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Authors: Precious Williams

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BOOK: Precious
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‘It’s very sad, Nin, about Effua, isn’t,’ says Nanny.

‘She’s coming back, Nanny.’

Nanny doesn’t comment. She just grips my hand tighter.

Miss Biafra

NANNY, GRAMPS AND I live on West Walk, Woodview, behind a bright red door. Our shaggy doormat says WELCOME, which is ironic considering that we discourage visitors and rarely let them in. Knock on our red door out of the blue and we may well turn down our TV and sit in silence behind the net curtains, pretending we’re not home, till you mind your own beeswax and bugger off. We only let in social workers – because we have to – and my mother, because she’d kick the door down if we didn’t.

On the outside, our house is exactly the same as Aunty Wendy’s. We’ve got the same square-shaped lawn, although the grass on ours is yellowing and not mown as often as hers.

Although we prefer to say ‘no’ to visitors, our front door’s often left on the latch, so that Nanny never has to touch the doorknob. Doorknobs harbour germs. Nanny and I spend a lot of time at Sainsbury’s, where Nanny eyes the shelves of germ-killing liquids and disinfectant sprays and then sweeps bottle after bottle of the stuff into our trolley.

It’s a miracle that amidst all this fear of germs we have a dog. Judy, the cairn terrier, lives in the cupboard at the bottom of the stairs, where we used to hang our coats. She’s imprisoned behind a wooden partition that Uncle Mick installed for us. She never goes out for walks because I’m too young to take her and Nanny’s too old. And she’s not allowed the run of the house because dogs, Nanny says, are teeming with germs.

I step over the wooden partition, into the dark cupboard and press my face against Judy’s fur, inhaling her warm doggy smell. She smells just like a digestive biscuit; I feel like putting one of her tiny sweet little paws into my mouth. If I did, Nanny would scream. I giggle at the thought. Judy looks up at me and licks my face. Nanny watches Judy’s tongue on my cheek and shivers with disgust. Ignoring her, I whisper into Judy’s fur, ‘I love you I love you I love you, Jude.’

‘Come on, missy,’ says Nanny. ‘You need to come and give your hands a good scrub after touching that dog.’

When it comes to germs and germ-eliminating rituals, Nanny is not negotiable. There’s no talking your way out of it. In the kitchen, Nanny squirts a minute blob of Jif into my palms to make sure they’re squeaky clean. When she finally turns the tap off, Nanny wipes the tap down with a sponge that she’s soaked through with Dettol and then scrubs her own hands with Jif, and then again with Ajax. Nanny’s hands are red and raw, the skin on them is like one unhealed wound. Watching her hurt herself like this makes me cringe. I also don’t want my hands to end up like hers because it looks painful.

 

Gramps is waiting for us in the sitting room, with his head tipped a little to the side and his eyes half closed. When he tries to say something, his lip hangs down on one side and I can’t always follow very easily.

‘You were worried sick that Anita had been taken back by her mother, weren’t you, Matt?’ says Nanny, standing behind Gramps’s wheelchair, brushing something off his shoulder.

‘Sorry, Gramps,’ I say.

Gramps moves his head slightly.

He wasn’t always like this. I look up at the framed picture that hangs on our wall behind Gramps’s wheelchair. It’s Gramps when he was young, wearing his Navy uniform and looking just like Clark Gable, Nanny’s favourite film star.

It makes me want to see more pictures of him from when he was a sailor and fought in the war. He travelled all over the world, even to countries where the natives were naked. I think about some of the things that Gramps has seen – headhunters, flying foxes, ladies with no tops on – and wish he could talk to me in a non-disabled language that I could understand. Perhaps he could tell me more about where I came from?

 

‘Nanny? Can I look at the pictures of Gramps and the savages again?’ I ask. ‘Can I? Please?’

‘All right, missy. Run and get me a bit of kitchen towel. That old bureau’s filthy.’

Nanny uses the kitchen towel to pull open the bottom drawer of her Victorian writing bureau. As the drawer slides opens a musty odour seeps out. Kneeling, she picks through the smelly old papers in the bottom of the drawer until she finds a thin stack of photographs which she hands to me. I smile up at Gramps who is trying to smile back.

