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Authors: Precious Williams

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BOOK: Precious
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There’s a new poster on Agnes’s wall, above her bed.

‘Who’s that in the poster?’

‘David Essex, you spac.’

‘Who’s he?’

Agnes gives me her you-have-to-be-kidding look.

‘What have you been doing in here all day?’ I say.

‘Today is a terrible day-O,’ Agnes says.

‘How come? Is it because Mother’s coming?’

‘Who told you she’s finally bothering to come down? Nanny?’

I nod. Agnes grimaces and moves about her tiny room impatiently, like a caged lion. ‘What’s wrong with your hair?’ she asks suddenly. ‘You look like a hedgehog. You look like you’ve had an electric shock.’

‘No I don’t.’

‘You bloomin’ do.’

‘Agnes. Can I ask you a question?’

‘Of course.’

‘Is our mother really our mother?’

‘Of course she is. How can you ask me that? You look just like her.’

‘I do not!’

‘You do. You should be proud. She’s pretty.’

‘She’s disgusting,’ I say. ‘Agnes, if we’re really sisters, then how come we haven’t got the same dad?’

‘Because I’ve got my own dad. You’ve got your own dad.’

I’ve never owned any picture of my dad. If he’s real, if I really have a dad, how come I’ve never heard his voice or got a postcard from him? I suspect my dad, whoever he is, dropped dead years ago and that nobody’s telling me about it because they think I’m too young to know.

It’s all right for Agnes. She’s got a dad back in Nigeria. Her dad’s name is Sunday, I think. She looks like him. I’ve seen a picture of him in her room. He’s got a massive nose, like her.

‘What has got into you today?’ says Agnes. ‘Leave me with this nonsense. I’m grievin’ today, isn’t it?’

‘What’s wrong with you?’

‘The King died today.’

‘What king?’

‘Elvis. He was
only
the greatest musician of all time. Sad, innit?’

‘Nope. It’s not sad.’

‘You little devil.’

Agnes playfully pulls my hair. Almost certainly some of my hair will snap off in her hand. I have unbelievably terrible hair. It’s tough enough to break most combs that have ever been used on it, but at the same time loads of my hair breaks off every time you try to comb it.

‘Come here,’ says Agnes. ‘Let’s see if we can do the umbrella style on you before our mother arrives.’

The umbrella style is Afro hair made smooth as silk with a hot comb then curled in to an exaggerated flip using curling tongs. Agnes plugs in her curling tong and rubs a big turquoise dollop of Ultra Sheen into my scalp and sprays Sta Sof Fro into my hair – and eyes.

 

It’s teatime. Nanny sits opposite me, watching me eat a banana and sugar sandwich made with bread as white and soft as cotton wool. My lips are covered with sugar and butter.

The bright white kitchen table is set just for me. Nanny’s got no appetite because she’s sad I’m leaving her for the weekend. Agnes has gone to her job at the nursing home where she spends the evening wiping old people’s bums.

Earlier, I heard Nanny tell Mummy Elizabeth that Agnes had to leave for work at six.

‘I’ll be there by five thirty at the latest,’ my mother said.

It is now half past seven.

‘What do you think my mother will be like now?’ I say.

‘Adults don’t change, darling. That woman will still be tall and ever so high-faluting, I would think.’

‘Do you think she’ll be nice this time?’

‘How would I know, darling?’

Nanny covers my hand with hers. There are little bits of dry skin flaking off her hand like white confetti.

‘I know you don’t want to go to your mum, but it’s only for the weekend. You
know
there’s nothing I can do to stop her making you go up to London with her. She’s your mother.’

‘I know, Nanny. I love you.’

‘And I love you too, darling. You know that, don’t you, darling?’

Judy begins barking. There is the sound of a cuckoo hooting at the front door. The cuckoo is Aunty Wendy who makes that noise every time she comes round. To let us know it’s her before she nudges our front door open.

‘All right, Mum?’ she says, sitting down at the table, stretching out her toes. ‘All right, Neet?’

