January Small Stones # 17

School’s In

The state school kids walk down the                            Independent school children slide

hill their uniforms ‘customized’ to                                from Range Rovers, Mercedes and

define their identity, identically                                    more, driven up the hill by a parent,

individual. Girls with ruler straight                              they wait patiently for the boot lid to

hair, darkly lined doe eyes and thick                            open automatically, thus saving the

foundation, pert breasts forced                                     energy it takes to lift it. Their

skywards under polo shirts with St                              discreet sports bags are smart and

Someone’s embroidered. Boys                                      unmarked. The senior boys look like

hiding school clothes under hoodies,                            daddy clones, in navy blazers, beige

pushing the boundaries of accepted                             chinos immaculately pressed, ties

footwear. Some of each gender                                      perfectly ordered around proud

brazenly taking the odd puff of fag.                              necks. Pink cheeked girls, knee

Boys shove their mobiles in their                                  length skirts, tidy hair and not a

back pocket; girls show theirs off                                  smudge of lippy anywhere. The

while they Facebook and tweet.                                    occasional middle nowhere voice of

Check out the street corners, you’ll                             mummy, ‘Darling, please don’t

see some Good Morning gropes.                                   forget the Humphrey-Pococks

Hugs or fights.                                                                  are dining tonight.’

A Frizz Eased Mixed Chick

My hair and I have had a tempestuous journey to meet happily in our middle age. Little gypsy G had a globe of soft frizz, a painful tangle that had to be teased out from its tips to my scalp, a traumatic, tear stained business that makes me wince even now. I was five before I saw another soul with hair like mine; I was a bit like a rare breed of sheep, and then at infant school I met the Henry sisters, Patsy and Gloria.They carefully protected me until they went off to high school and I could stand on my own two feet because I was the brightest girl in class. Along with them went my only contact with other non white children, so the pedestal I gazed at with envy, from then on, held girls with silky locks. Around then I noticed what happened when we went out in the rain. My friend’s hair got wet and stuck to their heads. Mine? It was the strangest thing, little sprinkles sat on top like it does on blades of grass, one shake and it was gone. Apart from that and the occasional person asking if they could feel it (some just grabbing a handful) and then saying it was like cotton wool, I largely ignored it, it was just perching there.

I have a photo taken in my uniform on the first day of Grammar school and must have had a haircut for that and then no more for years and years. Instead I scraped it into an elastic band and it must have grown but it has a fragile nature so some would have broken off. I put aside the painful feelings of difference, I had no idea what could be done anyway. The odd woman could be seen in my home town with afro hair and images of powerful women like Marsha Hunt, a gorgeous creature with the biggest afro, were in the media and obviously doing okay.

I met the lovely Linda, a hairdresser who became my sister-in-law, when I was eighteen and I think she saw my hair as a challenge. I will never forget the first time she chemically straightened me. My left-to-grow locks had the smelliest gunge slapped on, it was screeched through my frizz – no I guess I screeched as it was combed through my frizz and I had to sit and wait. I emerged from her huge rollers with long smooth tresses and the feeling that I had become someone else. The next day at work a lot of people did double takes. Pretty soon I had to wash it and learnt quickly that it was going to revert when I did, unless I got to grips with big fat rollers myself! Until curling tongs, hot brushes and even blow drying arrived, I endured monthly torture by chemical to straighten the roots and even then on damp days my only option was to scrape it up into a pony tail. This first round of straightening continued for a few years until one day I went into my local chemist to buy the product and discovered it was no more. I think I went into a serious depression – for an hour – about as long as I can muster. LL then came up with the idea of perming my hair. What? Back then old ladies had their hair permed and followed it by a weekly shampoo and set! Of course I was desperate enough to try it and it worked, a whole new stinky chemical slapped on my head and I came out wavy and controllable by a new curling tong that I burnt my fingers on many, many times before I learnt. It was short back then, who remembers an 80’s haircut, long on top and cropped in short? I quite liked it until one day I overheard a little person ask his dad who that man was. My heart was on a platter and my hair has never been that short again.

