“Land of Milk and Glory”

8 min read

The parents had been seduced by the impalpable sanctuary of a promise. They had been lured by a cool and crisp country flowing with potential. They were to be foreigners living in a foreign land, spacious and fertile for opportunity. They were to be foreigners with forefathers in the country, predecessors who had emigrated from Jamaica too numerous to list and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

Daddy was the first one to fly North. He settled in a city, and he rented a room from a Black lady who treated him well and cooked his meals for him. Then, Mummy soon followed in the winter and the goodly woman bought Mummy a coat, so to protect her from the biting cold of the wilderness. Yet, it became imperative that the parents save up to move into a house of their own, since their abundant life would not be restricted by a lack of rooms for their expanding family.

Daddy dutifully got on with the daily grind and served as a cog in the wheel, mixing metaphors and fixing structures and fittings with his gifted carpenter’s hands. Those loving hands mightily lifted his family up from poverty and privation and into prosperity. Daddy was easily able to assimilate into Englishness, suppressing the cadence and lilting rhythms of his Patois. Secretly, he despaired of Mummy’s linguistic obtrusiveness and the theatricality of her expressions.

But Mummy was a paragon of endearment. She was fully dark and fully beautiful. She had always used her sweetness to win over those who had found her Blackness unpalatable, as if she was a patty that was being offered up to eat. Mummy worked in a bakery in England, and ever so slowly the golden reality that was household ownership began to dawn on the horizon. Theirs was a home of a house with a dark hallway and a bay window in the lounge, flanked by flowing net curtains. So, nesting complete, the parents were ready for their children to be sent home or from home. Either or both, by Aunt Lily.

But the children were beloved. Judy and Darrell were being contended for with strings of love that were deadlocked and taut. Mummy and Daddy were pulling on one string, and Aunt Lily on the other, so that the children remained steadfast under the tropical sun. They stood still among cloud-capped blue-tinted mountains, rapturous sunsets, and coastal roads. They stood still among acres of banana farms, gently rustling grasslands, and coconut groves. Still among evergreen foliage and sugar cane growing from rich loamy earth. Still among deepest blue skies, purest white sandy beaches, misty highlands, and silvery waterfalls cascading over basalt rocks. Still as Aunt Lily’s heart dried and shriveled and crisped like something wilting. But the Pharaoh’s hardened heart led to intensifying Signs and Wonders attesting to their parents’ multiplying desperation.

When Mummy was reading Aunt Lily’s letter out loud to Daddy, she became mute after saying the words, “Me gonna keep de pickney,” whereas Daddy’s voice started to speak and then grew louder as he leapt up from the armchair on which he was sitting.

“What is she saying?” he asked.

When Mummy looked Daddy in the eyes and explained the full news to him, her panic transferred and intensified into flames of anger in the pit of his belly. Daddy stormed out of the house and slammed the door. The anger was so compelling that the whole of his body was set alight. The intensity of his effervescence was mockingly imitated by the glowing orbs that gently lit the streets.

Daddy was walking fast and purposefully without direction. He was alive with searchings. He questioned the hold the elder sister had over the younger. He blamed himself for not acting on his initial reservations at Aunt Lily’s appetite to look after Judy and Darrell. When Daddy returned late that night he instructed Mummy to write a reply insisting the surrender of the woman’s pickney-plunder.

“We have to get dem back,” Mummy said to Daddy. “Somehow or odda we have to get dem back.”

The tormenting anxiousness which Mummy and Daddy felt waiting for a reply was like a wound, now bleeding full and thick. It was coursing and glistening with tears and rage, which were inescapably whirling around in circles in a hurricane. The hurricane had become increasingly fixated until its entire being concentrated on Judy and Darrell. Darrell and Judy in the eye of the storm. The storm which was stained red with rage and tears because Judy and Darrell were not home, or were at home. The storm that was screaming and teeming with all of those ‘e’ syllables which were themselves exhaled and expelled. Exodus. Exile. Emigrant. Selah.

 

Mummy’s weeping and loud wailing distilled into ceaseless prayers for reunion, which wafted up to heaven with a burning urgency like fragrant incense from her unfaltering lips. Mummy’s prayers wound round the same course every time, wearing a smoky groove into the sky with the path of their particular ascent, begging for the softening of Aunt Lily’s heart and the return of her children to her.

But still Aunt Lily’s heart remained hard.

No, the woman replied, Mummy and Daddy would not be able to find out what she had told Judy and Darrell. No, they would not be able to write to their children or to send any gifts. No, she would not barter.

The comforters were, in turn, comforted by memory itself. The past which pivoted, turning its pitiful sad drooping clock-face towards them again. “Tell me about Judy an Darrell,” Mummy would ask.

Daddy was a storyteller as well as a carpenter, with his unbridled imagination. He would use his strong arms to conjure a flurry of two golden children, a blouse, a long skirt, a short-sleeved shirt, and a pair of trousers pulled up knee-length. Now at the top of the stairs. Now at the dinner table. Now playing outside with perspiration like jewels on their precious foreheads. One irresistible memory for each of Judy’s years. Their lithe bodies and sweet smiles with teeth set as sparse as stars in the night sky. The feel of a child’s hand in the palm of Mummy’s own. Recitations of Anansi the Spider at bedtime and teddy bears and two beds with checkered sheets. Plantain diced into little squares with coconut drops and cow’s milk and a red and blue bouncing rubber ball. The way they squirmed at cow foot and at being tickled. No memory was too small or too frivolous for Mummy and Daddy’s inventory.

The next letter must be addressed to Mummy’s auxiliary brother. Into his soft being, Mummy inlaid her flickering hope. Once Uncle Ian had opened the letter, he took it upon himself to make the journey to Aunt Lily’s to settle the dispute. He crunched the gravel under the soles of his sandalled feet as hesitantly as if he had been condemned to tread on dreams.

“Listen nuh, me nuh understand de rule for dis game but give dem der pickney,” he said once settled inside.

Aunt Lily recoiled as if she had been shot and regarded him with disgust. With his gentleness, he had blotched their game: not a retreat from reality but a source of unfurling fun. He had injured their imaginary world by alluding to the illusion of Judy and Darrell.

“Come outta me house,” she said with a guttural hiss that was emitted like a thunderclap and conspired with the pink orchid and poui outside as they startled the soft evening light. And as he left, she made pangs of anguish as in the pains of childbirth. She soothed herself by tracing the outlines of Judy and Darrell as delineated by Mummy and Daddy, for she had no imagination of her own with which to conceive.

Still, Aunt Lily’s heart was hard, and as Uncle Ian replied, she would not renounce the children.

 

So it had transpired that Aunt Lily had taken on the burden of these children who did not exist, so as to free Mummy and Daddy from the heavy yoke of their severe oppression. Yet, Mummy and Daddy wilfully climbed back into the captivity of their captivation. They had dissolved and conceded the firstborn, but Daddy was a storyteller as well as a carpenter. Daddy conjured up new children. Bursting forth out of the red sea of tears and rage, an apprehension of the golden year upon year with their yet more golden children which awaited them. The gorgeous impalpable sanctuary of a promise from emptiness and formlessness. The storm calmed to the whispers of their creativity, passing ideas between each other. Wider and wider still, Mummy and Daddy’s dilated imaginations swelled. The number of possibilities contracted until there were just two frolicking fictitious figments of the parents’ imaginations.

Already, she was lactating.

 

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Jess Bell

Jessica is a second-year undergraduate reading English Language and Literature at the University of Oxford. She has had poetry and a short story published in student magazines. She blogs at jesssarahbell.blogspot.com