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Authors: Precious Williams

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BOOK: Precious
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It’s the same whenever they come. My mother’s surrounded by other Africans and there’s always one of them who’ll pull out a comb and offer to do my hair. My very earliest memory is of one of the Africans’ visits. I am about to turn three. I remember my mother sweeping in, dressed in pale silk, smelling like the perfume counter at Boots. One of my uncles at her side, reaching out to try to hug me.

‘Go on,’ Mummy Elizabeth instructs. ‘Go to him.’

‘I can’t,’ I say.

‘What do you mean, you
can’t
? Let him do your hair. Your hair is a disgrace. It must be combed!’ says Mummy Elizabeth.

I look at the comb’s silvery prongs. I look up at Nanny and Nanny looks down at the carpet.


Behave
, Anita,’ Mummy Elizabeth screams.

‘I can’t,’ I say.

‘Can’t?’ Mummy Elizabeth’s voice rises, octaves above its usual contralto. ‘
Can’t?

Nanny looks up, her eyes like chips of colourless crystal.

‘She’s a shy little thing, Lizzy,’ Nanny says. ‘She’s not used to being around a lot of men, apart from my useless son-in-law, Mick.’ Nanny lets out a hoarse, choked little laugh.

Mummy Elizabeth stalks across our sitting room so purposefully that our coffee table rattles. She takes my hand. Her hand’s so silky and smooth it seems wet as it slides up my wrist. She grabs on to my elbow, and my arm stretches out of its socket as Mummy Elizabeth leads me outside, along the garden path. The weeds tickle my legs.

‘You are just
horrible
, Anita,’ Mummy Elizabeth screams. ‘And I am sick of it.
Sick of it
!’

Mummy Elizabeth drags me by the arm, down the garden path. My feet dangling; summer sandal falling off into the unchecked weeds below. My mother is wearing her high-heeled Italian shoes. She has pairs and pairs, in a variety of colours. Her pride and joy. She kicks at me. Her high heel sinks into the soft spot where my bottom connects with my thigh. She kicks me again. Again, spiky heel meets plump, toddler flesh.

‘For the love of God, Lizzy! Stop it! Stop it,’ pleads Nanny. ‘I can’t
bear
it.
Stop it
!’

Mummy Elizabeth keeps kicking.

And Aunty Wendy falls to her knees. She is expecting a baby. Aunty Wendy begins feeling wave-like pains, like period pains times one hundred thousand. Seven months gone. The pains aren’t allowed to come yet.

My mother kicks me again. My mother’s not happy; but then, it seems, she rarely is. It is my fault entirely. I asked for this. I failed to walk to Mummy Elizabeth’s car fast enough. I was dawdling and crying and flinching and Mummy Elizabeth had no choice but to discipline me.

Aunty Wendy’s pains won’t stop. Neither will my mother. Someone must call a doctor. An ambulance. The police?

Something has to be done. Aunty Wendy must be rushed to hospital. My mother should be stopped. Why isn’t my mother being stopped?

 

Nanny later recalls this day. She says Mummy Elizabeth continued to kick me down the garden path. All
I
remember, after the first few kicks, was feeling weightless, feeling a fragment of my normal size, and finally becoming a little worm, burrowing beneath the dandelions, into the soil and out of sight.

The man they call Rupert snatched me from Mummy Elizabeth’s arms and dashed up the path, a hero out of a Western movie, minus the Stetson. He placed me in Nanny’s flaccid arms. Nanny closed the door. Phone calls were made. I was bruised but the skin wasn’t broken. Wagon Wheels were fed to me. No one asked if
I
was broken. Aunty Wendy was taken to hospital; Uncle Mick was informed. Gramps said nothing at all, but he cried. And cried.

 

‘I feel scared, Nanny,’ I say.

‘There’s no need to. You know I won’t let anything bad happen to you, darling.’

I know nothing of the kind. When Nanny and I say our prayers together at night, right before we say Amen, she asks Gentle Jesus to help make sure I’m always safe from harm. I believe Jesus wants to protect me, but I already know that Nanny won’t, or can’t. When my mother kicked me, Nanny and Aunty Wendy stood there unmoving, crying for my mother to stop. In my eyes, they were watching and not doing anything.