Linda looked after my locks until she became ill and very sadly was lost to that nasty creeping C word. She was a truly lovely lady who never lost her sense of humour through all the painful treatment she underwent. I’ll always remember when she had a mastectomy; she needed a skin graft which they took from her lower abdomen. She laughed her head off as she showed me her patch of pubic hairy chest! Bless you; I’m sure you’re up there somewhere putting rollers in heavenly hair.

After a few visits to white hairstylists, I came across Theresa, a gospel singing, carnival costumed, Trinidadian barmcake. On my first appointment she gave me my options, relaxing or a ‘curly perm’. I chose the latter and came out looking like Whitney Houston. I know you don’t believe me, but at least two people said so. I also came out with a whole pharmacopoeia of gunge to keep it curly. Strange labels like Sta Sof Fro on pots of green sloppy stuff promised I would look wonderful. The reality? Just the slightest bit of humidity caused it to liquefy on my head and I’d look like someone had poured unset jelly on my head in some kids TV show. I don’t think I kept that look for too long.

You can relax permed hair, but not the opposite Theresa has always said and I’d look longingly at the black women who came in frizzy and went out smooth. There began ten years of relaxing. It can burn if left on tender skin a few minutes too long and if you constantly relax your roots to stop the bushy look and then start having colour put on because of the white spider web that appears on your head then your hair can end up in poor condition, as dry as steel wool! Also the whole process is expensive, I’m sure that my hair has cost me enough to buy a small farm for my rare breed woolly head, and if I could reclaim the time I could have written several War and Peace size tomes.

In Nigeria I had my hair braided with beads at the ends and I felt fabulous. That is until I came home and had to go to the conservative, prestige motor dealership where I worked, and my braids didn’t! Feeling like a Rastafarian in a costume drama I took them out. Three years ago Theresa put Ghanaian braids in for me. They were exquisite, but only until Grandmother Spider spun around, I so wish I’d had them when I was young.

I can’t pinpoint what snapped in me but suspect it was something in the media, some actress or personality with natural hair that influenced me to stop for a while. I tied my mop up while the chemicalled bits grew out. Theresa knew what I was aiming for, enough natural hair to be able to chop the rest and not have it too short. The day came, in 2009; I finally faced the world Au Naturelle. I have many, many bad hair days, but a woman who doesn’t is as rare as the woman in the moon. For now we are reconciled.

Half An Inch Lower

I have a scar on my left eyebrow. I don’t think many people know it’s there, because it’s overshadowed by a mole. Even I forget, until it’s time to pluck my eyebrows and then unlike the right one, which hurts like eyebrows do when you pull them, it has this strange tingling thing going down. Every time I remember its existence I’m catapulted back to the day I acquired it when I was a young girl living in a very different society. I lived on the edge of a rough neighbourhood that grew up when the local council built hundreds of homes in the 1930’s. They cleared the slums in the wet quarter of the city and dumped 2500 people in a soulless area that became infamous for vandalism.

There was no-one to play with in my road but one girl in my class at school lived inside this troubled circle, we were friends and as soon as I was allowed to spread my wings it was to her I flew. I never ventured to the park – that was far too dangerous; we’d hang around on street corners instead. In time the next phase of building began, this time private homes were built on the broad fields where I’d been taken for Sunday afternoon walks as a very little girl. A building site was very tempting to Linda and I – don’t ask why, I haven’t a clue what made a couple of eleven year old girls want to snoop around there. Maybe the risk of getting caught scrambling through breeze blocks and unframed doorways imagining the room they would become. It was always sunny back then, we all say that don’t we? When I was a kid summers were long, hot and dry. Well on that day it was and in the early evening we were looking for some trouble to raze when it came to us with a bang.

First came the shouts, ‘Oi blackie,’ ‘nigger,’ ‘gollywog,’ ‘we’re going to get you.’ Worst of all a ‘joke’ from some disgusting TV comedian of the day, ‘What’s black and lives in a hedge?’ I’ll leave the answer to your imagination or memory. Jokes like that were commonplace back then before the Race Relations Act was introduced and Alf Garnett argued that Jesus was English rather than acknowledging that he may have had some interesting skin tone.