The photographs are very old and they’re a cloudy brown like water in a dirty river. I look closely at the first picture; it’s of a lady wearing nothing but a skirt that looks like it’s made of twigs and leather. She doesn’t look even slightly embarrassed about standing there with her bare boobs showing.

In the next picture there are three unsmiling jet-black ladies staring straight ahead, all with short hair that looks like little dots are growing on their round heads. The ladies’ bare skin is so shiny that it looks like your hands would just slide all over their bodies if you tried to touch them. I rub my finger along my own arm and then rub the same finger across the photograph.

‘They were headhunters, those ladies; every last one of them,’ says Nanny.

‘How did Gramps meet them?’

‘He was stationed in Papua New Guinea just after we got married. He and his men saved some of the natives from getting very ill. Matt sent me one of those pictures as a postcard and I must admit, Nin, I didn’t like the thought of him being around those pretty native women, with their boobs all out. I didn’t like it one little bit.’

‘Do you think those ladies are pretty?’ I say.

‘Very. Don’t you?’

I gaze at the three half-naked ladies. Their shiny noses are just as flat as my nose. Their lips, like mine, are so plump that their mouths look perfectly round even with their lips closed. I don’t think they are pretty; I think they look ugly. Like me.

The last picture in the stack of postcards is of a man with a very long beard; a picture I don’t remember seeing before.

‘His name was Haile Selassie, the King of Abyssinia,’ says Nanny. ‘
Emperor
Haile Selassie. You rescued that emperor on a boat, didn’t you, Matt? Gramps saved him from the Italians.’

It seems to me that Gramps, like Jesus, has saved a lot of people.

 

Eleven or so of us stand in line outside the fire station at the bottom of Woodview, squinting against the sunlight and feeling so worked up and expectant you’d think this was the starting line on Sports’ Day. I am in a fancy dress competition; if I win, I will get a five-pound note and a rosette.

Next to me is Weird Mary whose long brown hair is parted down the middle. Mary is wearing a flowery maxi-skirt that looks too big for her and a sash across her chest that has the word PEACE written on it. I’m wearing an orange and black top and wraparound skirt my mother bought me when I was five that now fits me like a sausage skin. Nanny has tied her blue-and-white scarf around my head like a turban and Aunty Wendy’s real gold gypsy hoop earrings dangle from my ears. On my wrist there are four sparkly bracelets Uncle Mick found in the lost and found cupboard at work. Over it all is a yellow sash that says MISS BIAFRA.

Nobody but me is dressed up as an African savage.

I wanted to come as Agnetha, the blond lady in ABBA, or as a salamander, in the green-and-yellow velour costume I’ve seen in the window of the fancy-dress shop in Chichester, but Nanny had other ideas.

‘But won’t the boys up Herd’s Field think I’m a real African, Nanny?’ I asked, as Nanny fussed about my head wrap, fixing it with a safety pin. ‘
Am
I a real African, Nanny?’

‘What do I always tell you, Nin?’ she says. ‘You’re a British girl, just like everybody else. Don’t ever let anybody tell you different.’

‘What does Biafra mean?’

‘Oh, Biafra was an awful war in Africa, darling. I’ll never forget; there was a Biafran woman we read about in the paper who was riding on the train over there, carrying a lovely hatbox. I bet you can’t imagine what she had inside the hatbox?’

‘No . . .’

‘It was her baby’s head, darling. The soldiers had cut off the baby’s head with a sword.’

I feel like puking up but I also want to hear more. I didn’t realise coloured women could love their own children, let alone a mother loving her baby so much that she simply couldn’t part with it, even after it was dead. How could Nanny’s story be true? All coloured ladies give their babies away for fostering almost as soon as they’re born, don’t they? Or maybe things are done differently in Africa.

‘Where was the rest of the baby’s body? Why did the lady only keep the baby’s head?’

‘I don’t know. You do ask some funny questions.’

‘Where was the lady going to on the train?’

‘Back to her village, I’d think.’

‘I didn’t know they had trains in Africa.’

‘Oh, they do nowadays,’ says Nanny. ‘I’d think they have all sorts of things going on in Africa that we don’t know about.’

