Cupcake’s Story, by Jac Shreeves-Lee

From her debut collection, Broadwater, a story about the immigrant experience in London

Jac Shreeves-Lee: author of Broadwater

Jac Shreeves-Lee: author of Broadwater

 

I’m on my way to my mum’s house, carrying Sainsbury’s carrier bags bulging with groceries. Root vegetables, spices, herbs, rice; enough to make her a dinner that will last a few days. My arms feel like logs of timber, but I continue walking alongside Downhills Park towards her house, my eyes following the clay-coloured henna leaf prints that tattoo the autumn pavements.

‘Hi Cupcake,’ Binty Larson says as she walks by. She’s on her way to visit her parents who live in Lympne block on the Farm. A bristling wind’s blowing and she’s shivering because she’s not dressed warmly enough. Jeans and a meagre hoodie won’t keep out the cold. Young people, I don’t know.

‘Haven’t seen you for a while. How are you, Binty?’

‘I’m fine,’ she says but her big hazel eyes well with water; I can see she’s been crying. I’ve known Binty since she was a bump in her mum’s belly.

Pulling her hood more closely around her head, she says she’s sorry but she can’t stop and talk, she’s in a hurry. I tell her it’s nice to see her and to take good care. Binty and Ruth were happy, well-behaved kids. Now they’re young women making their way in the world and I know they, too, will have to manage the curveballs life throws at them.

Mum opens the front door to the hallway just enough so that I have to step in sideways like a crab. Turning away, she shuffles back to the living room in flattened-down slippers. Everything is done very slowly because I need to be patient with us both. She has carers who visit her daily but I also spend time with her.

‘Cupcake, you’re late,’ she calls out.

In the hallway I remove my coat and retrieve one sleepy sock that has got stuck in the bottom of a boot. I hang my heavy coat over the banister, though I know she’ll hate seeing it there, a heavy darkness spoiling clean lines. The shopping bags slump beside a tall cupboard in the kitchen, and I tie back my hair to avoid netting any cooking smells. When I walk into the living room I find Mum wrapped up tightly in her old wine-coloured, brushed-cotton dressing gown. Lodged in the sofa, she’s become part of the upholstery; she clutches a red rubber hot water bottle that’s missing its fleecy cover.

‘My back’s killing me,’ she says.

‘Have you put your heat pad on?’

‘Yes, but it doesn’t make any difference. The doctor says it’s wear and tear. What can you do about wear and tear?’

Returning to the kitchen, I chop the vegetables and pop the stew on the stove.

‘Ready for your bath?’ I ask.

Holding her arms, I help her up from the sofa and very slowly we climb the staircase.

‘Who would have thought I’d come to this?’ she asks.

In her bedroom she sits on the side of the bed that faces the windows. Her skin is silken, the colour of candle wax. Her body shape is the same as mine, and I see what I will become.

‘You know, I wasn’t always like this,’ she says, and I hear the younger woman laughing, see her dancing and being swept off her feet by my dad.

‘I had my moments,’ she sniffs.

The blue bath seat lowers her into the tub and I struggle with the shower head. She shivers at the cold; she prefers the water to be fire-hot. As Mum lathers her body with her favourite Damask Rose soap, she remarks on its lovely smell and says that it doesn’t dry her skin like the others do.

‘All done,’ I say.

‘You’re a good girl,’ she says like a kind-natured drunk. I help her out of the bath and we return to the bedroom. The peach-coloured bath towel I’ve taken from the airing cupboard is fluffy and warm, and I rub it over her body.

‘Feeling better?’ I ask.

She nods and, staring at me, says, ‘You look like your Aunt Eva.’

I feel her examining my face.

‘It’s all right,’ she says, ‘I’m just remembering.’

She lets me ‘L’Oréal’ her face and dry her hair.

‘Don’t know why you bother,’ she says. ‘I look like an old witch and there’s no fixing that.’

Pulling the elasticised socks over her swollen ankles takes time.

‘I don’t think your dad ever said he loved me,’ she says. ‘Now why do you suppose that was?’

‘I don’t know, Mum.’

‘And don’t give me all that about him not being good with words. He was good enough with words when he wanted to be.’

Carefully, we walk back downstairs. When she settles into a nest of cushions in her armchair, I serve her a bowl of vegetable stew with a buttered roll and a mug of sweetened hot cocoa.