I was a feisty little thing; I’d had to defend myself a few times so that night I turned to look at my tormentors, hands on hips. I even watched one of them pick up a stone a hundred yards away and take aim. I watched its arc through the air towards me, closer and closer, one of those moments when that air was pre storm silent. Ten feet, five, one, bang. Into my head, I spun with disbelief and shock.

‘Run’ Linda said and pulled me along. I tried to shake her off and somehow lost several minutes. I was vaguely aware of her returning with adult voices. I was taken, bleeding and dazed to hospital, an echoing, high ceilinged place with slamming doors where they shone bright lights to check my eyes and I could hear them say ‘Half an inch lower and she would have lost her eye.’

I enjoyed the attention at school the next day, showing off my stitches, but I didn’t play on building sites again.

Verbal racist abuse continued through my early and mid teens. I was never physically attacked again, but those years when skin heads ruled the town at night coincided with my night club age. I could never just relax and I still hate being around town after dark, I look out under my scarred eyebrow, over my shoulder.



My Photographic Journey

I had a disaster yesterday. At least what amounts to a disaster in my little world. I went out for the afternoon to try to get some decent photos to use for my course assessment and took two lenses. Now, I hate carrying things and try my best to travel light, but you know how women just have to have certain things with them? So yesterday instead of taking my main handbag that weighs a ton and slides off my shoulder whenever I try to take a picture, I took a tiny little bag that has lots of sections and padded it out to take my zoom lens along with the usual essentials. Going outwards on the walk in Shaldon I used the camera with its standard lens and at the furthest point, frustrated by my crappy shots, I changed to the zoom and put the standard into the camera case. Got some slightly better shots but not really what I was hoping for, the views across the estuary to Teignmouth were invaded by industrial warehouses.

Shaldon was a delight to wander around though, there was a decent butcher and a divine bakery (I’ve just had their tomato bread warmed and filled with cheese for lunch) with lower than supermarket prices. Back at the Ness car park, having snapped all the way, and in too much of a hurry, I rummaged for the zooms lens cap in the camera case. Unfortunately the case was at a funny angle and out fell the lens, landed with a clunk on the tarmac and rolled into the verge. I swore as I bent to pick it up, there was a brief moment before it fully registered and then I burst into tears when I heard the rattle of shattered glass. I cried all the way home and for most of the evening.

If you know me well, you’re probably wondering why I’m making such a fuss about something material that can be replaced. You may be thinking that it must be insured. Well I’ve had it three years and never had a problem before – believe it or not I’m very careful – and when it was due for renewal in June I decided that two hundred pounds to insure the camera and its lenses was more than I could afford. I’ll now have to spend that much to replace it, sometime.

So why the strong reaction? I’ve never been a dropper or breaker of things, been tempted to be a thrower of things at times, but as I have a scar over my left eye from having a stone thrown at me, I never will. It took me a while to work out the cause of my tears, it wasn’t something being broken, it was about a photographic item being broken. I had my first camera when I was about eighteen, a Kodak Instamatic no less, a cheap, simple to operate little thing that produced small square prints. I couldn’t afford to take too many photos, the cost was prohibitive and continued to be for many years. But even then I had a good eye and could see many, many photos crying out to be taken. Being a mum was the priority for many years and I was never in the position to own a camera. Just before the dawn of digital I bought a nice little compact 35mm followed by my first canon digital with just 3.2 megapixels but I took some good shots with it. That was in 2003 and two years later I upgraded to a 5 megapixel Canon and then I was away, teaching myself to use Photoshop 7 and using my photos to make cards, some of which I actually sold!

In 2008 a dream came true when I got an eos 450d with two lenses and the following year a third. I’m still learning to use it and I think I’m getting there because it’s set to manual these days. My ‘eye’ has grown faster than my techie skills could ever keep up with and if I’m honest there’s a limit to how much interest I can drum up in the ‘sciencey’ stuff I’m supposed to be learning on my Open University digital photography course. That’s where I am right now with photography. I wonder how much more skilled I would be by now if I had been allowed to use the equipment that had been in my house for most of my life? But I wasn’t, instead I was always told to leave it alone, don’t touch it you’ll break it, it’s too complex, delicate and expensive, and the  bottom line YOU’RE TOO DAMN STUPID TO USE IT.

