Heather Imani I
It was the summer of 76. That
fire-hot summer, when the grass in the parks was parched yellow and you looked along
Kensal Rise and saw wavy lines of heat-haze and the roads were bumpy because the tarmac
had melted and looked like it was boiling. The sun was blinding, frazzling our Afros,
sending everyone a bit crazy. And perhaps because of the sun, Paulette got it into her
head that we should go and look for Martini.
Paulette and me were in the same class at school. I
was still thirteen, though, and Paulette was teasing me as usual about being the baby of
the class because my birthday fell in the summer holidays. It meant I never got those
little gifts that the kind girls in class always brought in for a birthday or at
Christmas: foil-wrapped cubes of bath salts or Bronnley lemon verbena soap or pot-pourri.
Soap-on-a-rope. Instead, Mum gave me either hankies or
knickers, with new slippers or flip-flops or jelly sandals.
And a lecture about being another year older and how I
needed more than ever to study my books and keep-weh from de bwoys-dem.
I was moaning about that to Paulette. She said my mum
I dont check for boys, though, I
Hmm, said Paulette. You think I
never see you with TP yesterday? I blushed.
You see you face and I never even mention
his actual name.
What? I said. He only walked me to
the bus stop. I never asked him to; I was just walking when he came up behind me so
in fact he never really walked me to the bus stop anyway; I was walking to the bus
stop and he decided to walk there too. I cant force him not to walk
where he wants to walk, can I?
Hmm. You so lie. You think I never see how you
hook up your arms together and how your face was so grinny-grinny? I bet it was all yes
TP, no TP, three bags full TP I slapped Paulette playfully and she
laughed at the fact that I blushed deeper and deeper every time she said TP.
And it was true: I couldnt hear his name without
going all funny. I felt floppy and my head went kind of swimmy. The feeling confused me
and to be honest, I felt silly. I thought it was something only the fool-fool white girls
who read Jackie went through with boys they fancied, and that they only felt like
that because they were stupid enough to believe a magazine saying they were supposed to.
You better mind, said Paulette. Two
twos and youll forget about your studies and itll be TP this and TP that and
youll end up pregnant for him and drop out of school and you wont be any
different from Martini people will think youre just a leggo-beas
instead of a bright girl who went stupid over a boy. My face burned. I slapped her
again, harder. She was talking loudly and two Indian girls, who were sat on the playground
bench next to ours fanning themselves with their hands, looked across, their faces like
Ow! Paulette rubbed her arm. But she was
triumphant. Truth hurts, innit, Hazel? Your mums right: study your books and
forget the bwoys-dem! The bell for the end of lunch break went and we peeled
ourselves off the bench. Paulette pulled out her Afro comb and neatened her hair. Looking
at her reflection in the dining hall window, she sighed. Her hair was flatter now than it
had been in the morning. She sucked her teeth and declared the whole experience of this
English summer disgusting because there were no trade winds to help keep everyone cool,
like in Jamaica.
I didnt see what that had to do with the sun
shrivelling her hair, but since she went to Jamaica with her family every year, I thought
she should know.
Its so stuffy and its like
youre breathing in dry dust from everywhere, she said.
That much was definitely true.
We had double science next lesson and after registration, we made our
way up the main staircase of A Block to the lab. I was looking forward to the class
because I liked Miss Halai. She was young and fun instead of old and boring like the other
science teachers all men. Also, we were doing a chemistry component and I enjoyed
that more than biology (which girls were supposed to like best of all the sciences) and
definitely more than physics, which I found dull and difficult, though I didnt like
to admit that.
Our class congregated outside the locked lab, buzzing
noisily and sweltering. A few of my classmates not me or Paulette, though
were a bit whiffy from half a day in the same clothes. We waited for Miss Halai to arrive
and let us in. A couple of minutes later, she bounced along the corridor, looking cool in
an ice-green sari that swished under her sparkling lab coat. She carried her papers and a
clutch of test tubes, and her single plait, which usually hung neatly down her back well
past her waist, swung from side to side behind her. She smiled as she came up to us and
passed the contents of her hands to Gary Burton, fished in her pocket for the key and
unlocked the door. We streamed in and the wave of heat from the classroom scraped our
Rah, miss, said Gary. Its too
hot in here to work.
Ennit too hot in here to work, Dalton? Dalton
Rah, Dalton, you let me down, man, moaned
Miss Halai told us to open some windows.We obeyed,
tussling with stiff old levers on the lower windows and pulleys to open the ones high up.