 

Uncle Mick and the other parents wait a few feet away from us kids in our fancy dress, leaning against the fire station, taking pictures and giving us thumbs-up signs. A few more kids arrive late. Each time a kid in a good costume arrives, Uncle Mick sneers in a way that makes it look like he’s got something stuck up his nose.

The very last kid to arrive is Crispin, dressed up as Elvis Presley. Crispin’s got a jet-black toupee perched atop his blond hair and there’s a real electric guitar strapped across his body.

A man with a gigantic camera tells us all to hold hands and then he walks along inspecting us individually, telling each kid to turn a little to the side or put one hand on their hip before he takes their photograph. To me, he says, ‘It wouldn’t hurt to smile, sweetheart.’

 

‘What’s up with you then, eh?’ says Uncle Mick. ‘That photographer bloke said you had the best costume and he reckons if you’d a bloody smiled instead of looking so miserable, you’d have come first.’

I’ve got a rosette pinned to my top that says 2nd and the pound note that I won is curled up in my hand. Uncle Mick and I watch Crispin Boxall, the winner, who is standing with his legs very far apart and pretending to play his guitar while the photographer takes a photo of him that will come out in next week’s
Fernmere Observer
.

‘Who does that posh little sod think he is?’ says Uncle Mick.

As we walk into town, to pick up Aunty Wendy from the hairdresser’s where she works, I pull off my MISS BIAFRA sash and slip on the white cardigan that I was wearing tied around my waist. I feel like throwing the sash in the bin.

‘Do you think I did any good then, Uncle Mick?’ I say, in a very small voice.

‘What do you mean, “did any good”?’

‘Me coming second in the fancy dress and that.’

‘Yeah,’ he says. ‘Coming second is about as good as coming last.’

We walk along Pudding Row in silence.

‘For Christ’s sake, cheer up, misery guts,’ says Uncle Mick. ‘Far as I’m concerned, you was the best in the whole bloody competition.’

 

Nanny says it does Gramps’s heart good to see me dressed in African gear. And it’s true. When my picture’s printed in the
Fernmere Observer
, a week later, Gramps smiles proudly and tries to clap his hands.

The King Is Dead

WE HAVE ANOTHER BIAFRAN in our house now; my mysterious so-called half-sister Agnes who arrived in 1975. She sleeps here but doesn’t seem to be part of our family.

I was up at my mother’s one weekend when Mummy Elizabeth rang Nanny and instructed her to drive to Haslemere station. When Nanny and Aunty Wendy arrived, there was me, there was Mummy Elizabeth – and then there was this girl-woman, who I’d thought was my Aunty Agnes. She was standing there bare-legged and shivering in a cotton party dress, carrying a bloated suitcase. She’d been in England three and a half days.

I’d been told, to start with, that Agnes was my aunty, my mother’s baby sister. But once we all got to Nanny’s house, my mother’s story changed.

‘Agnes is my first child. Anita’s senior sister,’ Mummy Elizabeth said, as casually as if she was reading out a grocery list.

None of us said anything. Previously my mother had claimed that I was an only child and that I probably always would be. So how could I possibly have a sister?

‘Agnes’s going to attend Fernmere Grammar School,’ Mummy Elizabeth said.

‘How lovely,’ said Nanny, warily. ‘Where’s she going to stay?’

‘Here.’

‘Where?’

‘She’s moving in here with you and Anita, right away,’ said my mother. ‘Agnes! Stop standing there like an idiot! Come inside and introduce yourself.’

‘But,’ said Nanny. ‘But, Lizzy, I don’t know her. I don’t have the room.’

 

Nanny had no choice but to take Agnes in. Had she refused, Mummy Elizabeth was going to pack my bags and ‘remove’ me from Nanny straight away. She’d send me and this Agnes off to some other foster home. Nanny told my mother she’d certainly need more ‘keep’ if there were going to be two girls under her roof – what with one of them almost fully grown. Mummy Elizabeth stood up, raised her voice, said she was really going to have to find somebody whose rates were more reasonable, and told Agnes to ‘go upstairs and pack Anita’s bags’.

BOOK: Precious
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