The last working day before I start high school on Monday - with no school uniform, and Theresa woke up with a brilliant idea. She asked Mammy if she could spare the old blue skirt she used to wear to work. Theresa said that she would take the skirt apart and then cut it, pleat it, and make it into a skirt for my new uniform.
She said she learned enough sewing to make a pleated skirt, and that she should have enough material left over to make my tie. The shade was lighter than what I should have, and the cloth was old and worn, but at least it was blue. She said that although I needed a white shirt, I could wear my old cream shirt from primary school for the time being. Mammy thought it was a good idea, I thought so too, but was still feeling raw about yesterday and everything else.
“Instead of sewing it with yuh hand, I could send she to Barry’s wife in the scheme to ask if you could use her sewing machine,” Mammy said, flicking her thumb in my direction. ‘She’ ‘You,’ and ‘That One’ had always been Mammy’s names for me, there was no question that she meant me.
Theresa said that that would be even better, and that we had to do something now, we couldn’t wait any longer for my mother to show up.
I went up to the scheme to Mr. Barry’s wife, with a note that Mammy had dictated for me to write, asking if we could come on Saturday morning to sew my skirt. She said, “Of course, why not?”
I took my time walking back home, I knew this could be bad, but it was nice being out of the house, after eight weeks of ‘school holidays’ being locked up indoors and feeling watched all the time. I felt good and free, even if it was just a walk back home past the smelly Back Dam trench.
I looked for the cat but I didn’t see him, maybe someone took him in like Theresa had said.
When I got close to the house, I noticed Mammy’s head pop out of the window, I saw her face and knew straight away that I was in big trouble. When I walked through the door, she said to me, “Go take off yuh clothes, you getting licks.”
* * *
The projector coughed, the desolate screen stumbled to life, and this scene played:
My heart is pounding and my head feels wrapped with new elastic bands. I’m chewing on my finger nails to keep from fainting. I walk into the Mammy’s bedroom and start to take off my clothes. When she’s getting ready to do a nasty beating, Mammy insists I get naked - completely. I don’t know why, since the licks are really painful even with my clothes on.
I take my tee shirt partly off, but I leave it hanging round my neck to cover my chest because I have a tiny little booby. Just the one so far, and I don’t want anyone to see it.
Mammy comes into the room with the stick and she’s screaming at me because I’m still wearing my clothes. She rips the tee shirt off me, so hard it bruises my face, and I’m left standing there with my little, tiny booby pointing at her.
I start to cry, but it’s more from my shame than from fright. I need to cover up my body, so I put my arm on my chest, partly shielding the sharp ribs which are barely covered by my stretched skin. She hits my arm with the wood and commands me to take the rest off. She stands there and waits. I am crying as I take my shorts off but I don’t want to lose my underwear too. It’s the lone piece of the precious rags left to cover up my cowering frame. I’m growing up you see, and don’t want anyone to look at me.
I break down.
I can’t take my underwear off.
But by then I’m crying too much to do anything else. She gets really angry, she doesn’t like to wait.
Mammy never waits, not for anyone.
Now she can’t wait for me to undress anymore so she starts to beat me all over, the only place on my body that escape without licks, is my head.
In all the riot and pain, I keep holding on to the thought that keeping my underpants on means that I’ve achieved my only, precious, towering moment of victory.
I feel like a chewed up, spat out cherry. I know I’m bleeding somewhere but I can’t look now, the licks are too bad.
Much, much too bad.
She sees the blood too, some of it spills on wall and she glances at it. I think she’ll stop, I know she can’t bear to have any stain on her bedroom wall. I cry, but I can’t scream, I’ll get more licks if I do, and I’m am ashamed of the children next door hearing. She stops and now she is dragging me by my hair into the kitchen, the pain of each strand, etching her fury into my scalp through to my brain. She imprisons me by the hair, while she takes down the jar of salt from the shelf next to the kitchen window.
Blood rushes fast to my head and I feel my throbbing belly suddenly knot inside me, protecting itself, waiting . . .
I wriggle to get away but she’s very strong and very powerful - stronger and more powerful when she is angry. She opens the jar with her mouth and pours salt into my cut, which I then realise, was on my leg. Five million grains of salt feel like ten million angry bees, stinging! Stinging!
I could hear her grind her teeth as she rubs the salt in.
“Next time,” she hollers, releasing me, “I’ll pepper you parts!”
But does she know I’d won?