Aunty Wendy’s carrying a handbag my mother brought her from Africa last year. It’s made from a lizard’s skin. She’s also wearing the shoes she normally saves for very special occasions: gold flip-flops she got from Woolworth’s in Chichester.

‘You hear anything back yet from your letter to little Effy?’ says Nanny.

‘Not a thing. Been ringing and ringing her mother’s number as well from the phone box. No one ever answers,’ says Aunty Wendy.

I feel angry at once on so many levels: because Aunty Wendy has done herself up just for Mummy Elizabeth, and acts like my mother’s a visiting dignitary. And with Effy, for leaving me, even though I know she had no choice in the matter. I don’t understand why it’s taking her so long to find her way back.

‘Is this it then, for my tea?’ I snap, hoping that I sound every bit as rude as Uncle Mick. That’ll give Nanny and Aunty Wendy something to think about. ‘Is this all I’m getting?’

‘Are you gonna let her get away with talking to you like that, Mum?’ says Aunty Wendy.

We’re interrupted by the soft gurgle of my mother’s car outside our open sitting-room window, then the jingle of car keys. I have not forgotten the sound the leather soles of my mother’s Italian shoes make as they scuff against the concrete of our garden path. Today, as usual, there are also other footsteps approaching our house too; the scrape, scrape of high heels and a solid, flat-footed plod.

Suddenly I’m almost desperate to see my mother and for her to see me. Since she last met me I’ve grown a lot taller and I won an award for one of my poems at school. My hair, though still awful, has grown longer too, and thanks to Agnes it is stiff and shining. I am eager for Mummy Elizabeth to be forced to swallow her own words and admit that I’m not that dull, I’m not as boring as she’s made out.

Nanny and Wendy rise from their chairs and stand at attention.

Pathetic!
I think. Grown-ups actually straighten their backs and speak more slowly and crisply whenever Mummy Elizabeth is in close proximity. Everyone seems afraid of my mother, even her own sisters. Even me. Especially me. I suck in my tummy, hold my breath, pull my shoulders back. If only I had the courage to stick out my tongue at her and show her two fingers.

‘The door’s open!’ says Nanny.

My mother has proudly described herself to me before as ‘anti-social’. Hardly. Even if she is rude all the time to almost all people, she always has friends and family members swarming around her with smiling faces and terrified eyes.

Mummy Elizabeth advances into our kitchen, closely followed by a very round plump baby-faced lady and a very thin male stranger. She is wearing black sunglasses and a white suit covered in tiny navy blue polka dots. My mother never, ever, wears the African clothes you might expect her to wear. She once told me ‘African garb’ is for people who are ‘primitive and unsophisticated’. My mother’s clothes are made on the Continent, by white people. But the plump lady and the thin man are done up in African gear, which swishes crisply as they move; all of it brightly coloured, like sweet wrappers.

‘Hallo, you
do
look well, Lizzy,’ Nanny says. ‘How was the traffic?’

Hallo, you do look well
, I hiss under my breath.

‘Nitty,’ my mother says, removing her dark glasses and staring at me like I’m a statue in a museum. I really, really hate being stared at. I’m afraid people can see right inside me and steal my thoughts.

It seems my mother’s waiting for me to say something and I can’t think of anything to say. I think hard.

‘What time is it in London, Mother?’ I say, finally.

She winks at me. I try to wink back but I can’t close one eye at a time and so I just blink. She giggles and blinks back at me. What on earth is going on? Since when did Mummy Elizabeth smile or giggle? What’s happened to her since she came back from Nigeria?

‘How you been keeping?’ asks Aunty Wendy.

‘Fine,’ says my mother.

‘How’s your old mum, in Africa?’ says Nanny. ‘You said she hasn’t been too well.’

‘She’s fine.’

My mother glances through our kitchen window into our wild back garden. She props up her chin with the spiky knuckle of her hand and stacks up evil thoughts.

‘Come into the sitting room, everyone,’ says Nanny quickly.

The thin man, who my mother introduces as Mr Obinna, tries to get his hands on my hair.

