Prize winning story by the Caribbean Regional Winner of the 2014 Commonwealth Short Story Prize
My mother voice growing old over the telephone. First I thought was the line crackling, you know sometime reception ain good considering whether the voice have to travel under the sea or over the sky. Then there was also the business of her getting American. That one was a slow business. When pickney small is only so and so they does notice. Like how when Sunday come and we running up to Uncle Marcus house to hear the telephone and Granny complaining at me slow she say, slow, your Granny leg ain fass like yourn. And when we reach and the telephone ring bringg! bringg! Bringg bringg! and me one cyant control misself is climbing I climbing up high on Uncle Marcus kitchen stool. And when she sweet voice come tinkling down the wire like birdies singing or water down the drainpipe is the sound I holding on to and the words follow. Chantal! She say, Chantal! How’s my sweetheart honeychile Mummy chocolate fudge eh? Sometime she so clear is like she was in the room and Granny say the first few time I drop the phone and was looking all round the house for Mummy and bust out one crying. Was like the time we puppy Smartie see he-self in the long mirror and start yapping and running behind the mirror for find the other dog. Other time her voice ain clear at all, she sound like she shouting through the drainpipe or like the boys on the dam fishing, cupping them hand round them mouth and hollering cross the water. Uncle Marcus shake the phone then and blow down it, and put it to he ear and he face getting vex bad. He have to cut the line he say cos it na good but he don’t cut it, he put it down and look at it and then it ring again after a long time when we getting fed up and then all of we jump and then laugh when Mummy voice come back on.
The other thing I remember about the first sound was happiness. Happiness come jumping through the telephone wire like sunshine running on paving stone. Mummy laughing and calling me her chocolate fudge and how she was going to eat me up and blow bubble on my belly like she used to. She even sing me song. She sing me song from movie pictures from flims she know I see, like we off to see the wizard. She know I see it because she send me videos. At school my fren them jealous bad when they see I have new videos that ain even in the store yet. She know all the word of them song so good Granny say is like she memorise them. And is true they sound same same, maybe that was one of the times she start to sound American.
The thing that confuse me is this: Mummy happy voice. Because even though I happy hearing her voice dancing on the telephone line, even though Sunday was fill up with all the preparation for that, was still six other days to get through. And a day was a long long time from brekfuss to night. From morning light when other people mummy voice breaking through the jalousie to night-time when them warning y’all come inside now before jumbie catch you. I not happy. I want my mummy, the smell of her, the feel of her arm wrap round me even when she push me off she lap and laugh. That day after my birthday when I was four, when I didn’t realise what happening, when the house fill up with uncles and aunties and some cousins from the river and my god-sister who eye turn up funny, when car horn blow and Mummy come out her bedroom with a suitcase and heise me up and wipe ice-cream off my face with her kerchief and kiss me and squeeze me she say Chantal Mama gwine away for a lickle bit and Granny gwine look after you and Mama gwine come back soon and collect you . . . that day still clear clear in my mind. Before and After not so clear. Before mix up with mornings and sunshine and Granny flinging dust out with the broom. Before mix up with Mummy have the radio on and going outside with her church shoes on. Before was smelling Mummy nice talcum powder smell after she bathe. After was Granny use it up till it all gone. After was me hollering and not eating and vomiting and kicking Granny.
Was Uncle Marcus say Stop Crying! in he big man hard like rock voice. He say stop my stupidness as I nearing school time and they don’t have babies there. He take me out with he in the govment car and point out the beggars in the street. He drive past the marketplace where the women have their babies under holey parasols in the damblast midday sun while they selling one two mangoes. He drive up the country where the naked skin children playing under the stand-pipe and he akse me if I want to end up like them. Then he drive me by the seawall and buy me ice-cream and tell me my Mummy working hard for send me to America. In school was a white lady teacher. Her voice jump up and down the classroom like balloon when air fizzing out. She teaching everybody to read but some of we like me find it hard. No cat don’t sit on no mat in we house. Smartie don’t sleep like no log, he sleep like dead dog. At home postman come with letters from America. Some have my name on them; I spell it out slow, with my finger. Granny read out the words inside and hearing Mummy words through Granny voice was a different experience to the telephone. She write the same things as she say about how she miss her chocolate fudge and how soon she gwine send for me. Sometime Granny slow down she voice and I feel she skipping what else Mummy say. Her lips move quiet then she say how Mummy working real hard, she have to scrub floors and lift heavy old ladies and she hardly don’t get any sleep because of Beck and Call. I don’t know who they is. She say how Chantal must write. She don’t understand writing not for me, I prefer talk to she on a Sunday. When I akse Granny when Mummy gon send for me she say soon soon. When I akse Mummy when she gon send for me she say soon soon.
