A Sunday Afternoon
by Gitta Sumner
…And if you do this with love in your heart
What would you do with hate in your hands?
“Make am set e mot. Make da pikin set e mot,” the man tells the woman cowering at his feet. The woman grips the wailing child against her breast as tightly as she can wishing that the pain in her head would stop so that she can concentrate on finding a way to get herself and the child out of the flat.
The woman stands at the foot of her bed and runs her fingers through her dreadlocks. I’ll braid them when I return, she thinks. She slips a hair band around the thick black locks, presses the “play” button on her CD player and walks into the bathroom with the sound of Goapele’s “Butterflykisses” rising up behind her.
Momentarily pausing in front of the cabinet above the sink, she stares at the reflection of her face in the mirror. Briskly shaking her head, she proceeds to brush her teeth before stepping into the shower. She can hear Al Green’s singing the opening to “Simply Beautiful” before the hot water rushes over her. She caresses the amber-coloured soap until the thick layer of foam makes it difficult to hold. Slowly, Memouna soaps her body as the water drums the shower floor and bubbles glide across her slippery skin.
“You think you’re going to get out? You think you can leave me? Me! Me! I brought you to this country! Me! You’re not going anywhere! You’re staying right here. You tink sey oona geh for lef dis ‘ouse? If you na ooman, make you foot mass na do! If you na ooman,” he hisses more quietly.
He walks up and down the room as he speaks; the woman with the child in her arms flinches each time his trousered leg touches her bare arm. Her breath escapes her swollen lips in ragged gasps. The child is now silent; the woman knows she must think about getting out, but she is mesmerised by the seemingly erratic journey of a small black ant scurrying along the smooth wooden floor.
The sound of a distant siren pierces her undamaged eardrum.
“Basta ooman” he screams. “Ca na yah!” He reaches down and grabs her shirt collar. Dragging her as she cradles the immobile child across the floor, he pulls them towards the kitchen, where behind the half open door an upturned chair and table bar his entry into the brightly lit room.
Memouna rinses the soap from her body. Carefully stepping out of the shower stall she wraps the towel hanging behind the door around her body. Her two housemates are still asleep in their bedrooms and she smiles, knowing that neither woman will be awake before she leaves.
Walking briskly into her room, she removes underwear and clothes from a chest of drawers and throws them on her bed. Reaching for the cocoabutter crème on the dresser, she quickly applies it to her damp body. While rubbing it into her thigh, she feels the smooth elevation of an old scar. For a second or two she strokes it gently, before resuming the familiar up and down motion as the thick creamy substance sinks into her warm skin. She hums along to the imploring words of Gregory Isaac’s “Night Nurse”.
Ignoring the mirror above her dresser, she reaches for the clothes and underwear behind her and starts to dress. In ten minutes she is fully clothed, her hair has been released from its elasticated grip and is lying loose around her shoulders. She puts into her backpack the items she will need, including extra batteries and her carefully selected collection of CD’s; she switches off the stereo system. Quickly scanning the room, she picks up the portable CD player and walks out closing the door behind her.
Memouna enters the kitchen and deposits her belongings on the table in the centre of the room. She has already washed the Thermos flask standing by the sink—it simply waits to be filled with coffee. In thirty minutes she has prepared a packed breakfast consisting of two cheese sandwiches, the flask filled with freshly brewed coffee, sachets of brown sugar and powdered cream, a plastic spoon and an orange that will provide her with her daily dose of vitamin C, that she remembers her mother insisted on, when she was a child. Everything is carefully placed into the backpack.
He pushes against the door with his shoulder—it moves an inch then stops. The sound of sirens is getting closer. He screams with rage; kicking the woman at his feet, he releases her collar and with his free hands, he pushes against the kitchen door until he creates a gap wide enough to drag them through. Without looking, he reaches down and grabbing hold of the woman’s hair pulls her into the kitchen. The table, with its scratched and stained Formica surface, is lying on its side jammed against the fridge under the countertop. In front of it lays the wooden chair with its broken leg.
