‘Son-Son’s Birthday’ was shortlisted for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Mi wake up this morning like mi moving under water that too green. Something mi cyaan see siddung pon top of mi, weighing mi dung. Mi nearly knock over the enamel cup on the side-table next to the mattress. The same mattress that sag in the middle like a ole donkey wid a bruk back. The likkle room – weh mi live in for the last 20 years – all of a sudden seem strange. Like mi turn duppy – lost inna smaddy else nightmare. Is like the Lord God Almighty Himself tek Him giant hand dem and lift me up inna the night and rest mi down pon a different woman bed.
Mama’s snore dem seem like dem coming from a distance, ‘though her breath hot-hot on mi neck-back.
Mi roll out of bed on the left side. The mattress jerk and wake Mama. Mi barely notice the brown and green floral wallpaper in the hallway peeling off where the pickney dem in the yard – who turn adults now – used to grab it. I buck my toe on Mr Gill’s old hammerhead that push ‘gainst the wall. It feel like it take more than one hour to make the likkle cup of Milo-tea in the kitchen we share with the rest of the tenement yard. A roach creep inna de corner of the green rug that smell like rat piss when it wet. Termites stuff dem mouth with the carcass of the cabinet.
‘Lemelemelem-ho, Lemelemelem-ho,’ Mama chanting now. Her brain work like a mash-up bicycle – sometimes the chain break off and take her back to her days as a Pocomania member, days when she and the others would sing around the coloured flagpole in the Poco yard. Mi only have one picture of her from dem times there – the only picture mi have of her – a polaroid she get from ah American student studying what him call ‘Afro-Caribbean religion’. In it, she have her long hair pack up tight-tight under a white scarf with a pencil sticking out from the tie-head beside her ear. In the photograph, this red woman from St Elizabeth of no certain paternity look regal. Her bauxite-dirt red skin make we think she descend from the Maroons, the runaway slaves who bred with the remnants of Tainos in the hills; or she could be the distant offspring of a drunk German immigrant who rut with a black woman in the bush. She tells me my father was midnight-black which is why I am dark like tar. Sometimes at night she tell me about those days in St. Mary, days when she was young and pretty and life had promise. She cry sometimes when she see the picture on the nightstand, asking mi who that was and when did she die, her long fingers search the hills and valleys of my face in the dim light, as if mi hiding truth from the cobwebbed veins under her skin. She never ask me about the empty picture frame right beside it – the one that suppose to hold Son-Son’s picture.
After making the Milo-tea, I tell Mr MacKenzie, whose room is next door to we, don’t forget to lock the gate with the padlock when him come home on lunch break from the factory. Last week, Mama walk through the gate, all the way to Three Miles and then Kingston Harbour. If a postman never see her standing there swinging her arms like a fast bowler she woulda leap in and drown. He take her back home on his bike. Mr McKenzie don’t hear me or care to. Him think him 18-year-old girlfriend, Regina, sleeping with the mechanic downstairs who live beside Mrs James and her boys. His eyes already move from me to the clothes line where Regina in short-shorts, butt-cheeks on display for all to see, is pinning up his once-white merinos she destroy doing the washing.
‘Dina, Dina, Dina, don’t look so gal, fix yuh face!’ In her room, Mama is yelling to no one in particular. I bathe her with water from the pan near the bed, empty her chimmy in the pit latrine, and go to the standpipe to catch water to wash my private parts. I greet Damian who is stark naked under the standpipe. Mi know him from he was 5 and him is 25 now. I watch his soapy, dark muscles and the suds he is scrubbing between his legs and mi feel like someone tickling me between mi thighs, faster and faster. Merciful Saviour! Heavenly Father! mi say under my breath; and I stumble with the pan.
‘Mawnin’ Miss Dina,’ he says showing pearly-white teeth. Then a sharp pain in my chest comes and mi eyes tear up for no reason other than I am thinking of Son-Son. I imagine Son-Son is Damian’s height and complexion and he would be mannerly too, with pleases and thank-yous because no son of mine can be without manners. Manners take you through the world, Mama say.
I put Mama in front of the TV, turn the knob and ask Regina to check on her every two hours to see that she has eaten the callaloo, bully beef and tinned mackerel I left. I tell Mama goodbye as if she will notice mi not there. I put on the starched blue and white plaid uniform the Browns gave me.
I walk down the road, past the three bus stops with bullet holes in the zinc that the buses don’t come to anymore. I soon reach the bus depot a mile away. I board the bus, giving the fare to the conductor. The other women onboard greet mi with a glance or a nod. Like me, they on the way to work as helpers in big houses.