Come a time we go to Uncle Marcus house and wait but no telephone ring. We sit down a whole afternoon and no telephone ring. That situation last a long time. I know because rainy season come and go and every Sunday we walk down the road rain flooding the road from the trench. Uncle Marcus say he ain driving no govment car to get stick up in mud. Day after day the postman ride past the house on he bike, raising he leg and cussing as Smartie take a liking to chasing he. Granny suck she teeth when he don’t stop and under her breath she say people tiefing everything these days. Granny start for warn me things is hard, and food get simple, she lining up in the govment shop for flour and rice. She taking in my uniform the same time she letting it down. Granny get job. She cleaning rich people house up by the lake. Sometime she take me with her, we get the bus and walk down a long road with big gate and button entry. The floor there not like we one. Them so shine I frighten meself looking down. The ice-box so big I can fit inside if I have a mind to. Granny point out lobster and clam in freezer bag she say come from Miami. She assure me my mother is not in Miami. In my bedroom I line up the things Mummy send me when the postman used to stop, dolly clothes and sweetie, pictures of she standing in snow with a woolly hat on. My finger trace she face with she short hair. The video she send stand up on the windowsill. I only see them one two time, because tiefman come in the house and steal the video-player.
The children them in the yard call me Send-For. I dint know what that mean for a long time. They not nasty all the time. All o’ we play catcher and hopscotch, skipping and dare. Two boy who did use to tease me boast how they really gwine soon and sure enough one day they gone. Granny say they uncle sponsor them to Canada. Somebody else in the yard they call Come-Back. Was a girl who aunty take she to London say she would get her nurse job but she come back by Christmas and soon again sitting on the back-steps shelling peas. By some foolishness there was also a boy call Fall-Back. They say he mother and father send he from London to learn education and respect back home because children don’t listen to their parent there. I feel sorry for he more than me. People tease he because he so poshy poshy talk like English duck and quack quack is all we hear while we laughing until one day he cuff one of the boys so hard he knock he teeth out. After that they play nice and he larn for talk like we. One day the postman bring not only letter but parcel. Granny hand shaking while she find the scissors and cut careful not to slice the stamps or anything that might be cuttable inside. Two bottle nail polish roll out. Follow by a pen and pencil set which had sharpener and eraser inside. It nice bad because it had Michael Jackson on it. Granny unfold the letter and go sit down in the rocker. I see words rolling way down the page. When she finish reading she hold it to she chest and start rock. I akse her, Granny is what she say is what happen and she only shake she head. I akse she if we can go back Uncle Marcus on Sunday and she say wait and see.
Wait and see went on long. I start high school and Fall-Back start walking home with me. He tell me how he miss he mother too and I just look at he and look away and don’t say nothing. I dint know that what it call, missing. In my bedroom I think bout this missing. I run my finger over the nail polish bottle and the Michael Jackson pencil set and I wonder if her finger touch them too. I put them to my nose and smell them. I wrap my arms round my old dolly and think about Mummy blowing bubbles on my baby belly.
At school they send me to special classes because they say I dyslexic. The saviour was the computer; I learn that thing so fast they say everybody got to watch out. Uncle Marcus lucky he still driving the govment car; he say the best thing in this world is fa keep your head down and work hard. What that mean is that even when govment change and one batch o’ crooks get exchange for another he still got he job. Words he always say was like water and nobody must never waste them neither let them run away. Uncle Marcus buy computer then and so is how we get back in touch with Mummy, only this time instead of telephone go bringg bringg is the computer bringing Mummy voice. You have to wear earphone like pilot. The first thing I notice is how she voice changing, not only it not happy but it tired. The second thing was the time it take for somebody to talk and somebody to answer back. I imagine everybody words criss-crossing somewhere in the air. Musee like Luke Skywalker laser. Uncle Marcus say at least it free. Mummy akse me bout school and seem surprise I in high school already. The question I want to akse was trembling on my lip. Everybody waiting to hear it too. But then Mummy said her papers taking a longer time to come through and lossing the job put her right to the back of the queue again. She akse me what I want she send for me and I think, send for me. Two week later a pile of magazine arrive. I look at the pictures.
My father don’t figure in the Before time. Nobody never call his name. But then come that time when Uncle Marcus get promotion. I remember he drive the govment car up we road which eventually get fix with tar and stand there proud on the veranda telling Granny he going abroad. Me and Granny jumping up and dancing sure to Jesus is America we gwine see Mummy. But Uncle Marcus hold he palm and pressing it down and say, not we, he. He boss make Consul over in the Islands and he say he want he safe honest same driver. He dint know if we can go holiday maybe. I jump up again. Airplane fly out same as Mummy. Bound for drop me somewhere near she! Some say bout people crawling out the woodwork and that what my father did. Crawl out of some backwood and say nobody taking he chile out the country. Right on the doorstep there was ricketics carrying on and for the first time I like a bone in-between. Between all o’ them settle the agreement that this man who name my father go tek he turn look after he own pickney. And so come Send-For Chantal realise she have a father. I couldn’t see no significance in that. Not everything got significance. And when he come for me in some bruk down van I cyan hardly see Smartie tail dropping by the rocker whey Granny sit, me eye so fulla water. There must have been dealings going on behind the scenes because after he turn up and Granny say I gwine stay the holidays with him I learn she get sick. I was fourteen then and cyant carry on the way I did when I was four. Though I wanted to scream and shout and kick the way I did when Mummy left I know it would be unseemly. I look at my granny and realise I never even think of her with her own name. Rosa, she name Rosa, not Granny. She look small small and her hair getting white.