Panting, the man drags the woman into the kitchen. There is a pool of pale gold cooking oil spreading out from underneath the table and flowing across the bluebell-covered linoleum floor.
The woman clutches the child in her arms. It’s a little girl and her left eye is swollen shut. The gash at the back of her head has a thick layer of clotted blood surrounding the slowly seeping wound. The man has released his hold on her hair and she can hear him moving back and forth above her. She grips the child closer to her body; who lies in her trembling arms. If she concentrates hard enough she can feel a feather-soft stream of cool air against her collarbone. Her heart thumps violently behind her breastbone and her stomach feels as though it has lost its base. She doesn’t know where to go: her head tells her to creep towards the open door, but the muscles of her body are paralysed—all she can allow herself to do is maintain a tight grip around her child’s body. The man stops moving.
“If they come in here I’ll be ready,” he says. “If den ca na ya! If den ca na ya!” The woman cannot bring herself to look at him. Her neck muscles are taut; she keeps her face pressed against the child’s body. The man walks towards them and crouches down beside her; panting heavily he reaches out and strokes the exposed skin at the base of her head. There is a thin stream of blood moving down the side of her neck where the hair has been pulled away from the scalp. He gently wipes the blood away, leaving a smear of almost invisible red on the deep brown skin. He rests his hand on the back of her neck as they wait for the sound of the siren approaching the house.
She opens the side of the small silver car and places her backpack on the front passenger seat; she places the portable CD player on the floor. Memouna climbs in, turns the key in the ignition and while the car is idling, she switches on the radio just in time to hear the eight o’clock news update. This is followed by a weather forecast, which promises a clear and sunny day—unusual for London in mid-April. She smiles to herself and turns the radio dial hoping to find a station playing music she can sing to as she drives. In mid-turn, she stops having caught the first bars of a song she has not allowed herself to listen to for many years. Before the last strains of Susan Cadogan’s “Hurts So Good” recedes into the silence of the gently throbbing car, they are replaced by the patois of the radio host. She slowly continues to turn the dial and stops when she hears someone announcing ticket sales for a two-day soul concert.
The route she takes is a familiar one allowing her to observe her surroundings as she drives. Passing the small supermarket selling Afro-Caribbean foodstuffs she sees the stacks of colourful vegetables and fruits outside the shop and remembers that she has run out of plantains. On her way back home she will buy some, as well as bananas and rice flour to make akara for her housemates. She mentally adds to her brief shopping list, realising that to complete the snack, she will have to purchase onions, scotch bonnets and tomatoes to make the gravy too —nobody could accuse Sierra Leonean food of being simple, she thinks. She allows herself a small smile and slows down as she approaches the traffic lights. A young woman pushing a pram crosses the road—her relaxed hair has purple and blue strands peeking out of her sleek ponytail; an assortment of young girls and boys, men and women with and without children follow her lead. Memouna taps the steering wheel as she waits for the light to change back to green.
At the sound of a car stopping in front of the house, the man’s hand tightens around the woman’s neck. She in turn squeezes the child’s body. Outside, car doors are slammed shut.
Her dark eyes are bright as she hugs the child to her. The arms holding the small body strain with the effort of the prolonged grip, but with trembling fingers, she manages to caress the miniature cornrows on her daughter’s head, tracing a path along the round scalp.
“I love you,” she breathes into the small perfectly formed ear.
A warm damp patch has formed where their two bodies touch. The mother can feel her child’s small shape curved into hers, and wishes—not for the first time—that she was capable of killing…someone.
She drives towards Hammersmith, hoping to miss the worst of the airport traffic. Cars filing past her contain people heading towards, or away from Heathrow.
The sky is a clear blue and the air flowing through the open window feels cool against her skin. The temperature has climbed to a 11oC. She is calmer now that she is on her way; she feels more at peace with herself than she has felt for some time. Her tuneless singing is strong as she shares the desires, the worries, and the sorrows of the voices flowing out of her car radio.
