My mum was a hairdresser. I knew of her talent from a young age, during times when I had to sit in the living room listening to her singing along to Bob Marley as she made complicated kanerow designs in my hair. These sessions seemed to last for hours, when all I wanted was to go outside and play, my mother’s utmost priority was to ensure her child looked well-housed. As I grew up I noticed a steady stream of visitors flowing through our flat, first entering as shipwrecked souls with scraggy hair and dishevelled apparel and upon exit looking completely transformed with new weaves, extensions and perms. Mum always said that a good hairstyle elevated a woman’s confidence, and I saw such transformations so often that in my infancy, I believed mum to be doing something supernatural. I think I wrote an essay for reception class about her magical powers, about how she made women everywhere happier.
When I reached school age she went back to study and took a course in professional hairstyling. Throughout this time I wasn’t aware that we were living hand-to-mouth, that mum struggled to pay the bills and was almost living entirely on benefit. We were estranged from Grandma and Granddad then; our situation was mum’s fault, after all. She chose to run off with a white boy; she chose to get pregnant at seventeen; it was her problem if her paramour left her for someone not-pregnant and easier to manage. When my father left, he gave my grandparents a feeling of justification for their mistrust, even more so when news arrived years later that he was living in the country with his own business and a white family of his own.
I never saw mum bitter. She stayed single for a long time and when she started dating again it was strange for both of us. None of the men who came were good enough for her—everyone could see that—and she soon gave up and concentrated on her career. It wasn’t until Guinness’s arrest that I saw something different in her manner: she was taking better care of herself than usual and going out for long stretches of time; coming back home with a dazed smile and something soft in her step. I didn’t say anything about it to her or anyone else: when she wanted to talk about it, she would—in her own time.
When I got home later that day, I put her gizzadas in the oven until she came home. She didn’t arrive till after ten, with the faint smell of Malibu trailing in her wake.
“Long day man,” she said. She kicked off her shoes and flopped onto sofa next to me. “Long, long day.”
“Is it now?” I said.
“Four weaves today. Never again. From now on, I’m only taking two—and by appointment only.”
“You should have done that ages ago,” I said.
She stood up and went to the kitchen. We had an open-plan lay out so I could see her peering into the bare cupboards and sporting a deep frown.
“When you getting a job, Jade? We need food.”
“When I finish my degree,” I said. “For now, you can eat a gizzada.”
“Look in the microwave, woman!”
She eyed the pastry with suspicion until I told her that Tai made it, after which she ate it heartily and went to her room, seemingly satisfied. I watched the evening news and then The Secret Millionaire for the first time, but quickly understood why Tai hated the programme so much. Turning off the television, I wandered about the house aimlessly until I was struck with a thought. I put on my slippers, went to the front door and put it on latch, before going downstairs to the flat directly below mine.
It was Nubia’s house. She lived by herself. Following the death of her father in Jamaica, she went over there to live with her mother for a year, for moral support and counsel. She had a choice to stay, but she had missed London and found life in the Caribbean too different from the one she knew. I didn’t like the thought of Nubia being in the flat by herself. I knocked on her door once, then twice, then I continued a steady tapping, hoping she would answer.
“Nubia, it’s me,” I said through the door. “You all right? You want some gizzadas?”
I tapped on the door again, until a heavy thud sounded behind it which stopped me in my tracks. It was followed by a clatter and the sound of breaking glass. I jumped back and waited, still hoping she would answer the door, but there was only a deafening silence to accompany my thoughts.
“When you’re ready, I’m here,” I said. “See you later.”
There was another thud behind the door. I sighed and went back to my flat.
I decided to become a mental health nurse following the illness of my friend, Shane Carrington. Shane used to live on my estate, but moved to Streatham with his mum during our GCSE year. Shane, Tai and I used to do a lot together, Tai in particular had much in common with Shane and the pair used to speak on the phone together for hours, mainly talking about girls and sex. I dread to think just how explicit their conversations were.
