2,979 words – approx. 10 minutes
Lisa squinted at the terracotta-coloured folder that lay on the small, round coffee table in her living room. “Pock,” she read out. “What’s pock?”
“P-O-C, mum,” said Jessica, carrying two glasses of water from the kitchen. She gave one to Lisa, who dropped a paracetamol in and watched it dissolve. “It means ‘people of colour’?”
“Oh right. That’s what we’re supposed to say now, is it?”
Jessica sighed extravagantly. “It has been for a while, which you’d know if you ever spent any time around people who aren’t white.”
The gaudy sparkle of a gameshow’s opening credits distracted Lisa for a moment, then she turned to her daughter. “Are you calling me racist?”
Jessica always found it difficult to deal with her mum’s directness – there was something about its sudden force that unbalanced her, like the step back you have to take when opening a hot oven. “I’m just saying, you don’t have any black friends.”
“Well there’s Deirdre,” huffed Lisa.
“You hate her!”
“That’s nothing to do with her colour though, she’s just useless. I had to spend two hours on Wednesday re-doing her forms, you know.”
They were quiet as the contestant was introduced. He was a balding man in his forties called Bruce, dressed in jeans and a cardigan. “He shouldn’t wear that, not on the telly,” said Lisa. Jessica, from her armchair, said nothing as they watched. Bruce was doing well – he’d answered correctly multiple-choice questions about the location of the Solar System’s largest volcano (Mars) and which continent the now-extinct quagga had inhabited (Africa).
“I don’t know if this one will be a little trickier for you,” said the host. “Which footballer has scored the most World Cup goals?”
“Lenny Henry!” exclaimed Lisa, to a bark of disbelief from Jessica. “No not that,” Lisa waved at the television. “I mean, I like him. He’s black.”
“That’s one man. And anyway, he’s an entertainer. Black men have been figures of fun throughout history.”
“He wants to be a figure of fun! He’s a comedian, if we didn’t laugh at him he’d be out of a job!”
“That’s not the point.”
“Alright then, Audrey Harrison.”
“It’s Audley. And just seeing black men in terms of their physical characteristics carries on the stereotype of them as beasts, not people.”
Lisa opened her mouth with a wet click, inhaled, and raised her eyebrows. “Doesn’t seem like there’s much I’m allowed to like them for.” Jessica pretended not to hear. On the television Bruce was now one question away from winning £25,000, and Jessica listened wearily to her mum’s commentary on the show.
“What was the name of Oasis’ first number one single?” asked the host. “Was it Some Might Say, Live Forever, or Wonderwall?”
“Some Might Say,” said Lisa.
“Pop music’s not really my forte,” said Bruce, with a rueful smile.
“I bet it’s not. Smug sod.”
“The only one I’ve heard of is Wonderwall – so it’s probably not that!” There was a ripple of appreciative laughter from the studio audience.
“No, it’s not. It’s Some Might Say.”
“I think I’ll go for the time-honoured tactic of picking the middle option. Live Forever.”
“It’s Some Might Say!”
“He can’t hear you, mum,” Jessica broke in finally.
The host looked at Bruce. “You’ve said Oasis’ first number one single was Live Forever. Remember – get this right and you’re guaranteed to go home with at least £25,000. Get it wrong and you leave with nothing. Will that decision live forever in your memory? Or might some say you’ve made a terrible mistake?” He turned to the camera and pretended to whisper. “I’ve not got anything for Wonderwall.” The audience laughed. “Find out-“
“-after the break,” said Lisa along with him. “I don’t know why they make out like it’s a cliffhanger when he’s obviously got it wrong.”
“Not everyone knows that,” said Jessica, standing to draw the curtains. It had been dark for nearly an hour now but her mum normally left them open until she went to bed.
Lisa made a non-committal noise and muted the set for the ads. “Well I do.”
Jessica wasn’t going to argue that one. She took her jacket from where it had been draped over the white plastic kitchen chair. She stood on tiptoe to see herself in the mirror; the arms were a bit short, but it still looked good. “I’m going out.”
“Like what? This is what I went to college in!”
“Is it.” With a gust of a sigh Jessica gathered her handbag and keys. “I won’t ask where you’re going, ‘cause you won’t tell me. But get some cigs, can you?”
Jessica looked at her mum. “I thought you’d given up?”
“Can you see an ashtray? I have. But Mark’s coming over later and you know how he likes a smoke.”
“And be back for tea, I’m making something new with chicken. In fact,” Lisa called to Jessica, who was almost out of the door, “it’s a recipe from whatsisname, Ainsley Harriott! There you are, Ainsley Harriott. Or can I not like a black man who cooks, either?” She knew Jessica had heard – the pause before the door slammed was proof enough. “Not got an answer to that, eh?” she said, to the empty flat, and settled into her chair.
