“Go back to Jamaica? You must be crazy! What would I do out there except pick-up bottles off de street and beg fe change?” Disbelief sharpens his Montego Bay accent.
“But what about your mom? Your older brothers? Your aunt, even?”
“They got their own lives to live just like I’ve got mine an’ I ain’t leavin’ England.” He guards his independence with lion-like ferocity in the face of impending and irreversible blindness.
“Other people with…disabilities,” my Judas tongue spits the dreaded word, “manage in Jamaica.”
“Other people got money. You could try for a loan, though. £10,000 would set us up proper.”
A flirty grin dimples his left cheek, a reminder of why I fell so hard and accept so little. He trails thick fingers down my backbone willing me to concede putting myself in debt is the only workable solution. The woody scent of his aftershave tingles my nostrils.
“It won’t change what’s happening to you. Your optic nerve is detaching from your eyeball. The consultant said there’s no cure.”
Twice weekly I ferry him to Introductory Braille, enduring the hour-long discomfort of a toughened plastic chair nailed to a faded lino floor, while he traces raised dots on rough white paper, his eyes locked behind blackened lenses. The students brighten at his wha’gwarn? His teacher proffers the seat closest to her desk, her hand lingering needlessly on his arm.
“Not sure I could even get a loan, never mind find a way to pay it back. I’m freelance, remember? Some weeks I don’t work.”
“Don’t worry ’bout repayments!” His contemptuous guffaw bursts into the space between us. “You can apply on-line, might be better than a bank. Frank’s missus did get one fe £5,000 and her credit mash-up.”
My credit is solid. Painstakingly built in the years before I loved him. I chew the inside of my cheek, putting a seal on information he doesn’t need to know.
“Can try Pay Day Finance,” he suggests.
“You don’t have to get it all from one company.” His finger and thumb separate wooden slatted blinds casting a wedge of lemon-tinged daylight across the bridge of his nose, altering its color from treacle to caramel. He squints at a lop-sided, sun-dappled vista of misshapen trees and houses, blurred traffic, and splotchy people.
“Log on and see what’s available, yeah?” His directive rebounds against the blinds and rests on my laptop which lies conveniently open on my desk.
Three months ago, he was the ish all up in the club. Against a pulsing reggae beat, each amatory sway of his hips, each charismatic dip and bounce, each masterfully executed wheel and come again, pierced my senses and I melted long before I reached the dance floor.
Hours later my personal rules-to-live-by; never sleep with a guy on the first date and don’t tell him where you live, were collateral damage as he rocked me to ecstasy between cool white sheets seared with the red-hot heat of our fiercely satiated desire.
In the weeks that followed, the self-proclaimed man-of-my-house never pretended to love me, and, in return for his stark honesty, I let him like me as much or as little as he wanted to.
“What ’appen to dat rich guy dat was checking you?” He flops onto our unmade bed, hands spread apart behind him, propping him up.
“You mean Michael? The businessman?”
“Yeah, you two still talk?”
“Why would I talk to him when I’m with you?”
“He doesn’t need to know I’m around. I can stay in de background. Could be an option.” Thumbing the remote, he shuffles closer to the TV until his face is inches from the screen and a jumbled mesh of limbs detangle into lithe Premier League footballers.
“Where will you go if I get the money? What will you do with it?”
“Just stay here, init.”
He is a bad, bad liar. We both know the quicker the cash hits his pocket the sooner he’s ghost.
I delete junk email. Skim through Facebook. Browse muscle-car boards on Pinterest. Giggle at a YouTube video of a dumb cat hurling itself against a glass door.
“Well?” He taps my leg with his knuckles. Close enough to see me lucidly he utters not a word about my smooth brown skin and toned thigh muscles, nor my long, straightened hair with snazzy highlights, or the full cleavage peeping from the low v-neck of my fitted, black sleeveless tee.
“You taking long, man,” he complains.
“What, you need the money right now?” I bite back.
A plethora of listings for affordable loans fill my screen. I scour the websites tying to discern the bogus from the real, the tip of my tongue darting between my lips. Meanwhile, a player dribbles, punts a skillful goal. The mob roars, commentators exult.
“Who scored?” he snaps the question.
“Kevin Keegan. Who’s he play for, again? Aston Villa or Arsenal?” I titter at a joke we no longer share.
“Don’t be silly, Keegan gone long time, everybody knows that.”
A whistle shrieks and the ball rides high under grey clouds charged with rain before plummeting onto a broad muscular chest. It tumbles further onto green-grey, cleat-seared grass where it’s chased and longed-for like the spoils of war. A roped patchwork of white netted squares within a three-sided hollow metal frame strain backward and spring forward. The ball is a blur. An ineffectual goalie clutches space. Vocal fireworks light up the stadium.
“Another goal so quick? Best game of the season! Gotta be!” He pumps the air, propelled by dopamine infused excitement.
“It’s over? What’s the final score?”
I edge closer craving my share of elation, but there is no welcome in the crease of his brow, the brief curl of his lip, and the stiffening of his spine.
“Can’t be bothered searching for loans today. It’s too nice to be indoors and the money will still be there tomorrow. I’m going to see Jo, coming with?”