She says the stew I’ve cooked is good. ‘You never learned this from me.’ She almost smiles.

‘You were a very good cook,’ I say, and she stops eating and searches my face.

‘Was I? Really?’

‘Yes, you were... are.’

‘It’s all right,’ she says and shakes her head, ‘I’m just remembering. I do a lot of that now.’

‘You will remember not to put the stew in the fridge until it’s properly cooled down, won’t you?’ I ask.

‘What?’ she says. She never hears my questions, only my answers to her questions. In the living room I sit down beside her.

‘I’m going now, Mum.’

Leaning over, I kiss her forehead and stroke her fine, silver hair.

‘But you didn’t answer my question,’ she says. ‘Why do you think your dad never told me that he loved me?’

‘Love’s a verb, Mum. Perhaps he showed it. Just because he didn’t say it doesn’t mean he didn’t feel it.’

‘All those years,’ she says. ‘But men didn’t say it back then. It’s just that it matters now. I’m trying to sort out the pieces left over.’ She lowers her head. ‘It’s the last blanket I need.’

‘It’s all right,’ she continues. ‘You’re not to worry about me. I’ve got too much time to think. Go before it rains.’

The sky is crystal-clear, blue and cloudless but, she tells me to take an umbrella.

‘There’s a few brollies under the stairs. You never know... Have you got time for a story?’ she asks. Glancing at the clock I realise I’ve stayed longer than I wanted to, but I like listening to Mum’s stories.

‘It all came back to me the other night,’ she says. ‘I had this craving. Worst ever. Thing is I could taste the stuff in my mouth, on my tongue. Strangest thing. Bread pudding. It started off with bread pudding,’ she says, smiling. ‘I couldn’t remember who taught me how to make it.’

Mum always used to make bread puddings.

‘Took me the longest time to remember. It was your godmother, Betty, who taught me. I can still see her with her bright red hair, popping raisins into her mouth. Where do you think she got all that hair? And what was the point of all that glory when most of the time she hid it under a scarf?’

‘She was glamorous, though – and what a singing voice. She was brilliant in Annie Get Your Gun,’ I say.

My godmother belonged to an amateur operatic society and I’d seen her perform, her voice belting around the auditorium. Mum looks at me.

‘Things were different when you were born. Very different. You know, I’ve never quite worked out why they call the past “the old days”. They can’t be the old days, can they? The world was younger then. So they’ve got that wrong. Those were the young days and these are the old days.’

She pulls up her woollen blanket and covers her knees.

‘I loved your dad something silly. I’d always liked a certain sort of man. The cheeky, handsome ones that came at you with their low whistling. I don’t know why, because my dad, your grandad, was so strait-laced, cautious, upright, but your dad walked into my life and that was it. All change.’

My parents arrived in the UK in 1954 having sailed from Kingston, Jamaica on an Italian liner called the Fair Seas. When they disembarked at Plymouth it was raining heavily. They were not wearing coats and carried two small leather suitcases. Greeted by the squeaks and blasts of a loud brass band playing Rule Britannia, they settled in Mother England.

‘The night you were born was a dreadful night – the weather. It snowed and snowed, I’d never known such cold.’

I know the day that I was born was a very bleak day in British sporting history. February 6th, 1958. It was the night the Busby Babes lost their lives in a plane crash, and I was busy being born. Matt Busby’s young footballers plunged to their tragic, untimely deaths and the news was spread across the front page of every national newspaper the following day. Their bodies were still strapped to their passenger seats, pitted in the snow.

‘1958 was also the year of Laurel Aitken and “Boogie in My Bones”. Your dad could really dance, he was good enough for Strictly Come Dancing. You should have seen him, Cupcake.’

And in my mind’s eye I can see my parents gliding across the living room. Their kitten-heel and wingtip shoes using every inch of mauve linoleum floor. Their lithe fluid-limbed bodies rocking, reeling, whooping and bouncing on the high notes. A bluesy saxophone blowing woozy smoke rings until the early hours of Sunday morning.

Her voice grows small. ‘No one talked to us back then. A black man and a white woman married and setting up home. There was a lot of hatred. No blacks, no Irish, no dogs. Vile Teddy boys. Nasty things put through our letter box. Dog turds, sanitary pads.’

The daily indignities chipped away but they kept going.