I sink into Nanny’s lap. The glare of the sun has tinted my bare legs a golden honey colour. Nanny’s skin is as dry, flaky and pale as uncooked pastry and next to hers, my skin looks dark like a shadow.

She’s always telling me, ‘Your colour doesn’t matter, Anita. You’re just the same as me underneath.’

But I’m not the same as Nanny. I wish she was my real Nanny, but she’s not. I know this because I have heard grown-ups whisper among themselves, ‘Oh, she must be Mrs Taylor’s latest little foster child.’

 

‘She’s not coming, love,’ Nanny says.

‘What do you mean, Nanny?’

‘Your mother. It’s gone nine o’clock, love. It’s past your bedtime.’

‘She
is
coming, Nanny,’ I say. ‘I
know
she is.’

‘How do you know, darling?’

‘She was in my dream just now when I had my nap. She kept kissing me and she said how much I’ve grown and how good I am at talking and not being shy now. She had hair right down to her waist, Nanny. Like Rapunzel.’

‘Oh, you do have an imagination on you,’ says Nanny. ‘How could a coloured woman possibly have hair down to her waist? Chance would be a fine thing.’

‘She did. She
is
coming, Nanny.’

The truth is, I need Mummy Elizabeth to come. She petrifies me, but my need to believe that my mother loves me and wants me is even greater than my fear of her. It’s vital to me to be able to tell my friends at school, with pretend casualness, ‘My mum’s coming down to take me out at the weekend.’ Then, when one of the bullies on our estate corners me and sneers, ‘Even your own mum don’t want you, you little nig-nog reject,’ I can hold my head up and think,
You’re wrong. You’re wrong about me
.

‘I’m sorry, darling, but she’s not coming,’ Nanny says and her voice has a finality to it that keeps my mouth shut. ‘We’ll have to let Wendy know, love. Go and get your shoes on, darling.’

 

Aunty Wendy doesn’t have a phone. The only way to relay news to her is to nip round to her house, a two-minute trot away. It’s dark and the trees look like black skeletons. But it’s still so hot that the tarmac warms my heels where they poke over the scrunched backs of my plimsolls. As I run someone says ‘Oi, oi’ and I see a big boy called Wayne standing in front of me, blocking my path.

He pokes out his elbows, pretends to be scratching inside his armpits, his huge mouth forms into an O and he goes, ‘Ooo-oo-oo! Look at this fuckin’ little chimp runnin’! Where you off to in such a hurry then, you little nig-nog?’

‘Nowhere,’ I reply.

‘What?’

‘Nothing.’

I run and don’t stop running until I reach Aunty Wendy’s front door, which opens before I can even ring the doorbell.

‘Aunty Wendy!’

‘All right, love? Don’t
you
look smart! What you all worked up about then? Your mother been already, has she?’

‘She hasn’t turned up again. My mother! She’s not coming!’

‘What?
Again
?’ says Aunty Wendy. ‘It’s a bloody disgrace. Ought to be ashamed of herself! You coming in then, love?’

The Kid Factory

FOR A WHILE, I am the only coloured girl in the town, but I’m not the only coloured child the town has ever seen.

Since the 1960s there’s been a little stream of African babies and toddlers being dropped off at the homes of white strangers in West Sussex. Both Nanny and Aunty Wendy have had many private foster babies – almost all of them African and most of them Nigerian.

Those of us not advertised in
Nursery World
are advertised on postcards in shop windows. Anyone can send off for us and we begin popping up in white homes throughout the country, especially in Hampshire, Kent, Surrey, Middlesex, Essex and Sussex.

Few questions are asked of birth parent or foster-parent. Social Services are supposed to be notified, but often aren’t. When alerted, social workers do have to call round periodically to check the coloured foster-kids are being fed, clothed and sent to school – but the foster-parents don’t have to be registered, trained or checked by the police.

