As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Was me mudda, me gran’mudda, me sisters and me in the house. In Telescope. Claudette, Letitia and Marian—the three’a them, that’s the sisters. Before that was me big brother Andre and the biggest sister Kim together with we and then Kim leave and go. Me and Claudette and Letitia used to go to Telescope Primary School. Marian older than me, then it’s me, then Letitia, then Claudette, in age.
Telescope nice, eh. But it was we house was the trouble round there. If you never see the place—when you come from the main road and you swing the corner, you reach on the flat. There it have the school, SAS Secondary School and the playfield. Red mud all over, all on the field and it does dutty your clothes bad. By the school, if you go down that road so, it sending you down to Telescope Beach and it passing Bain’s Water Club. They does have nice party inside’a there and it have a swimming pool in the middle, not one for bathing with a thing throwing down water, pretty with lights. SAS Radio Station is upstairs.
The houses round here normal—some board, some wall house—not too close-up together. And this road fix up now but it used to be bad, dust or mud, the same red mud. You see even the concrete road have dust now. Then, is we gap right there. As you turn in is grass and them little grabble stones. We house not so far in, nextdoor by the shop. Some nice little board houses by we. This one paint up light blue and dark blue, that one is pink, Miss Kenny have red front steps and cream and brown veranda. Some have flowers plants but mostly is the fencing bush people plant, then they trim it neat neat and make designs with it too. After the shop next to we is Alga house and then going down so is a few more house. The road wash away down there taking you up so to Bluggerfield or down so to Paradise River.
We house is one’a them old one, it never paint. Me gran’mudda say was mostly bush round here when she come, that’s when the Prime Minister was giving people pieces’a land. She bring Velda—that’s me Mudda and two other children. They away now, they end up leaving and go when Velda start making children. It never had no man in the house. Just me mudda and me gran’mudda. Velda is the last’a me gran’mudda chil’ren and she is the worst. You see how she ugly? Well is just so she bad. From the time she small—is so she is. She nose broad broad and she eye small. She black black and she never have shape, she did always flat. She hair hard and she look dry. Velda never want us to call her “Mammy,” only “Velda.” If we call she Mammy she beating us and boxing us up. So we used to call Gran’mudda “Mammy.” Since I had six years growing up, Velda don’t want nobody know she is a mudda. She have seven of us and she bubbies flat so if they akse her if she have chikdren, she bawling “No!” She don’t want us to call her Mammy.
Me gran’mudda say since Velda used to go to school, when they send she and the other aunty, they putting a shoes on Velda foot but she taking it out, leaving on she socks, push a slipper and she gone in the rumshop. Since she small. She just going in the rumshop and she drinking, that’s in primary school eh—in the rumshop, get a drink and smoking. Any time they have parents meeting and they give her a paper, she never bringing it home, she ripping it up. When me gran’mudda akse her if they have meeting, she saying “No!”
Me gran’mudda make 13 children and one die, 12 remain. Velda was the last one. Is so me gran’mudda used to put all of us to sit down and tell us don’t come out like we mudda. She tell us. She say she go through a lot’a trouble with Velda. She fight up with her till Velda come a big woman to make us. When the first one, Kim, did born, Velda just give her the child to mind and go about she business. Me gran’mudda say she was about 22. And after she make Kim, about two months pass and then she go and make Andre. Like she making them month-a-month. So she doing it. When Andre have months, she making Marian, then me… . After Claudette she stay a while and now then Junior. Me gran’mudda say is she that mind all of us. Velda never even use to give us te-te to suck. Mammy say she have to make flour porridge with selac and give us to drink. Velda used to just go and make children and pack us up there for her to mind. Me gran’mudda tell us “Watch! I mind allyou from a baby growing up, now allyou get big. Don’ go like allyou mudda and cuss and beat me up.”
Well me, for sure I never cuss me gran’mudda. Me sister Marian, when she did living in town, she buy some plates and cup and bring for Mammy. When me gran’mudda akse where she get it—she turn and she mash it up! And cuss the lady. Bad bad cuss and tell her all what she do and what she ain’t do—to get them plates. She cuss her and then she go about she business. Me gran’mudda bawl and she bawl.
Is me gran’mudda who used to look after me, send me to school and t’ing. Kim, me biggest sister, used to cook and plait we hair and I did like her, eh. But when she boyfriend fret her she taking out the blame on us. Like when she send me to akse Velda for dollar to buy oil, when I come back and say Velda say “She not working, she don’t have money”—some big slap in me back! And t’ing. But me mudda, she used to beat me with anything she get. Pot spoon. You see the cut I get over me eye? She take a blackpot, she knock me out with it. Anything she get, she beat me with it. I could say she beat me more, cause she like Marian more than me. But when I was small she used to beat all’a we.