Shane strangled his girlfriend. She managed to get away by sticking her fingers in his eyes, almost blinding him. After that incident a string of disturbances came to the forefront: how he’d lost sleep thinking that the National Front was outside his house; he stopped wearing red because it belonged to Baphomet; the arguments with his mum, the self-harm. He was taken to Maudsley and even though it was just down the road, I was too scared to visit him. I didn’t know what psychiatric hospitals looked like and in my ignorance I assumed them to be prisons covered in white pillows, prison guards, stern faced nurses with magazines of syringes strapped to their torsos. I finally built up the courage to see him and I was left feeling like a fool. He was still jovial, stupid Shane. It was as if we were visiting him in his home. I garnered an interest in the field after that day, and decided to be a friend to others in the same situation.
Tai and I tried to visit him as much as we could, as it was still unclear as of to when he would be discharged. In my opinion, he was getting better by the day, but I still had a lot to learn in my field before I could have been certain of it. Since the stabbing, we hadn’t had the opportunity to talk to Shane about it, but we didn’t doubt he knew about it anyway. News spread quickly; Shane knew far too many Peckhamites to be completely out of the loop.
We visited him the second week of the holidays, with a Big Mac meal, a McFlurry and some magazines. Upon our entrance to the ward, he hollered at us and snatched the McDonald’s bag.
“I’m starving!” he said, and led us to the visitors’ area, which was being occupied by his closest ward-friend, Sonny, who was reading The Sun. He gave Tai a cursory nod and glanced briefly at me before staring transfixed at Page Three.
As Shane tore through his lunch, we filled in the gaps of his knowledge, for not surprisingly, he had been given a fairly skewered account of that night’s events.
“Bryant Cole?” he said between mouthfuls, “that’s a bit dodge. Don’t like the sound of that at all.”
“You’re not the only one,” said Tai.
“What do you mean?” I said, slightly exasperated, “what more is there to the story?”
Shane and Tai looked at me pityingly.
“Forgive them, Father,” said Shane.
“Come on, Jade!” said Tai. “This is Guinness. Guinness! He doesn’t stab people, does he?”
“But it wasn’t normal circumstances,” I said. “It’s not like he joined a gang or something; he was helping someone, acting in self-defence. Are you saying Guinness wouldn’t help a woman in need?”
“Of course he would,” said Shane. “Guinn would help anyone, but not like that.”
They were so convinced that I began to doubt myself. What else did they think had taken place? What were they keeping from me?
“Whatever,” I said. “It all seems fairly simple to me.”
“Don’t worry, Tai,” said Shane. “That’s just her white side talking.”
The pair laughed at me and I threw the closest cushion I could find in their direction.
“How’s Nubia?” said Shane. “What’s she saying?”
“She’s not coming out,” I said, grateful for the change of subject. “She’s just at home; none of us can get to her.”
“You know how she is,” said Tai.
“Nubia,” said Shane, “she’s so fine.”
“Yeah?” said Tai.
“Yeah, man. I always had a thing for Nubia, even during her dodgy period. I her out before I got with Toni, but Nubia went off with Guinness, so I had to settle. Not knocking Toni, by the way; she’s all right, but she’s got a flat arse.”
“That’s nice,” I said, just as Tai began to laugh. “I’m sure she appreciates that, Shane.”
“Nubia’s not on your level anyway,” said Tai, smirking, “you’re a bit of an idiot Shane. Nubia needs a man, you know what I mean?”
“What, like you?” said Shane.
“Not even. But definitely not like you. Plus, if you’d strangled Nubia she probably would have done much worse than Toni did. Don’t think you would still have your balls intact.”
It was hard not to laugh at that. Even Sonny cracked a smile from behind his paper fortress.
The visit couldn’t be complete without Tai’s treats. He had made some cornmeal pudding the night before—Shane’s favourite.
“When you open your restaurant I want the first meal. For free,” said Shane.
“If anything you should pay double!” said Tai. “All these things I’ve been baking for you like I’m your mudda.”
“Ah shut up.”
Tai and I left sometime after two. He drove us to Goose Green and we sat in the park.
“So what’s happening with you and Michael, then?” said Tai.
I winced. “Michael who?”
“Nothing’s happening,” I said after a pause. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, to be honest.”
Tai looked at me askance. His face was unreadable and it made me uneasy.
“What?” I said.
“Nothing. D’you wanna come to mine? I think my dad wants help with his gazebo.”
“Sure,” I said. I sighed inwardly with relief as we went to the car. I was glad to have something to keep us busy, so we wouldn’t have to talk about Michael again.