And so there I stood yesterday in shock as my expensive, delicate, complex lens crunched to the ground and shattered. Is it any wonder that I cried? Now I’m okay, for the first time ever, I have by my carelessness, allowed something to break, but it really isn’t the end of the world.

Learning to Swim

Julie Abbott had fallen in. The pool was packed with wet, white bodies like a bucket of angler’s maggots and she’d fallen, slithered on the bottom and choked on the piss-polluted water. Hands soon found her tummy and took advantage of her vulnerability to let fingers rove into the elastic of her yellow shirred cotton costume, tweaking it, fumbling and pulling it aside to invade her in the chlorinated wet. She struggled but was grabbed by a constrictor arm so firmly that the other was free to carry out its rotten work. Her head was thrust clear of the surface but her body was ground hard onto a solid seat of muscled thigh, her first inhalation was of cider tinged breath through teeth that seemed wonky to her stinging eyes. In the midst of the raucous din she heard her friend’s worried voice,

‘Jules, Jules are you okay?’

Julie was released abruptly, her pseudo rescuer vanished into the throng leaving her snorting a mix of pool water and mucous back out of her nose and with a confused sense that something strange had happened.

‘I’m getting out Carol’, she coughed, ‘I feel a bit sick cos I’ve swallowed some water and grazed my knees on the bottom, I’ll see you in a bit’.

That was Julie’s first attempt at swimming in the City baths and several pubertal years passed before she returned. As a fourteen year old she was a pupil at a girl’s grammar school who ordained that everyone should achieve at least a grey swimming certificate. She had a vague unease that she couldn’t quite account for, but it was strong enough for her to plead menstruation for three weeks in a row and get away with it. For those three weeks she had sat on the balcony to watch, but that day for the first time she was alone. She heard the groan of the stair door closing, thought it was another girl skiving off and didn’t even raise her head from her comic when someone sat beside her. When a male voice said,

‘Fancy a kiss?’ her skin prickled like nettles and she turned and looked into the eyes that had appeared in her sleep many times. In a flash she understood, she knew at last what had happened all those years ago, there was no doubt.

He grinned, exposing a furred tongue that flicked downwards towards the folds of his chin, Julie’s belly churned and her vision distorted with images of nearly drowning mixed with a real fear of the man beside her.

‘Go away I’ll tell’, she tried to shout but it came out as a croak that ebbed away under his hog laugh,

‘Ha ha ha, what? I saved you, you would have drowned! Bet you’ve never been kissed, come on you’ll like it, have a try’. He was right, most of her friends had boyfriends, and Mandy Davey had gone all the way. Her memory had been of someone old . . . but . . . he wasn’t really was he . . .?

‘How old are you now then, sixteen? Sweet sixteen and never been kissed? I’m twenty four’, he must have read her mind. ‘I’ll buy you some chips and a cola float at Wimpy after or come back to mine for a gin, my flat mate’s away it’ll be just us’. She decided that maybe he wasn’t so bad. As he reached out to grab her she noticed ginger curls on the side of his hands, she thought it strange that he had soft hands and not the rough arms of her nightmares. And then his mouth was on her, he swallowed her with a gob so wet she felt she was dissolving in his spit. She wriggled but had no strength compared to his toned swimmer’s biceps, she couldn’t breathe and his tongue was deep in her throat. With his hands tugging her blouse, she remembered the same feeling of breathlessness in her nights of fantasy with a pillow, a Jackie mag and her David Essex posters.

Something happened down there inside her, she was aware that she was making a noise but it was muffled with the splashing of normality and the lifeguard’s whistle. He pushed her, fingers probed where they’d never been and weren’t meant to go, it hurt. Panting she pushed back harder.

‘Stop, stop, hold on a minute I’ve got to meet my friend or she’ll come looking, I’ll come back.’

‘What come to my place? Good girl I’ll look after you, you’ll see, be as quick as you can.’

Growing, somehow.

Growing, somehow.

Crying, why? Depression.  The big saucer eyes red and lower eyelids exposed and vulnerable looking like raw meat, angry, red and sore. The skin on his face was prickly with grey stubble, dry unkempt and with traces of white soap. The ruddy skin of the outdoors worker and long -term drinker. Fleshy folds of jowls, mouth loose, narrow lips. Dentures were in the pot beside the bed instead of in his mouth, so that the structure was gone from his face. He’d put them in and when he smiled he looked lovely but he played with them with his tongue, pushing them up down, in and out of his mouth and scary to a little child, who thought they had a life of their own and would bite by themselves.