‘Mavis, yuh mean to tell mi say Mrs Palmer still nuh pay yuh fi the day yuh work pon public holiday las’ month?’ Maude say indignantly, turning to the passenger beside her – a lady with folds of flesh that made her look like a melting candle.
‘Humph,’ Mavis say in her usual grunt: ‘Nuh worry. Mi find some US dolla under the dresser when mi clean it last week that mi aggo keep. But mi have something fi har though, man. De wretch nuh know sey is her toothbrush mi use clean the toilet.’
Then we sit in silence as the bus creaks up Stony Hill, puffing black smoke. When my belly starts to growl, I realise I left the Milo untouched on the kitchen counter.
Mr Brown is in his study when I arrive. I only dust in there on weekdays when he’s at work because he don’t like to be disturbed. I hear him on the phone now:
‘Yes, Raymond, that’s a brilliant idea. We’ll give him great exposure at the firm. The partners and I would be happy to have him.’
Through the crack in the door, I see he’s nodding his head with vigour, as if the person on the phone can see him.
‘No, no, no. No trouble at all. Since he’s your son, I know he has the brains for the internship. He can decide afterwards if he wants to come back to Jamaica and do law here.’
After giving the directions to the house and hanging up the phone, he nearly knocks me over when he bursts out of the room.
‘What’s wrong with you Dina? Why are you loitering around here?’
‘Sorry Mr B’, I mutter to his fast-disappearing back.
‘Cindy!’ his voice booms from the kitchen. ‘You remember my old Princeton college roommate Raymond?’
After Mrs Brown’s long pause he says: ‘You met him when we were in Washington D.C last year. Christ, woman! Don’t you remember anything?’
He sighs a long sigh. ‘Anyway, he and his family are thinking of coming back to Jamaica. They’ll be here for a few weeks.’
I hear Mrs B’s uh-uhs. Unless it concerns her spa dates, shopping trips and manicure appointments, it’s hard for her to pretend interest in most things, especially when it relates to Mr B. She relishes her usual routine of: beach, shopping malls and lounging by the pool.
‘They left Jamaica nearly 20 years ago,’ he is saying now. ‘The son is in college and he wants to use his time here to intern at the firm. They’ve rented a car and will be here in a few hours. Make yourself presentable.’
I picture Mrs Brown rolling her eyes and drumming her long blue fingernails on the granite countertop.
‘What do you think they’ll want to eat?’ she asks finally.
‘Ackee and salfish, roast breadfruit, bammy, fritters, jerk chicken, rice and peas, some oxtail. None of your hors d’oeuvres foolishness. Make sure Dina has it done by the time they get here.’
As usual, Mr Brown talking about me as if mi not there. Cho. Again, mi feel like a ghost – an uptown duppy – fading into the walls. I look at the titles as I dust the books in the study. Commentaries by Sir William Blackstone. Modern Equity by Harold Granville Hanbury Chitty on Contracts.
‘Dina! It’s Saturday! What are you doing?’ His surprise to find me in the library makes his voice sound vexer than normal.
I leave, murmuring apologies.
I’m picking out the bones from the cooked saltfish when I prick myself. A long black car climbs the driveway.
Out of nowhere, I hear one of Mama’s often-chanted nonsense sayings:
Ole time don’t keep,
Ole life will leak,
What was lock will open up
wid the right key.
Mi Memory Closet creak open.
Mi realise for the first time that today is Son-Son’s 20th birthday.
20 years ago, when I was 17, me and Leroy, mi wutless boyfriend from All Age school, wrestled in the cane piece. I still had on mi shorts and panty, so it was pure shock when mi period stop. 9 months later here comes a picky-head boy-pickney. Skin dark and smooth like Leroy, head just as big. Face wide and beautiful. Mi never see eyelashes long so yet. Lips so fine and full and his little fingernails so pink and perfect. Long, long fingers like Mama. A strong, firm nose, like him know him is going to be one important man.
Mama nearly get epileptic fits when mi tell her I pregnant. Is just 2 years I in the job with the Steeles, an expat couple who work for the US Embassy in Kingston. The Steeles were good to me. Mi neva know what work Mr Steele did at the Embassy but based on how everyone talked to him – in hushed tones of quiet respect – I figure he must be a big shot.
‘Let him get yuh a US visa!’ Mama would say; but mi never ask and him never offer.
Mrs Steele was pale-pale, like a piece of sheet. She wore scarves scented with lavender or jasmine around her neck and chunky bracelets on her thin wrists. Her small face was half-hidden by a shock of red hair that fell across her eyes.
They let me borrow their books which I could read when I finish work early.