We breathed exaggerated sighs of relief as cooler air flowed in from outside. Miss Halai
started the lesson and the class took the shape it usually did with her: the ones who
wanted to learn in a huddle at the front; those not interested at the back, doing their
own thing, so long as they kept the noise down and didnt disturb the rest of us. The
ones at the back were a few of the black boys in the class Gary Burton and his crew
and the two white girls, Susan Wingate and Patsy Rowe, who mostly bunked off to go
and smoke cigarettes. No black girls or any of the Indian kids went to the back. Our
parents would have killed us if it came up in our reports. Sometimes, the boys at the back
fooled around, touching up the white girls and we could hear them squeal and go Stop
it, stop it - never sounding like they meant it. That was the only time Miss Halai
would intervene. Mostly, though, they played cards.
I never went to the back. Once or twice Paulette did
but never for the whole class. She wouldnt dare. She said it was because she
was just curious to know what they got up to. But I knew she went off when she didnt
understand the work Miss Halai set. Paulette was like me that way, not wanting to ask for
help. But instead of giving up like her, I sneaked a look at what somebody else was doing
to give me some pointers. That always worked for me.
Miss Halai was showing us some phosphorus, which was
knobbly and purplish-black and stored in a test tube with water because she said it was
combustible. She took a pair of tongs and picked out the phosphorus, when suddenly it
slipped and fell to the floor. It whooshed into a small flame and we all went Wow!
Miss Halai had to stamp on it to put the fire out and afterwards, there was a burn mark on
the wooden floor where it fell. She checked the sole of her shoe for damage.
Well, class, that just goes to show how
dangerous She didnt get to finish her sentence, because from the back
of the class, Susan Wingate screamed and went,
Christ! Gary! Miss Halai pushed a path
through our huddle and we all turned to see what was going on. Susans summer dress
was up round her belly and Gary Burton had his hand stuffed inside her knickers. Before he
realised that everyone was looking at him, he said, Rah, Dalton, I can feel all her
pussy juices! His voice sounding almost as if he wanted to cry.
The news spread like wildfire. Gary was suspended on the spot. Susan was
sent home in a taxi with a note to her mum. They said that she might want to press charges
for sexual assault. But the real talk was about how Gary had taken liberties because
hed been with Martini, who let boys do stuff like that, and whatever anyone said
about Susan Wingate and Patsy Rowe, about them bunking and smoking and letting boys feel
up their tits or whatever, they didnt carry on like Martini, so it was Martini who
had corrupted Gary Burton, like she corrupted everybody, and if Gary got into trouble with
the police or if Susan was traumatised for the rest of her life because of what Gary did,
then it was really Martinis fault because she was the ultimate slag-bag, a
leggo-beas who got boys doing nastiness like this.
First thing the next day was when Paulette collared me with a serious
look on her face.
Look, Hazel, she began. She wiped the film
of sweat on her nose; she said shed run all the way up Okehampton Road from the bus
stop to tell me this Very Important Development. A little bird told me
cant tell you who that some boys went to see Martini after school yesterday
when they heard what Gary did to Susan. Said they wanted to get themselves
Anyway, that same little bird dont ask me
who, cos I cant tell you said that TP went with them. She paused
for effect. My heart, lungs and stomach somersaulted.
Bad, innit? she continued. You see
whats gonna happen now? TPs gonna come back all corrupted and he aint
gonna wanna link up arms with you any more, thats for sure. Hes gonna want you
to spread for him and all kinda nastiness. Paulette clapped her hand to her mouth.
You poor thing, she said and grabbed me in a fierce hug.
I shook her off. I was reeling from the thought that
TP could have gone to see Martini. She must be lying. But why would she lie? Maybe it was
just rumours. It was just the kind of thing that there would be rumours about. Of course!
Youre lying, I blurted. TP
Hmm! said Paulette. You see how it
start already? You vex with me because I brought bad news. It aint my fault!
Its that Martini. You should be vex with her: shes the cause of it. She
stopped and looked at me. I was trying to push water back into my eyes.
Its all right, Paulette said,
softly. Well go and look for her. Sort her out once and for all. The
bell rang for morning registration and we spent the rest of the day not concentrating on
our books but sending each other little notes, planning how and where wed find
Operation Leggo-Beast. Target: Alison Brown,
aka Martini (we all know why). Should we round up a posse of Outraged Girls?
No; this isnt general, its personal.
TP is involved now, so Im involved.
Well, Im involved too because Im
your best friend and anyway, I thought of going to look for her first.
Where does she hang out?
Well, shes supposed to love water,
something to do with her being from Manchester. Didnt she say that in class once
before she just went and dropped out?
What about Queens Park then, by the
Nah! Nobodys ever seen her in the park
since she left.
Does she still live near you?
So, water by you Stonebridge Rec?
Maybe, but there isnt any water there.
