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Authors: Precious Williams

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Precious

BOOK: Precious
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First published in Great Britain 2010

Copyright © 2010 by Precious Williams

 

This electronic edition published 2010 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

 

The right of Precious Williams to be identified as the author of this work has been

asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

 

All rights reserved. You may not copy, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise

make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means

(including without limitation electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying,

printing, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the

publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication

may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

 

Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 36 Soho Square, London W1D 3QY

 

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

 

ISBN 978 1 4088 1519 9

 

www.bloomsbury.com/preciouswilliams

 

Visit www.bloomsbury.com to find out more about our authors and their books.

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With love to my daughter – I hope you will come to realise how precious you are.

Book One

It cannot be expected that this system of farming would produce any very extraordinary or luxuriant crop.

 

Charles Dickens,
Oliver Twist

1971

THIS, I AM TOLD, is how it begins.

It’s September.

A tall black woman with a foreign accent pulls up to the kerb in a red convertible. She parks on a tree-lined street, on a council estate in rural West Sussex. The stocky, espresso-skinned man next to her keeps twisting round in his seat to gaze at the plump baby girl asleep in a Moses basket on the back seat.

The woman’s gold bracelets jangle as she switches off the ignition, rolls on an extra layer of lip gloss and adjusts the mirror to pout at her reflection. Unknown to her, net curtains begin to rustle and twitch. White faces peer out. Wondering. Watching.

The woman slams her car door shut. She strides down the little dandelion-choked path to number 52, West Walk, her flat nose tipped towards the setting sun. The man trails several steps behind her. The woman, in her white silk suit, turns and adjusts the lapel of her companion’s sports jacket.

The front door opens.

The black woman, almost six feet tall, towers over the white woman standing in front of her.

‘Mrs Taylor?’ the tall stranger enquires.

Mrs Taylor says she prefers to be called Nanny. ‘The children like it.’

Nanny is nearly fifty-seven years old, silver-haired, eyes the colour of clouds on a rainy day. Five feet tall.

 

Nanny had sent away for the baby in the Moses basket a few days earlier. She had been sending away for African children and looking after them in her home for more than a decade. But when the last two, brothers named Babatunde and Onyeka, were abruptly taken back by their natural parents, Nanny promised herself she’d stop. Children coming and going simply caused her too much heartbreak.

Despite that, she still browsed wistfully through the classified ads in the back pages of
Nursery World
magazine, just to see the latest African children on offer. That’s where she found the infant now on her doorstep. The ad said, ‘attractive baby girl of Nigerian origin’. Nanny couldn’t resist.

 

‘So you must be Mrs . . .’ says Nanny, her thin, pale skin blooming with excitement. She does not know how to pronounce the woman’s name. ‘I’m glad you found us all right. Come in, come in.’

The woman smiles and stoops slightly in her heels to enter. The man follows her in, clutching the Moses basket.

‘Please. Call me Lizzy,’ she says. ‘And this is her. Her name’s Anita-Precious,’ she continues, looking absently down at the baby, as if she has just remembered it existed.

‘Let me have a dekko at her then,’ says Nanny.

The ten-week-old baby has skin the colour of toffee and a wig-like puff of black tightly curled hair. She lies there curling and uncurling her tiny fists, her round mouth open but unsmiling.

‘Oh yes, yes. She’s lovely, isn’t she, Lizzy?’ Nanny coos.

Lizzy remains silent. She has a put-out, nauseated look on her face. Like someone who’s just trodden in dog’s mess while wearing their favourite shoes.

 

So here I am: the silent, watchful baby in a Moses basket.

Nanny falls in love with me instantly, or at least that’s what she tells me once I’m old enough to ask about my past.

Gramps, Nanny’s lovely husband, sits in his wheelchair, smiling rather than talking. His lips no longer work as well as they once did. So when he does speak, his words slide out in a slur. He manages to ask this flawlessly turned-out couple where they come from in Africa. The woman answers for the pair of them.
Nigeria
. Gramps nods approvingly. Like he’s been there.

The sitting room is blue and it coordinates with Nanny, in her blue nylon shirtwaister dress, with the iridescent butterfly brooch on her lapel. Nanny’s daughter, Wendy, is perched on the end of the blue sofa. Wendy. So slim she’s nicknamed Olive Oyl. Long, straight, near-black hair. Skin tanned from the long summer. Eager to hold the brand-new black baby.

Wendy’s wearing an outfit – purple suede fringed coat and flared jeans – that Nanny’s written off as ‘absolutely ridiculous’. But despite her hippie gear, Wendy’s not trying to be a hippie. The most important thing in the world to her is simply becoming a mother. One day.

Wendy’s fiancé, Mick, whose hair’s even longer than hers – he is here too. His hazel eyes sweep from the baby to the stiff-looking black bloke to the scarily glamorous black lady – inches taller than he is – who is staring right back at him.

 

The black couple stays for about an hour that day. The man, whose name turns out to be Rupert, sits there making jittery small-talk. Asking Mick about his job as a caretaker at the local secondary school. Nobody asks who Rupert is – whether he’s the baby’s father; whether he’s the mother’s husband. They presume he is somehow significant since he’s there.