Later, in the 1980s, our numbers in West Sussex will mushroom as more and more local white families catch on to the trend. A boy at my secondary school will brag, ‘We just got one of your lot. Got a bigger knob than a grown man, he has. Made him flop it out for my gran because she wouldn’t believe us till she saw it.’

 

Private fostering is supposed to be strictly temporary. The birth parents are often recent immigrants from West Africa. Typically they are full-time students by day, struggling to make ends meet by working one or even two night jobs, striving to create a secure home for their children. Once their studies are completed and their financial situation begins to ease, most of them take their babies back.

My case is a little different. My mother is not, as far as we can tell, a student. She doesn’t appear to be hard up and in fact she says she is from a well-heeled and titled Igbo family in Nigeria. According to her, my father is a civil engineer from a privileged Krio family in Sierra Leone. Yet at nine days old I am despatched to my first foster home, in the West Country, where my mother fails to visit me for the next two months.

 

By the time I reach Nanny, aged ten weeks, I am a withdrawn, watchful baby with a mysterious past. Nanny tells anyone who asks that she thinks I am a Biafran.

Throughout my infancy, I have a number of aliases. When I arrive in Fernmere, my mother introduces me as Anita-Precious Achaba. Three months later, my mother has changed my name to Precious-Anita Eze. Later I find that – according to my birth certificate – my name is actually Precious Anita Williams.

 

Back in the days when I’m called Anita-Precious Achaba, my mother visits once every three weeks, usually arriving with the man named Rupert, who sometimes refers to himself as my father.

When I’m eight months old, my mother appears in Fernmere with a new man and says she’s taking me ‘home’ to Nigeria. Nanny cries and pleas with my mother to let me stay but, ignoring her, my mother sweeps upstairs to pack up my toys and clothes.

Nanny’s family is used to this sort of thing happening. Her grown-up son, Dave, who’s married and has his own kids, tolerates Nanny’s private-fostering but certainly doesn’t encourage it.

Nanny grieves for me and, several months later, begins scanning
Nursery World
magazine for a new foster child. And there I am, advertised once again in the magazine’s back pages.

Shortly after my return to Nanny, West Sussex Social Services despatch a social worker with cheddar-coloured hair to see what we’re all up to. In her report the social worker observes:

 

July 1972: Visited and was introduced to this coloured child, Precious, by Mrs Taylor. The child has so far not cried and is no trouble at all. A most attractive child.

Mrs Taylor has fostered children for a number of years. Now that she has an invalid husband to look after, she seems to derive pleasure and light relief by caring for small children, particularly Nigerian children.

 

A couple of years later, I am reclaimed by my mother once more. Again this reunion doesn’t last long and my mother decides to return me to foster care. This time she does not advertise me in
Nursery World
but instead rings Nanny up and says, ‘I’m bringing her back tomorrow. I am leaving her with you now until she is old enough for boarding school.’

Nanny greets us at the door weeping tears of joy. ‘God has sent my little darling back to me,’ she says.

But Nanny, having thought that my mother really had taken me for good the last time, had replaced me with a little girl from Ghana. This new girl, Effua, sleeps in my bedroom under my silky pink eiderdown. She drinks her Ribena out of my special cup with the built-in curly straw.

I watch in disbelief as this tiny stranger with the charcoal skin and close-cropped hair sits in Nanny’s lap and follows Nanny around and eats Wagon Wheel after Wagon Wheel, just like I used to. She even has the nerve to constantly talk to and pester my beloved Gramps.

Effua and I won’t play together nicely, the way Nanny wants us to. We either ignore one another or we scratch, pinch and scream. Nanny doesn’t know what to do. At her age, she can’t cope with two little girls, especially as she has an invalid husband to look after. One of us little coloured girls will have to go. I feel so threatened by Effua, so afraid Effua will become Nanny and Gramps’s new little angel, that I run around the house screaming, and then I begin kicking at furniture, and at people.

Nevertheless, Nanny chooses me. I hear her telling the grown-ups she feels an ‘affinity’ to me. I don’t know what the word means but I feel like the most important little girl in the world. Nanny begins making arrangements to get rid of Effua and I am moved back permanently into my pink bedroom.

BOOK: Precious
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