‘What is this?’ he says. ‘Dreadlocks or something? Jamo-style?’

Before he can get at my hair with some hidden Afro comb I leap away from him and run to Nanny’s side.

‘Neety!’ he says. ‘You’ve really grown!’

I want to ask this Mr Obinna when he has ever seen me before, but I can’t get a word in because suddenly our sitting room is filled with many different voices, all speaking at once.

‘Anita, I am so excited to see you!’ cries Aunty Onyi.

‘Why?’ I say, and blush.

Aunty Wendy walks over and puts an arm around me and says, ‘Don’t your hair look nice, Neet?’

‘Her hair is
terrible
,’ my mother says. ‘Where is Agnes? She should be doing a better job with Anita’s hair.’

‘Wendy and I have tried to put her hair into plaits, the way you do it, Lizzy,’ says Nanny. ‘But we can’t manage it, can we Wendy? I don’t think our fingers are as nimble as yours. We love it in that melon style you do.’

What a traitor Nanny is in front of my mother. When my mother has done the melon style – a series of plaits woven in lines close to my head and ending in a braided bun pulled together so tightly that your eyes can’t help but slant – on me in the past, Nanny’s been there with a knitting needle as soon as my mother’s left, unpicking the plaits for me because they’re too tight and they hurt.

‘Oh, don’t make a face, Anita,’ Nanny says. ‘You look absolutely beautiful when your hair’s done like that. It makes you look just like that darling little pickaninny Topsy.’

Nanny’s always comparing me to Topsy. Topsy is a little coloured girl, a character in Nanny’s favourite-ever book,
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
. Like me, Topsy doesn’t have a proper mother or father and her past is a puzzle no one can solve. It was reading
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
when she was a little girl that’s made Nanny fall head-over-heels in love with coloured people; especially coloured children. I wonder whether Mummy Elizabeth has read, or heard of,
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
.

 

Mr Obinna says, ‘You don’t remember me, hey Anita?’

‘No.’

‘So rude!’ complains my mother. ‘This is Mr Obinna, your uncle.’

Mr Obinna’s blue-and-gold cap is glinting now in the sudden sunlight that’s pouring through the sitting-room window.

‘What a lovely hat,’ Nanny says. She can’t pronounce the man’s name, so she calls him Sir. ‘What a lovely hat, Sir. Is it a fez? Reminds me of that wonderful hat Tommy Cooper wears.’

Mr Obinna smiles in a supercilious fashion, the exact way coloured people always seem to smile at Nanny.

‘So, Anita, do you know who you are?’ he says, turning back to me.

‘Yes. I am Anita Williams.
Precious
Anita Williams.’

‘But do you know that you’re Igbo? Do you know who your
people
are?’ he says. ‘Your people are a royal family you know. Let me tell you the story,’ Mr Obinna continues, ‘First, were the Uche. Five brothers. All called Uche.’

Just as I’m getting interested in hearing the story, he stops and sits there looking blankly at me.

‘What happened next?’ I ask.

I notice that unless I say, ‘Gosh’ or, ‘Wow! Really uncle?’ after every three or four words he utters, Mr Obinna will stop the story.

‘There was King Eze Uche,’ he continues. ‘There was Obinna Uche. Hold on a minute, aren’t you going to write this down, Anita? I thought I heard you liked writing stories. Take this down; U-C-H-E. U for onion, C for cat . . .’

‘Isn’t onion spelled with an O?’ I say, drawing a sunflower in the little notepad I always carry in my pocket. My mother glares at me.

‘H for heaven, E for egg,’ says Mr Obinna. ‘There were five of the Uche brothers and King Eze Uche, your great-grandfather, was the oldest and the richest.’

‘What a wonderful story,’ says Nanny.

I scribble ‘The Africans are real weirdos’ in my notepad.

‘Your grandfather too, was a celebrated man,’ says Mr Obinna. ‘He was one of the first Nigerian millionaires. He was a millionaire in US dollars, not only in
naira
.’

My mother’s mouth splits into a smile. Even Gramps smiles.

BOOK: Precious
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