'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 again.
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 teach.'
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.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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