Them holidays stretched to two year. Granny had to go hospital and then recuperate at her cousin house across the river. They let go we house. The man call my father live way up the East Coast with he wife Mena and three children. They had a farm with skinny cows and mango and jamoon which Mena sell at market. Was she I had to fight shame and tell when I see blood in my panty. Them three children didn’t make themself. That what I keep telling meself when they run tell lie how I tiefing the sugar, how I drop Mena best cup pon the floor. They tell me I lie my mother in America. They say I an got no mother. Mena vex that I cyant roll roti. The school they send me more backward than me. They never see computer and everybody sharing exercise book. Nobody round there have no telephone. I trying hard to keep Mummy voice in my head. Over and over I concentrate on how it sound, and how she laugh. Sometime one of the lil girls laugh jus like Mummy. I wake up foreday morning and imagine it was Sunday and me and Granny going up to Uncle Marcus house. I used to akse the man call my father if I cyant visit Granny, he say it too far and the van bruk down. A line o’ coconut tree run the back o’ the yard. Behind that the land stretch flat and wild all the way to the ocean. When rain fall plenty it flood. Nobody don’t go there. Ghost story fill everybody head when the radio not working or the man call my father cyant get work. He spit on the ground and say everybody abandon the country and if he had a choice he won’t live near no slave logies. Mena catch another baby and school was done then for me.
The August I was sixteen Uncle Marcus come back. I hanging out the clothes and see the self same govment car come driving down the road in a cloud of dust. The car draw up in the yard and the man call my father rouse heself from the hammock saying ah who dat. I know was my Uncle Marcus uncurling heself out the car. He get fat. A smile crease he face and I fly so fast I nearly knock he down. He say how I get big. I stick he in the belly and say how he get fat. If money change hands that day I don’t know. I only know that was one Big Head Queen sit down in that front seat and drive away. I only know that out the corner of my eye I peeping at Uncle Marcus like he’s a jumbie. I dint cry at all when I leave the house with my one two things. Funny though all them children start bawling and the lil girl hold on to me tight.
Uncle Marcus house was same same; same kitchen stool which don’t look so high. Same telephone sit up there. But pon the table a new computer. Uncle Marcus say we go visit Granny at she cousin but guess who send thing for me! Big box stand on the table. Inside was clothes and handbag, make-up and shoes. You see she? You see she? I akse. And Uncle Marcus bring out a envelope and show me photos of when he went America and visit Mummy. And there was Mummy in somewhere call New Jersey. She standing in a room at her godmother house. Her godmother old like Granny and can’t walk. You see chile, Uncle Marcus say, she cyant have you there. You still a dependent and she a dependent too. But Uncle Marcus pick up the telephone and start dial. He saying hello hello, shake the phone and look in the receiver. Then he say hello hello again and he face break in a smile. He pass it to me. I say hello hello too and crackling over the line a hello chocolate fudge come over the line. My throat swell up all a sudden and I don’t know what I saying. Her voice sounding so different like is stranger I talking to. Uncle Marcus shake he head when he find out my education was rolling roti and minding chilren. He enrol me in college for learn computer and adding up.
My mummy head fill the Skype screen. At first nobody know what to say. She say I looking big like a proper young woman. I say she hair getting fine fine pon she head. Her voice sound real American now, even slow and drawly. Only one two word coming through from hereabouts. Her cheek draw down and her hands fluttering like prayer flags. I want to akse her the question but I know the answer. I want to akse her something else too. I want to tell her bout the programme I watching last night about all them Africans drowning trying reach Europe. We got TV here now and all the time I watching America though sometimes I get fed up with who boyfren do what to who girlfren and who uncle steal the money and car and gun and Hannah Montana singing and dancing and I switch to World News where water swallow up a whole island and terrorist blow up young people in a place call Bali. Instead I talk to she about Fall-Back. But she don’t know Fall-Back. Only Granny know Fall-Back. I tell her bout Smartie, how he get drown jumping off the boat that take Granny. She akse me bout the man call my father how we get on and all I can say is all right I suppose. She roll she eyes.
It seem time past when Mummy can send for me. Rules say I now have to apply for visa on my own. But even Uncle Marcus can’t find sponsor. He say left right and centre people jumping ship. He drive we by the seawall and say how this country never have no motherland, that why people stamping shooting killing each other. He say he sorry Fall-Back gone back how he know how I like he. He warn me must be careful now as man only want one thing. He say he sorry Granny depart this world and left me. Water come in he eye then, she his Mummy after all. We watch the water for a long time and I thinking how frighten bad people must be to fling theyself in boat and plane and cross the sea. Then I think of them who reach and if that land really free and how much them really pay.
My mother voice growing old over the telephone. Her face grow old on Skype. Her hand grow old and shaky shaky on the paper she write me which most times I can’t read. But I shout the children say come, you grandmother on the phone, tell she how people building concrete house now, tell she how yall working hard and maybe next year we can send for she.