‘Your Dad was told to go back home, small change was dropped in his hand each time he shopped like he had leprosy and he was turned down for job after job, having to take any odd scrap of work he could find so we could survive. They were hard, bitter days.’

At the time, my godmother lived with her husband and family at the other end of Harringay Road where Mum and Dad lived. Betty befriended my mum one morning when Mum was sweeping the garden path. She was the only neighbour on the road to talk to my mother.

Mum continues, her voice full of new notes, ‘My waters broke. I remember I was standing in the bathroom brushing my teeth and I knew you were on your way. In the morning I’d carried a sack of potatoes from the vegetable rack and I’d put terrible strain on my stomach. God knows what I was thinking, but that’s the thing, you don’t always think, do you? I called out and your dad came running. I was on all fours in terrible pain. He didn’t know what to do, he was panicking, and then he ran out of the house and said he would try to call an ambulance. Only one man on the road had a phone. This was 1958, remember. Your dad knocked on Mr Bateman’s front door and asked to use the phone, Mr Bateman said something about not helping a nigger and shut the door in his face. Then he ran down to Betty’s house. He didn’t know her name, we didn’t really know them, but your dad was desperate. They were there before your dad could wink. Betty’s husband, Sid, sat with your dad while she helped me give birth.

‘You were a difficult birth and when you did show your face, Betty was the first person you saw. You were as quiet as a mouse and only cried when she slapped your bum. Betty and I began a lifelong friendship and she became your godmother. It was dear Betty who taught me how to make bread pudding.’

Mum had been a fighter, boxing at life. Headstrong and spirited, but quiet and distilled beside me now in her smaller, seasoned form. I’ve got photographs of her in miniskirts and tight trousers, and ones of my dad wearing bell-bottoms and an afro like a halo.

‘I know it wasn’t easy for you. I remember when you’d just started secondary school and I came home and caught you.’ Her face darkens.

Stavroulla Papamichael had told me that the back of my neck was black and dirty, so when I got home from school I threw off my blazer and ran into the bathroom, where I scoured my neck with Ajax until my skin bled and my fingers trembled. I tried to scrub the names from my memory: rubber-lips, nig-nog, blackie, jungle-bunny, sambo, wog, shit-face. Mum found me there. She cried as she gently sponged and dried my broken, bloody skin.

My parents met in St James, Jamaica in 1946. Dad had returned from the US following the Second World War and Mum was teaching in a secondary school. Dad was a chiselled black man and Mum was the white great-great-granddaughter of slave owners. It was love, taboo and excitement at first sight. Mum’s father forbade the relationship but Mum said, ‘If he’s no son of yours, then I’m no daughter.’ My parents married despite all Mum’s family’s threats and protestations. And then there I was – their beloved daughter Cupcake.

They settled in north London, saved hard until they bought their own house in Tottenham. Dad worked twelve-hour shifts in a glass bottle factory until a machine accident nearly cost him an eye.

He died seven years ago. Dementia, the thief with a big black bag, stole him away. Before his diagnosis, there was a pre-dementia time when the condition seeded, taking slow root, snipping at his heels and feeding him fanciful ideas about what was possible. He wanted to buy an ice-cream van but all Mum could see were reasons not to.

‘What do ice-cream men actually do in winter, besides starve?’ she said.

‘That’s it, snuff out my good idea,’ Dad said.

Then Dad did the unforgiveable thing. He died. Mum called him selfish, stupid, careless. She gave all his clothes away to the Cancer Research charity shop on Friday and banged on the shop door the following Monday, wanting them all back.

Mum stirs and wakes. She wipes the dribble from her mouth.

‘You still here?’

‘Yes, but I’m leaving now.’

‘I look at you sometimes,’ she says in an unsure voice. ‘You’re the job I’ve done. Did I do okay?’

With my biggest smile, I answer, ‘Yeah, you did good.’

‘H’mm.’ She looks me up and down, then, sighing, looks out the window and starts moaning about pigeons and the mess they make.

I kiss her on the forehead and put on my coat and boots in the hall.

‘See you on Friday,’ I call out as I open the front door.

‘And say hello to that young Ricky for me, tell him to keep reaching for those stars,’ she says.

‘I will, Mum. I will.’

Broadwater by Jac Shreeves-Lee is published by Fairlight Books

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