Jessica took the stairs to try to burn off her frustration, but by the bottom of the five flights she just had sore thighs to go with her furious thoughts. At least her mum’s request had given purpose to what would otherwise have been an angry, aimless wander, just to get out of the flat. Her teeth ground furiously even though she was walking as quickly as she could – and not because of the horrible thought of oily Mark all over her mum. She knew when he liked to have his cigarettes.
It was exactly as Marcus had predicted in last week’s tutorial: her mum might not be consciously racist, but her expectations of the world had been shaped by lifetimes of injustice and oppression. Jessica’s new understanding was heady and exhilarating – which just added to her sense of failure. If only she had been able to explain to her mum, instead of getting in an argument then storming out!
The self-recrimination didn’t last long, however, and was swiftly followed by indignation: how could anyone fail to follow the logic once it was set out for them? Perhaps there was something in the way Marcus had introduced the idea to his students, or in how Callum would stand and deliver his own impassioned explanations to, it seemed to Jessica, the admiration of the entire class. His interventions stoked a pride within her, as well as a protective instinct. He could explain it in a way her mum could understand, she was sure. But that didn’t seem like such a great idea right now.
She was starting to regret not having put on another layer against the evening air. The temperature had dropped, and she ducked inside the nearest shop for some warmth, as well as the cigarettes. What Kennedy’s Food and Wine lacked in storefront decoration or in-store upkeep it made up for with a 24-hour licence and a relaxed attitude to age restrictions. Jessica had been here several times to buy vodka or sparkling wine, and when she walked in past the piles of fruit and veg in half-collapsed cardboard boxes, there was a group of boys who couldn’t be older than 14 crowded around a magazine. Jessica doubted she wanted to see it.
“Twenty Marlborough Lights please,” she asked the assistant, putting on her most nonchalant voice. She even looked around the shelves at the back with their spirits as if considering buying a bottle. But she’d not seen this man before, and she felt her confidence seep from her as he looked her up and down. She placed a hand on her stomach. “They’re for my mum, not me.”
“Mmhm, And how old are you?”
“Nineteen.” You never said eighteen. It was too convenient, too clear a lie. The man nodded slowly. He was tall and bony, and when he looked her up and down again she shivered.
“Hey!” Jessica turned sharply, for a sickening moment thinking she’d been caught. Another man, one she recognised, came striding out of the back of the shop and started shouting at the group of boys. “What are you doing? You little shits, you’ve ripped it, you’ll pay for it!” Next he started yelling at the assistant, who dashed out and grabbed the nearest boy by the arm.
“Sorry about that love,” said the man she recognised, who’d slipped behind the counter during the commotion. “What can I get you?”
“Twenty Marlborough Lights,” said Jessica again, trying to avoid the boy’s flailing arm as he struggled to escape. She left with the cigarettes. On her way out she took an apple from the box outside – she should be eating healthier now, really. A backwards glance confirmed the shopkeepers hadn’t seen. They were arguing about the incident, while the boy looked forlornly out at the friends who’d abandoned him to his fate and were now watching with a combination of glee and fear, ready to bolt at any sign of a pursuit.
Jessica’s phone buzzed. “Hey.”
“Hey, it’s me.”
She laughed. “You know your name comes up on the screen when you call, right? What’s up?” She could hear Callum’s breathing down the phone.
She waited. It often took time for Callum to say what he meant. To other people it could seem like he was shy or stand-offish, but that wasn’t true. He just sometimes had to build up to what he wanted to say.
“Have you told your mum yet?”
Jessica huffed and rolled her eyes. “No, I told you, I-“
“When are you going to?”
“Jesus Callum,” she hissed, thrusting her free hand into her armpit to keep it warm. He’d been like this since she’d told him, the first person she’d told after Sam. It was like he wanted it to be public, like it wouldn’t really exist as long as it stayed a secret. He didn’t know that Sam knew too, but she’d had to tell her – she was her best friend after all, and anyway, she couldn’t have just said nothing after she’d come out of the Hyperbowl loos in tears. “I will, just don’t rush me, alright?”
“I’ll be with you if you want.”
“I’m not scared of her. She was younger when she had me.” Her words sounded thin in the night air, like second-hand smoke. The shop owner appeared at the door, sending the boys scattering. Inside the assistant was talking to someone on the phone.
Callum broke the silence. “I love you.”
“I love you.” She meant it, but still the words sounded dulled. She was upset at his insistence, and his certainty that he could make it easier for her. Upset, too, that he was right: it would seem less serious if he were there when she told her mum, or at least less catastrophic if there were two of them, physical proof that whatever her mum said or did she wouldn’t be on her own.
“Do you want to come over?” asked Callum, hesitantly. “Dad’s out, and Lee’ll be in his room all night.”
The cigarette packet pushed against Jessica’s jeans pocket, which was barely big enough to hold it. “Yeah alright. Got any pizza?”
“Domino’s menu and dad’s card?”
“Amazing.” Jessica set off towards Callum’s house. She’d already made up her mind to stay over, and Callum wouldn’t make her leave. Mark would just have to go without.