As he aged there was dribble from that slack mouth and corners were cracked and sore.  But mostly it was the crying. Always there was pain, headache, debilitating agony all over his head. No drugs worked and he had lots of those, all the anti-depressants of the day were tried. The doctors used him as a guinea pig. He had Valium, Mogadon, and Triptizol and reporting side effects he changed them frequently never allowing any time to get into his system as they gave him headaches, made him groggy, kept him awake – whatever he went from one to the other and then back again.

Occasionally some crisis sent him to the trick cyclist hospital where he stayed for a few weeks. Sometimes that meant they gave him electro convulsive therapy which frightened him terribly and he would cry even more. He was frightened most of the time. Of death, of what was and might be going to happen to him.

Back to him. Those nasty hospitals, old style Victorian buildings that began as lunatic asylums with people that had been there for decades, padded rooms and strait jackets for those who couldn’t be controlled – for whose safety? The child visited and was afraid of him and the other patients. She was very sad but with no way of expressing any emotion, she took it back inside herself where it festered for half a lifetime and could easily have caused her to travel the same narrow, dark tunnel of despair. Fear, hindsight and education gave her some understanding of the possibility land he inhabited. He never went to the war in 1939, although he was twenty seven at the time, he was supposedly not fit, because he had a cycling accident, where he ‘cracked his head open’ and they put in a steel plate. Would that have been likely in the 1930’s? Did such procedures exist back then? If not it would have taken some imagination to conjure that one up.

So, no war for him, he joined the Home Guard and there were remembered whisperings that he had been called a coward. Or was he? Was that maybe something seen on a black and white Sunday Matinee in the 60’s? That war avoiders were called ‘yellow’? So that bicycle accident may have caused damage to his nervous system and lifelong mental illness.

He was a simple soul but he taught her about his small natural world. Look out for adders they can kill, how to dig a trench and plant potatoes, sowing and pricking out seeds, putting salt around slugs and watching them sizzle or how to tell a plant from a weed. When she was little he worked on the land. Each day he got on his bike and rode the mile to get there with sandwiches packed in greaseproof paper and a paper bag – several times re-used. There was no money so they were scantily filled with the cheapest mild cheddar which was always ‘tasteless muck’, dripping – from some scrappy roast dinner  kept in a china pudding basin on the cold shelf of the larder because there was no fridge, or streaky bacon that was invariably ‘salt as brine’. He complained all the time, nothing was ever good.

Because he hated riding his bike in all weathers he was grumpy and she thought that he had returned from a long journey each day, it was only as an adult when her world shrunk that she realised just how close the farm was to home. The farm owners were good to the family; they tolerated the fact that most weeks he would have a sick day, sometimes two. He only left when they sold up and retired. Perhaps it’s surprising that he rode his bike at all when falling from one had caused him so many problems. It was the victim of many punctures and frequent visits were made to the cycle repair shop for a puncture kit. Occasionally great disaster fell when an inner tube or tyre had to be replaced, a major expense. Spoons would be used to lever the tyre on and off the wheel. The child longed for a bike of her own. She would beg for a ride on his but he wasn’t often in the mood to lead her round on it. It was huge, dark green and very heavy. The cross bar prevented her from getting on independently but she kept trying right until her teens when he had no use for it anymore. Then she would wheel it across the road to the pub forecourt, lower it sideways enough to get her leg across and leap on but could never sit on the seat and reach the peddles. She has vivid memory of falling on the crossbar, agony for her warm flesh on the solid cold steel. To this day she is a very poor cyclist.

It’s strange that I’m writing this on Father’s day, I woke up this morning thinking of him and there are lots of stories I could write. For the first ten or so years of my life he was dad and then for the next thirty I didn’t know who dad was. And then Pa Claudie was found, as was a big chunk of myself. So where are they this Father’s day? Lost to me for good this time, but I like to think they are watching over me somewhere and feeling some pride. Bless you both.