‘That’s poetry from Shelley,’ she’d say, or ‘Lord Byron.’ I memorised poetry I didn’t understand and recited it aloud, recitals that seemed to please her greatly. I learnt Keats ‘Of Autumn’:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run…
We’d talk about Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and read books from Caribbean writers like Derek Walcott, Kamau Brathwaite, Claude McKay, Erna Brodber, Roger Mais and Trevor Rhone. Mrs Steele taught me words I never hear anybody use. Words I never learn during my few years in All Age school. Ambulate. Vacate. Pontificate. Commiserate. Conjugate. Proliferate.
‘Dat ooman filling up yuh head wid words,’ Mama said. ‘Yuh can eat dem?!’
I picture Mrs Steele in a white apron to match her skin serving up some plump and juicy Naipaul and Lamming words on a plate, and I laugh.
‘Fool-fool gal,’ Mama would say, sucking her teeth.
Some evenings Mrs Steele tell me about the years they lived in Africa – their postings in Ghana, the Congo, Nigeria and Kenya, places she showed me on a map. She used to teach literature at universities there, she said, and I watch her eyes turn glass like she was in a trance.
‘Such beautiful people,’ she said. ‘Sweet little babies and the children so perfect.’ And then she’d get quiet.
The Steeles had no children so it was a surprise when they had what Mrs Steele said was a ‘baby shower’ for me. It was a dismal little party: between my pretending to want to be there, the too-sweet drinks Mrs Steele made, the balloons losing air fast, the stale biscuits and the crumpled banner reading ‘Happy Delivery!’ across the hall. It was just the four of us – them, Mama and me. Mama had worn her only good dress – a stiff, white-collared black shift that make her look like all the blood suck out of har face like the Catholic nuns that used to beat me in All Age school. The Steeles wore loose trousers and flowing floral tops that Mrs Steele said they had bought in Ethiopia.
I was in distress since Leroy had taken up with a big-breast girl named Shelly and had moved to Montego Bay.
‘So, you have no support?’ Mrs Steele asked, nodding sadly. I didn’t know how to answer and looked over at Mama drinking Darjeeling tea.
‘We could solve your problem.’ Mrs Steele looked nervously at her husband who had been standing by the large glass window. He suddenly found an object of great interest outside.
‘How about we adopt the baby when it’s born? After all, you can’t possibly look after it.’
It’s – it’s a burden for you really,’ she stammered. ‘Think of the opportunities we can give – and the best education.’
Mama’s cup clanged in the saucer. She pursed her lips ‘til they were nearly white.
‘Think about it, Dina. We can offer the child a good life.’ Mrs Steele seemed to float to the window where she held her husband’s hand.
‘We’d be wonderful parents.’
All that came to my mind were the words Mama finally said:
‘What two white people want wid a black baby?! Unno tink is puss pickney wey ah give out inna cardboard box?’
‘Now, now,’ Mr Steele intervened, trying to calm down Mama as Mrs Steele buried her face in his chest.
I don’t remember much of what happened next, only that that night I was thinking about Leroy, rubbing mi swollen belly. Mi back ached, the shadows from the Home Sweet Home kerosene lamp were dancing like someone possessed and Mama’s snores sounded like a hoarse cat clearing its throat next to me. I thought of my son, somehow I knew it was a boy, and picturing him here in this room made me feel for the first time like we were in prison and I had to get him out before the walls fell down on us all.
I didn’t tell Mama what mi decide to do. We couldn’t feed three of we. The chemical spill at the garment factory where Mama used to work did nearly blind her. That and her weak back meant no one would hire her as a helper, which was the only job her education had qualified her for.
When my son was born the Steeles said they had a couple weeks remaining in Jamaica. When they came to the hospital Mr Steele was beaming like a proud father.
‘Take me with you,’ I pleaded, desperate even then, to keep him. ‘I can take care of him as his nanny.’
‘It’s best if you don’t know where we are, Dina. Better for the baby, you understand? He’s got to think I’m his only mother.’
They took him five minutes after that. Before mi get to give him the protection necklace Mama had made for him in my bag. Before mi get to give him a proper name, so I decide to call him Son-Son.