The best days was when me mudda was working in the cocoa factory, in the pool. Not every day. If she go Monday, not till Wednesday she going again. If she go Friday, then is the other Monday she going again. Was nice when she used to bring things for we, like popcorn in the little bags and candy, coconut candy, asham—that’s the roast corn grind-up with sugar, and fry jacks in bakes. Me gran’mudda couldn’a work most times. She there lie down with sugar and pressure and them t’ings.
The house had two bedrooms, one in front by the front door and the other one down by the kitchen. And it have a hall—that’s the living room you could say, with four chair in it. A table there and then it have a little stove. Seven window, two facing the road, and no curtains. The doors going to the bedrooms—card we call them cause it’s plyboard. Was not a strong house, it old. The board in it rottening. When people walking, it shaking. The house did smell of… I could say’a pee. Letitia and Claudette used to pee in bed. And when they pee me mudda never making them bring it outside, so they just chucking it below the bed and so it smelling up the whole place funky. Was clothes we taking for bed though, spreading them on the ground, then you take two crocus bag and spread it on top.
When is rainy season, me gran’mudda taking me, Claudette and Letitia—we going down, down under the foll’age and look for breadnut and fig. When we come back up, she grating the coconut. We shelling the breadnut for her and she picking callaloo. She kneading flour and making dumpling. Then she putting it together with the bread-nut cause we have no meat. She say she used to live like that, so she know what to do. When rain falling, the house leaking where we sleeping and she used to take fiber and push it in them leaking holes, banana fiber. And when the rain falling real hard we doesn’t get nothing to eat, nothing to cook. But we used to get away and go and look for mango, till they call us in to sleep.
It had a man in the shop nextdoor by us. A time, me gran’mudda was in the hospital and I didn’t even know nothing, I sit down there, is only when I see Velda go and bring down nightie, pantie and bra for her in the hospital, we get to know. So when Velda come back she send me and Marian to beg the man for money. Well, the man say we have to give him something. We come back and tell her—and she beat us, oui! She tell us to go back but Marian jump up and say she “ain’ going no so-and-so way, eh.” Marian older than me and she bust out te-te before me. I bust te-te when I only had nine years. But me mudda was having sex with the man then. Me and Marian used to sleep in me mudda room together with her. Claudette, Andre and Letitia used to sleep in me gran’mudda room. And the man coming in the night. Me gran’mudda say she don’t want no man in the house cause she have she grandchil’ren there. Me mudda telling we open the door in the night for the man to pass in. She does have ’ffairs with him.
Once, me was about seven, Marian raise up and see the man touching up Velda. Marian tell me gran’mudda and when she tell me mudda about it, she start to cuss up and carry on, whole weekend. And when the Monday reach for we to go to school—she hot up the iron in the coal pot, hot hot, and then she just rest the iron on the dress and burn it. It was my nice small little dress. And it burn. She don’t even bother with it. I had to stay home and a neighbor, she had a child going same school with me, she give me three shirt and a skirt. I had to go to school without pantie too, cause Velda ain’ buying pantie for us. Sometimes I put a little piece’a short pants below the skirt. We going to school without tea. Raw sugar juice we drinking alone before we go. Me gran’mudda used to sorry for me.
It had some little boys coming by us. You know the game “Ketch a Girl and Boom”? We putting we hand so and wetting a finga and say “touch a finga” and everybody holding a finger and the person that hold the wet one – they have to be the ketcher. So when we running, any girl they ketch, they holding and bringing them in the ghetto and we have to give them a t’ing. Is in the ghetto I had sex for the first time, when I was reaching eight years. We does play Mammy and Daddy too. I’m the Mudda and Steven is the Fadda and the family make up’a Kitisha, Wendyann and Cadisha, and two other boys. Three girls and two boys. We playing we bathing them, we sending them to school and we staying home and we having fun in the ghetto. We build the ghetto—you take coconut straw and wood and you plait the wood, wood like small branch. And then we go and look for coconut branch and we bunching it up, we take fig straw and we tying the coconut branch ‘gether with the wood. Then after, we taking plastic and we put it over for the shelter. So that’s we house—the ghetto. Twelve of us used to play in there and then two new ones come, so was 14 of us.
But them other girls did tell me about it before—sex. And the first time when I did see me mudda doing it, I tell me gran’mudda about it and she say “That’s when the mudda don’ have no respec’ for she daughta.”
Because the daughta lie down right there—and look she doing it. Me and me sister used to get up in the night and peep. Because they have the bed bawling chooku-chooku. It only rocking every time. Is a iron bed and you could hear when everybody going up and down, up and down. And me and me sister used to be there watching. And when me mudda did sucking the man—Marian jump up and bawl “Mammy, Mammy! Look at Velda sucking the man cockos.”
Cause we used to call me gran’ mudda “Mammy.” So when Marian jump up and shout out “Mammy Mammy! Look at Velda sucking the man cockos,” Mammy say “She don’ have no respec’ for she chil’ren and them!” And she start to cuss and t’ing.
Velda could hear us that time, and she—not stopping! She doing it still. Look at the bed here and we on the floor right there. And she don’ have no respec’ for us, she just doing it.