Memouna parks the car. She removes everything she needs, including a blanket from the boot. She slips the backpack over her shoulders and carries the portable CD player in one hand with the blanket tucked under her arm. After locking the car and switching on the alarm system, she walks through the gates and down the path. It is quiet. There are few people out at this time, and for now the area is relatively undisturbed. The sun has started to dry up the damp grass at her feet; the sky is still blue and the air is still cool against her skin.
The grass has grown a little since her last visit and there are a handful of daisies and buttercups growing at the base of the stone, but this does not bother Memouna who spreads out the blanket, carefully arranges her food and sits down. Before eating, she selects S.E. Rogers’ “Palm Wine Guitar Music” from her CD collection. Placing it in the CD player, she eats her food surrounded by the sounds of nature, the hum of distant traffic and the music of her mother’s homeland.
Having finished her food, she packs her things back into the backpack.
“Ah bet you sey you no been feel sey ah go fen am?” she asks her mother. “It took me ages to find the right place, but I did it, you know.” She turns her head, resting her cheek against the cool stone as she recalls her uncle telling her about her mother’s favourite childhood singer and her difficulties in trying to locate someone who could provide her with his music. Her fingers trace the letters of her mother’s name as she describes what has happened in her life since her last visit, a month ago.
“I let him see it—he didn’t flinch when I took my sunglasses off.” Her eyelids blink rapidly behind dark glasses shading one dark brown and one opaque-coloured iris. “He didn’t even flinch.” She smiles to herself. “I think he’s going to ask me…,” she continues.
There is a loud knock at the front door. She can feel his breath on her neck; she can feel the hand tighten its grip around her neck. The scream rises up from a place she thought no longer existed.
“Ep me!” she screams inside.
“Help me!” she screams out loud.
He punches the side of her face.
“Set you mot! Set you mot!”
He screams over and over again. With one fist he punches the side of her head, while maintaining his grip around her neck with his other hand. His fist breaks open skin; repeatedly pounds flesh against broken bone. This is what he does.
She collapses against the floor, her child, crushed under her body.
A few days later…
If described, you could say Memouna is a woman approaching thirty. She wears a pale green shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows and navy blue jeans; on her feet is a pair of light brown leather slippers. Her dark brown arms are mindful of the chocolate slivers you find in tubs of mint and chocolate chip ice cream. She is not a slim woman and sometimes her breasts, hips, and waist strain against the limitations of her clothes.
There are people walking briskly past her seat; yet, she is oblivious to the hustle and bustle of office workers trying to catch a quick bite before returning to their offices; or, the sound of shoppers exclaiming over their lucky finds; or, those simply fortunate enough to have the time to sit in a coffee shop catching up on news of old friends, old enemies…
Her fingers are unable to grip the teaspoon tightly and so she stirs her coffee slowly, watching the pale cream merge with the almost black liquid. She blows the rising steam away from her face and lifts the teaspoon out of the dark blue glass cup, carefully laying it on the saucer resting underneath it. She lifts the cup to her lips and takes a sip of liquid the colour of a walnut shell.
Today, she sits amid the sounds of life with a smile on her face.
By Gitta Sumner
“Make am set e mot. Make da pikin set e mot.” = “Make her shut her mouth. Make that child shut her mouth.”
“You tink sey you geh for lef dis ‘ouse? If you na ooman, make you foot mass na do.” =
“You think you’re going to leave this house? If you think that you are a grown woman, set foot outside the door.”
“Basta ooman” … “ca na yah!” = “Bastard woman,” … “come here!”
“If den ca na ya! If den ca na ya!” = “If they come in here!”
“Ep me!” = “Help me!”
“Set you mot! Set you mot!” = “Shut your mouth! Shut your mouth!”
“Ah bet you sey you no been feel sey ah go fen am?” = “I bet you didn’t think I’d find it?”
Gitta Sumner is a Sierra Leonean currently residing in London. She has been writing short stories & poems off and on for a number of years. A poem, “Black Butterfly” was published in the collection “The Monkey’s Typewriter” (Willesden Green Writers’ Workshop & Willesden Green Library, March 2005) and her story, “The Month of September” was published in Dreams, Miracles and Jazz: New Adventures in African Fiction (Picador Africa, February 2008).