“How’s New York?” Mama whispers, as she tries to claw away a tube from her face.
“Fine Mama. Just fine.” I reply. “I did an interview last week for a chat show.”
“An’ what great tings you gotta tell the world?”
“Nothing.” I shrug, feeling fifteen again, wishing I could do something to make her proud. “Just jamming about stuff.”
“What… stuff you talking about, girl?” Mama’s determined.
“Well, they wanted to talk about Charles. Obviously.”
Mama rolls her eyes away from his name.
“So, where yah staying in London? Wid DoubleU?”
I smile and sponge her forehead. My cousin DoubleU (known to the police as Delroy Chubb) has a big house in Tooting, owns the Bushmaster bus company and is proud of his Jamaican roots. They say he was a shooter back in Kingston. He used to call Mama ‘babe’ and would bring her rum for Christmas. He hasn’t visited her once here, and I’m glad.
“I haven’t seen DoubleU in ages.”
Mama turns her head away. I know she resents my lack of tradition, the escape from our dead-end estate and my subsequent featherweight fame. I rest my arms on the side of her cot bed and switch on Macy Gray who rocks me sweetly into dreamland.
I had first met Charles back in the nineties, in the local Caribbean shop on Peckham High Street where Mama worked. He had thrown open the door and walked in like an enormous tree that had been blown in by a storm. His broad chest thrust out like a turkey; his eyes deep and dark in their sockets; lips set askew above a boxer’s chin. Swaying and grabbing hold of a shelf to balance himself, he had pointed accusingly at the salted, wind-dried scaly fish hanging from strings, like death row criminals.
“You know they really look like they could do with a drink,” he’d muttered.
“Unlike you, mister. You had more dan enough by de look of tings.” Mama laughed, teeth shining like bright little stones in her face.
“Is this your daughter?” he asked, pointing directly at me.
She nodded. “She done something bad to you?”
Charles shook his head. “No. She’s beautiful, that’s all.” He winked at me. “Would you like me to take your photograph sometime?”
I shrugged my shoulders and said nothing. I was fifteen. A hard little Yardie girl from Peckham who everyone at school called Ugly.
He pulled a Polaroid camera from out of his bag and drew it quickly up to his eye.
“Hold still,” he whispered. “This one’s for your mother.”
The camera flashed. I flinched in its light, and felt Mama’s arms move in quickly to protect me.
“Don’t you be scaring the child,” is all she said, as milky-white paper rolled from out of the camera and into Charles’ waiting fingers. Holding it up to my eyes, we watched as the image slowly revealed itself from a ghostly shadow, to a face I hardly recognised as mine.
“So, now you are captured,” he said to me, handing the picture to Mama, who tucked it in her apron pocket. Passing her his card, he said: “I’m a photographer. The best, in fact.”
Mama frowned and shot him one of her ‘sure you are’ stares.
“I work for Vogue. Your daughter, she really is extraordinary looking.”
“You tellin’ me something new, mister?” is all Mama said.
Mama and I arrived at Charles’ studio a few days later. He opened the door and took us down a long corridor; its walls painted in rich black greens. Thick yellow candles blazed in curvy iron holders; their flames curtsied in our wake as we passed. It was then that something touched me deep inside, a deep, electric kind of need. My heart reached out and I promised myself that this is how I would live one day. I would run away from the shiny, frilly-bottomed sofas which had no echo of history. Escape from our dead-end estate–its budget shops with Pakis Get Out scrawled on windows displaying florescent fizzy drinks and greasy donuts, slimy with icing. I would break away from it all. From the limp net-curtains that hung like flags of surrender in every window; our lift, its bumpy plastic walls smeared with shit-brown streaks and words which embodied nothing but hate. I would reveal myself, from empty blankness, to a defined shape, a person, just like my Polaroid.
My modelling career took off pretty rapidly and later that year, and for many months afterwards, Charles and I lay together, wrapped in each other’s arms. Drifting on bubbles and frivolous dreams. It wasn’t long before Mama found out and for many weeks we didn’t speak. “I was too young,” she had said. “He’ll break your heart.” And he did.
I jerk awake and wipe away a bubble of spit from around Mama’s lips; pull off my headphones and look at the time. I have the newspaper-cutting in my hand telling me that he has gone. Mama stirs, as I begin to read it for the twentieth time. A long obituary; stories that span decades of friendships I never witnessed. I am mentioned in passing as one of Charles’s ‘many discoveries’, as if I was nothing more than a piece in his collection. I begin to cry tears over poor Mama’s chest, as she tuts and tries to touch my hair. I really should be leaving soon. My flight’s at six, but I don’t want to go. She looks bad, but you can never tell with this disease.
As I rise, Mama turns to me, clutches my hand and pushes something between my fingers. It’s a Polaroid of a frightened little Yardie girl standing in front of a stack of dusty Okra tins. I see my mother’s strong, protective arms reaching into shot.
“You’ve done real good,” she says. “You get goin’ now, daughter. I be fine.”
Celeste Goschen has had both articles and short stories published in magazines and ezines. As well as making short films, she is working on a collection of stories about London life.