Oh. Isnt there that canal that runs down
by the flats, the other end of Stonebridge?
Yeah, they call it the Feeder.
Yes! The Feeder! Dutty water for a dutty
leggo-beast. Must can find her there.
After school, Paulette and me headed off down Okehampton Road towards Kensal Rise to
get a 187 bus to Stonebridge. The sun was merciless. I felt uncomfortable in my flimsy
summer dress and sandals, as if I wanted to strip everything off. Not speaking, we walked
slowly, Paulette putting on lipgloss with her finger and tutting over the state of her
Afro, picking at her hair as we picked our way along the roasting pavement.When we came to
the sweet shop at the bottom of the road, we looked at each other and went in.We spent our
bus fare on a fat Jublee each mine cherry and Paulettes orange and
Paulette also bought a bottle of Fanta with her actual pocket money, which I never got.
She asked for a couple of sheets of newspaper, which she wrapped her Fanta in and tucked
in her bag for later. We tore at the waxy wrappings of the Jublees with our teeth,
savouring the first suck on the huge, sweet chunk of ice.
It was going to be a long walk to Stonebridge.
You should talk to her first, said
Paulette, breaking our silence.
We were coming towards Harlesden. My feet hurt. I
wanted to go straight home really, but I didnt feel I could pull out of Operation
Why me? I asked.
Well, you wrote on your note that its
personal for you, because of you-know-who. She looked at me.
Besides, youre half-coolie.
What? I said.
We should try to distract her, innit? And you
should know what to say to her because youre half-coolie. Now I was just
irritated. I found myself wondering why I listened to Paulette, let her talk me into
Whats that got to do with anything?
Paulette shrugged. Martinis half-caste and
youre half-Indian. Youll know what to say to her more than me.
It aint even the same thing! My
voice was all screamy.
I know, said Paulette, calm as anything.
But shes half-not-black and so are you. Youve got more in common with
her than me; Im full black. I sucked my teeth and drained the last of my
meltedout Jublee. I flung the wrapper into someones frontgarden bushes as I passed
something I would never usually do.
Paulette tucked her wrapper into her school bag and
fished out her Fanta. She prised the top off with her teeth, wiped the bottle rim and
offered me first drink. I shook my head and she took a long swallow.
Mmm, still cold, she said.
We walked the rest of the way in silence, slow, slow.
Martini was right where wed predicted. We saw her from a distance,
Paulette pointing her out with her empty Fanta bottle. She was by herself, prodding at
something in the water.We could tell it was her because of her ginger-brown hair coiling
out from her head like mad corkscrews. I felt a kind of creeping nervousness, almost sick.
What was I supposed to say to her? We quickened our pace, and as we got within calling
range, Paulette dropped back and pushed me forward by the shoulder.
Go on, she hissed, say something to
her. I hesitated. Hiya, Alison! I sounded stupidly cheery.
I looked at Paulette, who rolled her eyes. Martini
turned her creamy-skinned face to look up at us.
What do you lot want? she said. She stood
up. If its about that Susan whatsername, its got nowt to do with
Dont be daft, I said, something
taking me over suddenly. I knew without looking that Paulette would be rolling her eyes
again because I said daft, like I came from Manchester too. I couldnt
stop, so I continued. We were passing and we havent seen you in ages
why dont you come to school any more? Youre missing all the lessons and
everything: you used to like Maths, didnt you and you were really good at
Dont come it, said Martini.
Youre really facety, you know that?
She used her aggressive tone, her voice all bassy and
out of the side of her mouth. She was taller than me and Martini and usually, people got a
bit scared of her when she did that. But Martini didnt look scared at all. She
So fookin what if I am? She turned
back to the rawsmelling, slimy green water and poked in it with her stick.
That water looks so nasty, I said.
Yeah, said Martini.
Doesnt it make you feel sick?
No. It makes me feel calm. She turned to
see the disgust on our faces. She smiled again. It dont matter what kind of
water even this. I was about to say that I had remembered she liked water,
that thats how wed managed to find her, when Paulette said, You
dont mind nasty water because youre nasty. Martini laughed, turning back
to the Feeder with her stick. Like I said, so fookin what if I am?
Paulettes eyes bulged and she looked at me for I dont know what some
kind of go signal maybe, but I didnt have one. I wanted to know why
Martini had dropped out and whether she was going to another school and why she liked
water so much, even this disgusting water.
And why it was she smiled and looked happy, even
though she must know why we came to look for her.
A trampy-looking man with matted hair and a stinking
overcoat shuffled up to us. He looked straight at Martini, a tall can of beer in his hand.
You gwine free up de poom-poom for me
tonight? Martini kept her back to the man. Fook off, she said.