My mother carries out an inspection of the three-bedroom council house, briskly appraising the room that will become mine. That done, she curls her sinewy frame into a blue armchair and poses there, calm and elegantly disinterested; not asking anyone many questions, other than how much this placement is going to cost her.

There is a drawn-out conversation about money that day, all in hushed tones, as if the grown-ups are afraid a three-month-old baby could understand their words.

I picture them haggling.

Lizzy quotes the sum she is prepared to pay.

‘I can’t do it for that, Lizzy,’ Nanny says.

‘Seven fifty a week then,’ says Lizzy, offering the lower end of the going-rate for private foster care at that time. ‘It is the most I can afford.’

Nanny is calling Lizzy’s bluff – she’d have taken me off Lizzy’s hands for free if necessary.

Later, years later, I will ask Nanny and Wendy and Mick what my mother was like that very first time they met her. What they made of her. Wendy will recall, ‘She was always such a lovely looking woman your mother. Ever so intelligent. So beautifully dressed.’

Mick will say, ‘She seemed nice enough, didn’t she?
Then
.’

Nanny will say, ‘
Very
high-faluting. Right from the start. Walked into my house like she bloody well owned it.’

 

My mother will eventually claim, ‘Something about that place, that whole environment, it made my skin crawl.’

But this feeling she has doesn’t prevent my mother, a reluctant-looking Rupert by her side, returning to Fernmere two or three days later with me in a Moses basket on the back seat of the convertible. And this time, when the pair drives back to their own house in London, the back seat is empty.

1976

I SIT IN NANNY’S lap, trying to conjure up an image of my mother. In our house, we’ve no photos of Mummy Elizabeth, as I call her. When I think about her, which is every day, the main memories of her that spring to my mind are the juicy-fruit smell of her breath, the humungous gap between her teeth – and her witch-like laughter.

Mummy Elizabeth vanished several months ago. At the time, Nanny said maybe she’d buggered off back to Africa and abandoned me once and for all. But, no, it turns out Mummy Elizabeth’s now returned to her house in London and she has rung and instructed us to sit tight until she arrives to take us out for a slap-up lunch (or dinner, depending on what time she arrives).

Peeking through the sitting-room window, I await Mummy Elizabeth’s arrival. I feel the same as when I’m watching my favourite film,
The Wizard of Oz
, when I hold my breath through the scenes right before the Wicked Witch of the West appears. Terror, like ice in the pit of my stomach, makes me want to close my eyes or run and hide and scream, but also, perversely, makes me long for the moment when the witch appears.

I look over at Gramps. He is sitting in his wheelchair with his eyelids drooping. I wonder what he thinks of my mother suddenly coming back into our lives.

‘What time’s she getting here, Nanny?’

‘Knowing her she’ll take her own sweet time.’

‘What does my mother
do
when she’s in Africa, Nanny?’

‘How on earth should
I
know, love?’

I picture Mummy Elizabeth in Africa, wearing a loincloth. I see her dancing round a six-foot-high fire, flanked by roaring cheetahs. She kicks her heron-like legs in time to the drumbeats, then splays her knees as she limbo dances to the ground and slides onto her back at the fire’s edge, cackling so hard the cheetahs grow afraid of her.

‘You’re shivering, love,’ says Nanny. ‘Why don’t you go and fetch your white cardigan and slip it on?’

‘I’m not cold, thanks,’ I say.

I’m hot. It is so sunny that everything’s tinged yellow. One of those days like a sherbert dip, fizzing and bubbling on for ever, never seeming to quite dissolve, till in the time it takes to blink, it turns dark and the kids now playing outside on their skates will disappear inside houses just like ours for their tea.

My pink party dress is beginning to cling to my heavily greased skin. Nanny has really gone to town with my appearance, coating my hair, face and body with Johnson’s Baby Oil, primping me for Mummy Elizabeth with the same vigour she uses to prepare a chicken for the oven.

‘Do you think my mother will like me this time, Nanny?’

‘Well, she should do; you’re absolutely gorgeous, darling.’

 

Last time Mummy Elizabeth came, which was before I’d started primary school, she was very unhappy with the way I was turning out. I couldn’t carry on a conversation at all, she said, and my hair looked like a hedge, my skin was ashy, my eyes were dull and my personality even duller. Most of all, she didn’t like the fact that I screamed ‘No!’ whenever one of the uncles she brought to visit tried to speak to me, or hug me.

One of the uncles I’m most scared of is this one called Uncle Chucky, who she often brings. Behind his back, Nanny calls him ‘that vicious coloured gentleman’. Uncle Chucky wears shoes made of white lizard skin and he picks at his teeth with a series of cocktail sticks I feel sure he’s snatched from sausages at birthday parties. His other speciality is whipping a metal-pronged Afro comb out of his pocket when you’re least expecting it and then pointing it at you like a weapon.

They fill our house with noise when they arrive, the Africans. Foreign voices soaring, mean laughter whistling through the gap in Mummy Elizabeth’s teeth. If Uncle Chucky’s among them, he’ll grin at me, revealing teeth as white as his shoes. Then he’ll keep going: ‘Anita-oh!’ for absolutely no reason. And he’ll say, ‘Come. Let me fix your hair,’ and reach into his back pocket to take out the Afro comb.

I always yell, ‘Nooo!’ and then I sit there trying not to cry.

BOOK: Precious
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