Hortense's hat had slipped forlorn on her head, just a little, but enough to show this haughty Jamaican woman looking comical. I straightened it for her. She composed herself, dabbing her eye with the tip of her white-fingered glove. I got out my handkerchief so she might wipe her face. However, this item was not as clean as it might have been. For several days I had been meaning to wash it but . . . Hortense held it high between her finger and thumb to pass it back to me. As she took out her own handkerchief from her bag, I saw the pretty white cloth had Sunday embroidered on it. 'You have the wrong day there,' I told her. Then, oh, boy, she blew her nose into that poor cloth with the force of a hurricane, before telling me quietly, 'I walk into a cupboard.'
'Why you do that?' I asked her.
'I thought it was the door to leave by.'
'Oh dear,' I said.
'But it was a cupboard and the women all laugh on me.'
My mind conjured the scene but instead of laughing hearty on the joke of this proud woman's humiliation, my heart snapped in two. 'And tell me,' I said, 'what was this cupboard like?'
Her expression flashed 'What is this fool man saying?' but she answered, 'There was a bucket and perhaps a mop.'
'Ah. Now, that was a broom cupboard. I have walked into many broom cupboards.' Reddened and moistened with tears, her eyes gazed upon me. And I believe this was the first time they looked on me without scorn. Two breaths I skipped before I could carry on. 'It true! I walk into broom cupboard, stationery cupboard . . .'
'This one had paper in also.'
'Interesting cupboard,' I told her. 'You say it have broom and paper.' And then it happen.
I felt sure Hortense had teeth that sharpened to a point like a row of nails. But they did not. They were small, dainty-white with a little gap in the front two. Come, could it be true that I had never before seen her smile? I thought carefully of what I should say next -- for I feared a rogue word might chase away that astonishing vision. 'How long you say you stay in this cupboard?' I asked. And, oh, boy, that smile take on a voice -- she giggle.
'Enough time for me to know that I am not dead but I am merely in a cupboard.'
'Long time, then.'
She laughed and I swear the sky, louring above our heads, opened on a sharp beam of sunlight. 'Enough time for them to think me a fool.'
'Ah, well, that is not so long, then.' Man, I had gone too far. No sooner were those rascal words said than I wanted to scoop them back up and stuff them in me big mouth. Like an apparition all trace of mirth vanished.
'Are you teasing me, Gilbert Joseph?' she said. I was ready to throw myself to the ground and have her walk across me. But the cloud passed. Playful, she hit my arm.
'What you do when you come from the cupboard?' I carefully carried on. 'I left the room.'
'You say anything to the women who were laughing on you?'
'What was there to say?'
'You must tell them that was an interesting cupboard.'
From Small Island by Andrea Levy. Copyright Andrea Levy 2004. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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