Excerpt of Small Island by Andrea Levy
(Page 5 of 7)
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'How you get on?' I asked. She dodged round me to walk on. 'They
tell you you have a job?' She feigned a deaf ear. And, man, she is
walking faster than any Jamaican ever walk except when they run. I
have to call after her, 'Hortense,' for I was out of puff. 'What they
say to you?' Still this woman has no word for me. Cha. I am following
on behind her like a lame dog. 'Wait, nah,' I called. She quicken her
pace. So, as Auntie Corinne taught me when chasing a chicken round the
yard, I make a jump to grab this woman. Two hands I use to seize her
then swing her round to face me. 'Wait,' I said. Stiff as a rod of
iron, her neck twisted misshapen to turn her eye from me. 'So what
they say?' I asked. Suddenly she look on me, her nose go up in the air
and, man, I am ready to duck. Aah, I knew that look.
'Why you ask me all these question? What business is it of yours?'
What little wind was left in me she cause to expel. Come, this was a
good question. Why was I asking anything of this wretched shrew? I was
ready to walk away. Plenty boys would by now be chasing the next pair
of pretty legs that passed their eye, not wasting their time listening
on a lashing tongue. So why I bother to say, 'You are my wife,' only
for her to look on me like this was one pained regret?
'Leave me alone. I can look after myself. I was doing it for many
years before you came along . . '
So what was it? A quickening breath? A too-defiant shrugging
shoulder? The gentle pout of her lip? Who can say? But something beg
me stay. 'Hortense, no more cuss me. Tell me what 'appen.'
She purse her lip tight. Cha, I could do nothing but shake her. Not
hard, for I am not a brute. But I rattle on her bone. It was the
teardrop that splash on my lip, warm with salt, that cause me stop.
She was crying. Steady as a rainpipe, the crystal water ran from her
eye. She start contorting again to hide her face from me. A woman
passing by begin staring on us. But it was not concern for Hortense's
welfare, she was just ready to walk a wide circle around we two.
'What happen?' I asked her.
'Nothing,' she said.
So I tell her, 'Nothing is a smile, Hortense.
You no cry over nothing.' And the woman scream, 'Nothing,' at me
Man, let her burn. Come, this was probably the first time the
woman's cheek ever felt a tear. She was insufferable! I walked away.
Two paces. Then a hesitant third before I turned to look back on her.
She was snivelling and trying with all her will not to wipe her nose
on her good white glove. I thought to smile when I hear it: Hortense
reeling wounded after a sharp slap from the Mother Country's hand.
Man, I was ready to tell her, 'Pride comes before a fall.' To leap
around her rubbing me hands while singing, 'Now you see . . . I tell
you so . . . you listening now.'
But her breath rose
in desperate gasps as she mumbling repeated over, 'They say I can't
Come, no pitiful cry from a child awoken rude
from a dream could have melted a hard heart any surer.
I guided her to a seat in a little square, she followed me
obedient. So did a little scruffy boy whose wide eye perused us all
the way. Softly delivered in my ear, Hortense informed me that she was
required to train all over again to teach English children. And I
remembered the last time I saw Charlie Denton. My old RAF chum
grinning on me because he was happy he said, oh, he was tickled pink
that he had become a teacher of history. Now, let me tell you, this
man once argue silly with me that Wellington had won the battle of
Trafalgar Square. And yet there was he, one year's training, and they
say he can stand before a classroom of wriggling boys to teach them
his nonsense. Hortense should have yelled in righteous pain not
whimper in my ear. And still the goofy boy was staring on us. 'Shoo,'
I told him. He poked out his tongue and wiggled his big ear at me,
then ran away. But other eyes soon took his place. An old man was so
beguiled by Hortense that, gaping on us, he leaned his stick into a
drain and nearly trip over. A curly-haired woman crossed her eyes
giddy with the effort of gawping. A fat man pointed, while another
with a dog tutted and shook his head. Come, let me tell you, I wanted
to tempt these busybodies closer. Beckon them to step forward and take
a better look. For then I might catch my hand around one of their
scrawny white necks and squeeze. No one will watch us weep in this
country. 'What you all see?' I shouted on them. 'Go on, shoo.'
From Small Island by Andrea Levy. Copyright Andrea Levy 2004. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.