The buzzer rasped through the flat. Lisa pressed the release button to let Mark in and put the door on the latch. She stretched her arms above her head to the ceiling, feeling her shoulders move beneath her skin. She was supposed to do this three or four times a day, that’s what Marie at her class had said, although she rarely remembered. Still, she was doing it now, and Mark said he’d noticed a difference since she’d started going.
As she went back into the kitchen she knocked against the living room table, which rocked and shed its load of folders onto the carpet. “Watch yourself Lis!” she tutted, and set about gathering up the untidy pile. Why Jessica had to leave her college work there she didn’t know – she’d got her a desk from the British Heart Foundation last year, but that’d just ended up as somewhere to keep her nail varnishes. The top folder was the one she’d seen earlier, with its unfamiliar acronym in thick black pen. People of colour. The phrase felt strange and accusatory. In defiance she lifted the flap and pulled out the first sheet of paper: it had three slides down the left-hand side, and a space for notes that was filled with what Lisa recognised as Jessica’s looping handwriting. It was no use trying to read the slides; she couldn’t get any purchase, her gaze kept slipping over the words.
She heard the door open. “I still don’t know why you won’t give me a key,” called Mark by way of greeting. He hadn’t changed out of his paint-spattered overalls, and held a bunch of paintbrushes out like flowers. He’d want to wash them in the sink again.
“Hiya,” Lisa said, ignoring his complaint. “Busy day?”
“Been up since five, doing that house out in Dewsbury.” He put his free arm around her and kissed her on the lips, then moved to her neck.
“Mark don’t, Jessica’ll be back soon,” protested Lisa. It had no effect. “I’m cooking,” she said, and wriggled away from him. Mark relented, then followed her to the kitchen and grabbed a beer from the fridge.
“It’s rattling again, should get that fixed.”
“I will,” Lisa lied. The last time it did that they’d had to get the electrician out – the landlord had paid for it, but she didn’t want to complain again. It might sort itself out.
The oil had begun to spit in the pan. She pulled the recipe book from the shelf and gave a short laugh at Ainsley Harriott’s grinning face on the cover. It would take 50 minutes, the recipe said, although she knew from experience to add at least another twenty – she only had one pair of hands, and preferred doing all the chopping first, so she knew everything was ready.
Soon the smell of frying onions spread through the flat. The rooms were all adjoined except for the small corridor that connected the front door with the rest. Lisa liked that, it made the place feel airy, unlike their last flat which had by some failure of construction stayed darkened and claustrophobic the entire day. Right now the only closed door was to Jessica’s bedroom; no doubt if she tried to open it it’d catch on some discarded tights or a damp towel left on the floor.
“Smells good,” said Mark, who’d wandered back in search of another beer. He patted her arse as he passed her.
“Give Jessica a ring? My phone’s on the arm of the chair I think.”
As the chicken cooked through something niggled at the back of Lisa’s mind, something that had to do with the folders on the table. She’d never thought much of school, and Jessica’s accidental arrival had choked off any discussion of sixth form. University was never even considered for girls like her, and the graduates who filled her television screen may as well have been royalty, so removed were they from anything she could relate to. A familiar dismissive sneer rose within her as she thought of Jessica’s accusation. This time, though, it lacked the usual sharpness. It was one thing, after all, for some polished stranger to lecture her from a studio somewhere; it was quite another when it was her own daughter. Jessica was clever, she knew that, but Lisa had never imagined her as the sort of person who might one day sit in the city centre cafés with her laptop, and a hoodie that proudly displayed the name of her institution.
“No answer,” said Mark from the living room. “I left her a message though, saying she’d better be back quick or else.”
“Oh you didn’t,” sighed Lisa. That’d be another conversation with Jessica about how no, Mark wasn’t her dad and he wasn’t trying to be, it was just his way of messing around. But she couldn’t be angry. The thought of Jessica’s future had already spread into a fantasy, growing like something contained for too long and suddenly released. Not that she regretted the way things had turned out for her, she’d never say that, but there were opportunities for Jessica: a degree, a proper house, someone reliable. Not living too far away, near enough for weekend visits, but somewhere with her own space, where her mum wasn’t on top of her the whole time, smothering her whatever she did. Already it was so vivid in Lisa’s mind that it seemed inevitable, and an unfamiliar glow grew in her stomach. The library was open late tomorrow: she’d print off some brochures after work and surprise Jessica with them. Maybe Mark could drive them to a few places in the van when he wasn’t working – and hadn’t Sue’s lad gone to Leeds? She must still have her number somewhere.
But that wasn’t for tonight, Lisa told herself. Tonight was for the three of them, the family she’d fashioned for herself in spite of everything: her, Jessica, and Mark. Maybe she should think about getting that key cut; it had been long enough. She hummed to herself under her breath as she tipped in the tin of chopped tomatoes and watched with satisfaction as the sauce bubbled and popped.