And the man ‘eself. He ain’ even saying “look at she chil’ren right there.” He ain’ even telling her that. He strong. And he look like a gran’fadda already. He old. He belly did quail up and it big, and it just flap down. Beard, he have white beard and he never used to talk to us. When he come in home, he just going by me mudda. He just saying “afternoon” or “marnin” and that is it. He didn’t used to give us nothing. As we going to school, he wouldn’t even say he’d help me mudda and buy some exercise books for us, and t’ing. He just used to give her money. And when she get the money—she drinking rum.
Once she have a money in she hand, she getting rum. If she don’t have none, she going down by the rumshop and bounce-up she friend and them and they buying for her. The rumshop is after you pass by us on the road, you going down more. Early, from nine o’clock she drinking until… Clarks Court she drinking, that’s the white rum, eh. Straight like that. It strong and it smell like when somebody now pee. We know by the smell’a she mouth and by she eye, she eye does get red and she staggering. She starting from by the shop and she cussing come right up till she reach home. And when she reach home and me gran’mudda tell her about it, she cussing me gran’mudda.
Well when me big sister Kim say “Velda you don’ have to drink rum so cause you have seven of us.”
She saying “Haul you so-and-so. Who is you? I don’ have no chil’ren, no chil’ren at all.”
I used to cry eh. Look at when she was getting on a time, she slap down me gran’ mudda. Another day I sit down on the step and Mammy did coming behind with some coals, the same time Kim tell her about the drinking.
“I don’t have no chil’ren!” she cussing and cussing.
Mammy say “Velda, if is so you getting on, leave the house and go.”
“And then allyou go satisfy?” She bawl “Wha’ you crying fuh?” and she give me one kick.
I pitch right down by the coal pot. It had food on the fire. I pitch right all the way down there. You don’t see I have a burn on me hand? The mark still there. How she kick me go back—me hand rest on the coal pot. And she didn’t do nothing ’bout it. She say she going and drink more rum and come back for me so-and-so.
Obscene language she does cuss. “Fuck you. Yuh mudda cunt.” She tell me gran’mudda, “I is not you fucking daughta. I don’t know who they calling Mammy.”
And all the chairs. We don’t have a chair set, we does get chairs from the coals farm, old chairs. And she just raising it and mashing it up, bawling “Fuck you, yuh mudda cunt! I don’ care ’bout nothing. Me that bring it come.”
Me gran’mudda used to take it on, eh. A time she take it on and she fall down. And a neighbor had to bring her in the hospital. She just fall down with pressure. And I there crying because I know the advantage me mudda does do us when Mammy not there. Like she sending us and beg man for money. When we come back and tell her we don’t get, she beating us—send us back and look for more.
Listen how the t’ing went. When she send us and we come back home and tell her, me, Marian and Letitia, she saying “Go back. Allyou must have to get.” She say to let the man them touch us up.
I say “Marian, we can’t go and do that.”
Letitia used to cry and say she is just six years and t’ing.
When we tell Velda, she say she not letting us sleep inside. And she sending us back.
Well Marian say she go do it.
I say “I ain’ doing nothing, cause them man and them big, eh. And they drinking too.”
We have to go in the shop and call them outside and tell them what we mudda say.
The man say “Allyou have to give me something for that. I don’ working hard and give away people money just so.”
I say “Marian girl, let we go and tell Velda we ain’ get no money. Or we could go and tell somebody, let the person come and talk to her.”
Marian say she ain’ doing that cause Velda don’t want to hear and she go cuss them people more.
So we used to make them touch us up for the money.
Well Marian start getting-on too. She was giving them so she used to beat me. She used to beat me for me to give them. She say, not she one that have to give, two of us have to give. She bust me sister Letitia head, she bust it right here—to give them.
When we find the man them in the shop, they taking us up by the old house past Joe. Up there we going and do it. The building is where people go and smoke weed and t’ing. In the night they go there and we going in the day. It have two bed and then it have a bathroom in the house. A old building, nobody living in it. And it mark-up, mark-up all over, drawing outside, nice ones, and things to read. People used to see us going up with the man and when they meet me in the road, they throwing word—how I take old man and all kind’a things. That was before them girls tell me ’bout sex.
—Oonya Kempadoo was born in Sussex in 1966 of Guyanese parents and brought up in Guyana from the age of five. She is of mixed Indian, African, Scottish, and Amerindian descent. She lived briefly in Europe in her late teens before returning to the Caribbean, where she has lived in St. Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago. She currently resides in Grenada. Her first novel, Buxton Spice (UK: Phoenix House, 1998; USA: Dutton Plume, 1999), is semi-autobiographical account of rural coming age. Her second novel, Tide Running (UK: Picador, 2001; U.S. Farrar Straus & Giroux), is set in contemporary Tobago. She is presently working on her third novel, set in Grenada. In addition to her writing, she does volunteer social work with disadvantaged teenagers in Grenada.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.