“Nah, you gwarn, I want to watch the next match. Can bring back some chicken and dumpling?”
“Sure,” I close the door behind me.
First with two hands, then, less confidently with one, I heft the spade a foot off the ground, maneuvering the dulled metal tray, testing its weight before putting it to use. Jo passes me the outdoor broom, its length spanning the distance between us, its bristles shedding dried leaves.
“Don’t know how you can do that girl. I can’t even bear the thought of it.”
From the safety of her kitchen doorway, she side-eyes a chubby dead mouse, a gift from her cat. I scrape under the corpse and lift. She scuttles backward, wrapping her cardigan even tighter against her involuntary shiver. Eyes closed, palms pressed together, she points her chin towards the ceiling as if that’s where God hangs out.
“Dear Jesus in Heaven, please keep us safe from dead rodents.”
I laugh because she’s funny.
“Don’t joke! This is serious.” She pauses her plea to the Almighty in order to chide me.
“It feels just like cardboard.” The mouse tail is suspended from my rubber glove. The body hangs taut, unmoving in the breeze. “Come see for yourself.” I advance and she slams the door, her rebuff slithering through the gap.
“Never in a million years!”
I wrap the mouse in a used paper bag, chuck it in the bin and return the tools to storage, still smiling.
An assortment of red velvet and salted vanilla cupcakes rest on the table between us. I slurp hot chocolate topped with sickly marsh mellows, pushing them down with my tongue.
“Of course he’s involved with someone. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Who wouldn’t want to be with you?” she opens.
“He stays at mine when he’s not on a sleep-over shift at work, I know where he is more or less all the time.”
“She could be in Jamaica.”
“It’s possible, but he’s pretty open with his phone and he doesn’t use email.”
“Something’s going on, all of this doesn’t add up, and if he’s working why can’t he get a loan himself?”
“He gets paid off the books cos he’s illegal. He ain’t got the paperwork to apply.”
Delicately she smooths her throat, easing unseen constriction. The gnarled knots of my relationship unsettle her. She wants to lop off loose ends, squash it into a box, slap a lid on it, and label it ‘approved.’
“What does your intuition tell you?” She probes but I have no answer. I thread my fingers behind my head and gaze past her onto the damp lawn, scanning for mice-murdering cats. “You do have some control in all this,” she persists. “Kick him out if he ain’t right. He’s not the only guy around.”
“I’m not ready.”
She tuts and I blanche at being judged. I break a cupcake in half and stuff it into my mouth. Unruly crumbs sprinkle all over the carpet at my feet. I ignore a compulsion to squash the sugary motes into the woolen fibers changing the clour from cream to pinkish red.
“We’re not getting any younger.” She sips transparent green liquid from bone China patterned with daisies. “Don’t let him trap you ’cos he’s going blind. You’ve got your own life to live.”
“He’s learning Braille and he’s started a course to be a translator; Jamaican patois to English. Might end up working for the police or in the courts.”
“Great, but how does that help you?”
“It’s his life, he’s gotta think about his future.”
“Exactly, his future, shouldn’t it be about both of you?”
Slim crossed legs and svelte folded arms telegraph her growing annoyance at my misplaced loyalty. My shorts vibrate to a musical hum. In large capitals, his text reminds me he’s hungry and queries when I’ll be home.
“Thanks for the nosh, delish as always. Call ya later.” I shove my phone into my pocket and hoist my bag onto my shoulder.
“He texts and you go running?”
“It was already planned.”
“Yeah right.” She flicks the glossy pages of Beautiful Home magazine. “Before he came along we never used to lie to each other.”
He waits at the shaded entrance to my house clad in a leather jacket and sneakers, his hair neatly groomed. His long-lashed, suede brown eyes blink against the relentless assault of fading vision. I roll to a halt and stick my head out of my car window.
“Change of plans.” He saunters towards the sound of my voice. “My friend just called. He needs some help on a job, you can give me a lift?”
“What about your chicken and dumplings? Thought you were starving.”
“You buy it yet?”
“Good. We can pick some up on the way.”
I cruise through sleepy suburban streets wrapped in the nonchalance of late Sunday afternoon, reveling in the familiar pleasure of him.
“I’ve been thinking,” he begins.
“S’up?” I change gear, navigate a major junction, and steer prudently around a narrow corner.
“I aim to have a child, preferably while I can still see it.”
“You know I got my tubes tied, right?”
“Yeah man, I ain’t forgot. I’m just trying to be fair, don’t want to spring no surprises on you.”
Sudden rage plunges me into mental blackness. A staccato rhythm stop-starts my heart. Sweat bleeds from my forehead. YOU AIN’T SHIT, YOU BASTARD! Titanium wrapped bullet words ricochet inside me screaming for release. My jaw drops open, but shock has silenced me. My eyes smart with furious tears.
“Every man should have a son to carry his name. Women dream about weddings, we want dis.”
He speaks without looking at me, offers thought without seeing me. I uncurl clamped fingers from the steering wheel, Joy’s admonition rising fresh in my mind: Kick him to the kerb, girl, get rid of him.
“Can we talk about this another time?’ I exhale away the edge of my pain.
“Sure,” he says affably and there’s nothing left for me to do but drive.