The Steeles left me a box of books, a old settee, fridge and rug. I sold the settee, fridge and rug to get money while I looked for work. Nobody wanted to buy the books. I was glad to keep them anyway, so that I would have something to make me forget. The first few months I’d wake up wailing, pillow wet from dreams I couldn’t remember in the daylight. For a while, Mama and I sing sankeys, hoping Son-Son would catch my voice like a rope pulling him back. We dance around the room anti-clockwise, bending our bodies forward with each step, becoming a frenzy of arms, shoulders, hips, rib cages. Spinning and dipping. The spirits would come then. And after, we collapse on the bed, out of breath and sweating. Often, Mama would beat the kettle drum or shake a tambourine – both now gathering dust in the corner of our room. Back then, the drum was like our heartbeat. Mama tells me Son-Son’s spirit is strong but I don’t feel him, not even after Mama and I did a baptism ceremony for him.
In the beginning, I used to write Son-Son a letter each morning and tear it up each night until the words and torn paper blurred in my head.
‘Dina, you’re making a mess!’ Mrs Brown’s voice jolts me back. ‘They’re here and the ackee isn’t even cooked! What’s gotten into you today?’ She turns swiftly out of the kitchen, carrying the pitcher of otaheite apple juice I made. I follow her into the living room with the tray of glasses.
‘Ray! Great to see you again.’ I see Mr Brown hugging a fat white man with sandy brown hair.
‘This must be your son, Apollo!’ Mr Brown is in his element now, vigorously pumping an outstretched black hand. A tall, dark man in grey jeans and a loose blue t-shirt and black and white sneakers walks in. He has fine locks that are light brown at the ends, secured in a ponytail at the base of his neck.
I see the long eyelashes, the wide nose almost occupying half his face, the full-full mouth, the neck. I look at his powerful shoulders.
I let go of the tray. Right there on the terrazzo-tiled floor.
‘Son-Son?’ Time falls away. I don’t care about the Browns’s mortified faces or about anyone else in the room.
‘I’m sorry’, the boy says. He’s a boy in the body of a man, ruggedly handsome, broad face, knobby head like Leroy’s.
‘No more sorrys. You are here now, my son. I can’t believe it’s you.’
‘Dad?’ The boy looks at the man next to him, confused. ‘What’s she talking about?’
Mr Steele – the same Mr Steele with the floral shirts and crisp white pants – speaks now: ‘Sorry, lady, but you’re confusing my son with someone else. We don’t know you.’
‘It’s me, Mr Steele. Dina.’
‘Dina, shut up.’ Mr Brown says, shame etched on his face.
‘She hasn’t been herself today,’ Mrs Brown adds quickly.
In my head I scream: ‘Don’t offer nuh excuse for me yuh son-of-a-bitch! Mi not aiding and abetting yuh to have criminals thief mi pickney again!’
‘I know my child!’ My voice sounds alien, but I realise I’m no longer underwater. The drum is exploding in my ears now.
I grab his hands, stepping on the shards of glass that look suddenly like points of light glistening on the floor.
His fingers are like Mama’s; fingers that use sticks on drums to conjure spirits in the dark.
Mr Steele is saying now to Mr Brown: ‘James, who is this woman?’
‘If you don’t stop this madness right now, Dina, I’m calling the police,’ Mrs Brown yells.
But I pull my son to me and rub his head – his hair still coarse but no longer picky-picky. I like the sweet smell of his fuzzy hair. I kiss his mouth. The mouth that is like my mouth. He is the part of me that is outside myself.
‘That’s it,’ Mr Brown shouts. His and Mr Steele’s hands are on me now, fingers digging into the flesh of my shoulder trying to pry me off Son-Son. But I am strong.
The commotion must have brought Mrs Steele from outside by the car. She runs in, except that Mrs Steele is now blacker than me, a fine-boned woman with braids, high cheeks and a wide nose – nostrils flaring like a bull about to charge.
‘Take your hands off my son!’ she screams, and barrels her body into mine, knocking over the coffee table.
I’m on the ground before I realise what’s happening. She pins me to the floor then her husband drags her off me, kicking and screaming.
‘Dina! Dina! Get out!’ Mrs Brown is hysterical now and I hear Mr Brown, pitiful-sounding, saying, ‘Sorry about this Ray.’
Mr Brown shouts at me now: ‘If you step one foot inside this yard again, I’ll have you locked up for assault.’
Mr Steele’s face is pink. Son-Son is standing there, body still as though his feet are cement. Our eyes lock and I see me in him. I have embarrassed him by trying to take him back so openly. Alright. I’ll be patient, my son, I say under my breath. But I know he hears me. Only he can hear.
Mr Brown is still hurling expletives as I gather my bag and leave. I don’t care what Mr Brown says. Or about Mr Steele’s fake amnesia. Or that Mrs Steele is acting like she is not Mrs Steele now that her skin’s turned black from all that tanning in Africa.
Because I need my child. Because I need my Son-Son.
Illustration adapted from a photograph by Nicola Fioravanti.