, ‘yuh must thirsty and tired.’
She reaches into her bosom, bringing out the handkerchief and unfolds it to take out money.
The man takes the cash and chops the coconut neatly with his machete, revealing the white flesh under its green shell.
‘Look, see a coconut here,’ Gran coos, as if trying to soothe a wild animal. ‘Drink, mi love.’
I take it and sip. Normally, I let the sweet liquid dribble down my chin and chest as I gulp. But today it tastes bitter. The more I taste, the viler it gets. The bitterness isn’t in the coconut water but on my tongue.
I throw the coconut against the glass door, expecting it to shatter.
It just bounces back and lands limply at my feet.
Gran grabs her stomach like her belly-bottom dropping out in labour pain.
The Rastaman says, ‘Is Babylon fast-food rotting we children brain’ to a man selling cotton candy and doughnuts out of a crate on top his head.
‘This can’t be it!’ Mi voice sounds foreign. High pitched. Strained.
I move closer.
‘Daddy!’ I yell at the empty store. It just stands there. No sound coming out.
Mi don’t know how to feel. Is like everything suck out of the street: light, air, smell, sound. In mi head, I see a man’s shadow getting smaller and smaller.
I feel the scream coming from my throat but mi barely hear it. A crowd gathers and mi hear Gran bawling, ‘Lord have mercy! Rahtid! She mad like har modda!’
A man selling pillows put one on a plastic chair from the Chinese restaurant next door for Gran to sit on. The pregnant woman fans her. Cold bumps start to crawl across mi body and mi face sweating like a pipe turn on.
Then I see my face reflecting in the display window — mi hair, thick like Mum’s, mi eyebrows that join in the middle like Gran’s, which she tweezes every Sunday morning; mi eyes black and searching…searching… a nose that don’t look like nobody else’s I know, and mi lips, dark on top and red at the bottom and mi chin with a tiny dimple in the middle, and for what feel like the first time, I see mi whole face. My face.
Is mine and nobody else’s own. Emotions inside mi bundle up. Mi don’t know how to feel.
After a while, mi blow my nose in my sleeve and sniff and sniff and the girl in the glass finally say, ‘Let’s go home.’
That same evening, I think about telling Mum what mi did try do. Then mi realise there’s no point; Mum live inside a fog. She don’t have no answers for anybody, including herself. Mi know Gran wasn’t going tell her either. Gran love Mum too much to open up that sore.
So mi go over to Sue-dean’s house to tell her what happen. Mi think she was going laugh but she just hug mi and that make me cry more. Her father and Uncle Ricky were there that Saturday. I passed them playing cards on the verandah, so we talk soft-soft so they don’t come in Sue-dean room or knock on the door and ask us anything. So we lying on our backs in Sue-dean’s bed when I stop talking and she turn on her side to face me and whisper that she would keep my secret forever.
But something inside mi change. That whole week when I come from school I go straight to mi room and lock the door. I don’t want anything that Gran cook or bake. I hardly go to Mum’s room anymore. I avoid Sue-dean, who want to come over to talk about this boy at school who have a crush on her. Teacher say I too bright not to be paying attention and speaking up in class like mi used to. So Friday afternoon she call Gran who doing her usual Friday cleaning and sweeping.
In the quiet of the house, the broom she sweeping with sound like when a heavy wind move tree branches against the window. I in my room when I hear Gran telling Mum that Teacher called and how she don’t understand what get into mi from last week Saturday since I went to Sue-dean’s house. That I not the same child. And I don’t hear Mum say anything.
Something get through Mum’s fog and I know because of what happen next. That Friday night, the full moon pale orange and mi can’t sleep. Gran is at an all-night prayer meeting at church. I hear Ma groaning in her sleep in the next room. I lie in bed until Mum gets quiet again.
After a while, mi go stand up by the wooden louvres of the open window. A figure in a white nightgown is moving slow across our yard, going towards Sue-dean’s house. Is like a ghost. She seem to float instead of walk. Something in her right hand glinting in the moonlight.
Her dark skin ashy and pale, but mi know is my mother.
She gets to the house. The lights come on, then screaming breaks out.
I rush outside barefoot, scarcely feeling the hard earth. From the house, Sue-dean’s father runs out holding his crotch and collapses to his knees on the damp grass. Sue-dean runs out too, with Mark behind her. Sue-dean’s dress is torn and her eyes are as big as her whole face. She’s bawling and scratching at her legs. Her brother Mark is beside her making a sound like when you kick a dog. Sue-dean’s dad blowing hard, then moaning. Noni screaming for someone to fetch the doctor.
‘Yuh is a nasty wretch,’ Mum says standing over him, ‘but you cyaan do no more wickedness.’
He lies on the ground, pants around his ankles. There’s pooling blood from the river of red spouting from his body. Mum’s hands holding something. She laughs a loud laugh and throws it at him. The thing flops onto the grass and mi see what it is. I see one like that when Sue-dean and I peep on Mark bathing. Is a penis, cut off at the root.
Mum throw the knife on the ground. And light was dancing in her eyes again, like a lit candle.
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