Cant you see Im talkin to some
people? The man stared hard at her for a moment. He looked at us too. He wiped his
sweaty brow. I dont know what was going through his head, but he twisted his face
into different shapes: angry, a beggy-beggy look, hurt pride, resignation and back to
angry again. He took a swig from his tall can of beer, stepped up to Martini and took hold
of her arm.
Come, gyal, he said. Me say me want
piece. He sounded dismissive, as if she wasnt supposed to have said no, like
she wasnt supposed to have any choice.
Martini turned slowly so she stood side-on to the man.
She gave him a cut-eye look, slicing his ragged body slowly up and down from the corners
of her eyes.
A look of pure insolence, the kind of thing Id
get conked in my head for if I ever dared do that at home.
She must give cut-eye all the time, I thought; it came
so naturally to her. I was outraged and deeply impressed at the same time.
Look, she said, you must be thick or
summat, cos Ive told you about a hundred times that I aint doin it
with you. If I wanna do it, I pick who I do it with. Gorrit? Now fook off. Im
talkin. She slid her sidelong look to her arm where he was holding it, then
tilted her head to look squarely at him.
He released her arm and stepped back. He looked
broken. Paulette sniggered. The man looked at all of us, witnesses to his humiliation. I
saw his face change shape again. He raised his tall can.
I bet I claat you inna you He flew
at Martini and she side-stepped him neatly.As he went by her, she brought her knee up to
The man bent double and dropped his can. Beer fizzed
onto the canal path. Martini stepped out of one of her red shoes and hardly seemed to
stoop before it was in her hand, the heel poised to strike.
Its too fookin hot for
this, she bawled at the man.
But Ill smash a fookin hole in your
head if you dont get back in your cardboard box now. Martini was
shaking but her eyes were on fire.
The man picked up his can and shambled off, muttering
all the claat swear words,mostly about how de p___ claat gyal mek a r___ claat
man waste off him good b___ claat beer.
Whoy, whoy! shouted Paulette, leaping up
and down, flipping her hand so her fingers snapped. That was wicked! I
couldnt help myself. I went up to Martini and offered my hand, grinning. She shook
her head but took it, smiling. Then Paulette came up beside Martini and smashed her on the
back of her head with the Fanta bottle. The glass shattered, a shower of rainbow sparkles
in the sun, and Martini gasped and wheeled towards me.
I yelped and half-caught her, then pulled my hands
back when I saw the blood exploding from the wound in her head, the piece of glass
sticking out. All I could think of was how would I explain blood on my summer dress to my
mum. As Martini fell to the ground without my support, Paulette kicked her in the face.
She thudded onto the path. I was frozen in the sun couldnt move my feet or my
hands, although I tried.
Get up! commanded Paulette. Get up,
you dutty leggo-beas! Martini scrambled to her feet, groaning, her cheek badly
scraped and her top lip bloody. She looked dazed and pressed her hand to the back of her
She said nothing. Paulette swung her hefty right arm
she did shot putt and half-smacked, half-shoved Martini into the filthy
green slime of the Feeder. Paulette went to the edge of the water to have a good look at
her there. I peered at her too, wishing I could make myself look away. She wasnt
moving and her eyes were shut.
She only had one shoe on and it stood out against the
colour of the water. So did the red cloud oozing from her head. I was surprised at how
shallow the Feeder was.
Paulette picked up Martinis stick and prodded
her gently with it. Martini groaned and stirred, the slime-water squelching as she moved.
Her eyelids flickered, then she winced, sucking in a small breath. Paulette put the stick
down on the bank, next to Martinis other shoe.
Come on, Hazel, she said. Walk me to
the bus stop?
We passed the trampy man, who had seen everything, on our
way back to the 187 bus stop. Paulette said she always kept some spare change for
emergency bus fares home, and she reckoned this qualified. The trampy man stepped out of
Paulettes way with an exaggerated gesture, going Coo, coo, de gyal-deh bad-aaass.
We stood on the quiet road, silent for a moment. There was no one at the stop and no sign
of a bus.
Dyou want another Jublee? Paulette
asked. There was a sweet shop just round the corner.
I thought you only had emergency bus fare,
Ah well, she said, Ive got
lots of things up my sleeve. I asked for a grape-flavoured one this time. I
didnt go into the shop with her to get them. When she came out, she handed me mine.
We fixed her good, didnt we? she
She paused for my reply but I said nothing. I squeezed
the Jublee to soften it a bit and looked down the road.
Theyll think that tramp beat her up,
We tore the corners of the wrapping off with our
teeth. Paulette had bought herself the same flavour as mine. It was the first time
Id seen her with any flavour other than orange.