Finalist of the 2011 Matt Clark Prize in Fiction
Her mother always calls England “foreign.” And when she does, it sounds even better than Peaches imagines. It will be everything that is different—not the tenement yard where they live, or the zinc-roofed market where they buy food, or the men on the corner smelling of over-proof rum.
When she finally gets there in the winter of 1960, the days are blustery and cold, as are the sounds of the cars and the people of every color, shape and size. She buys a jacket from the Salvation Army in the Walworth Road where her Aunt Tilly told her she bought a jacket when she went to Foreign in 1935. Wool and practical, she finds a small tag in the lapel that says “Property of Miss Emmeline Hamill.” All night, she wonders who Miss Hamill is and why she no longer needs this coat.
Her aunt proves an invaluable resource. Peaches gets a job through Miss Jennie, a friend of her aunt’s who takes her for a cup of tea in a pub in Tottenham Court. Miss Jennie’s been in England for almost twenty years now. She wears a felt hat adorned with a clump of red plastic cherries and her shoes are bright red and plastic looking.
The pub feels cold, and even though she is wearing her heaviest dress and the thick stockings her uncle sent her from Canada, she is still too cold. She tries to drink the tea as quickly as she can.
“I long to go home,” Miss Jennie says, sipping her tea. “I’m too old for all of this anymore. But you’ll get used to it. And then you’ll long for home, too.”
“Maybe,” Peaches says.
Miss Jennie tells her about a basement flat in Brixton for five pounds a week, then tells her about the job she’s found her in Notting Hill Gate.
“This is special,” Miss Jennie says. “The Stuarts aren’t as fussy as most of the others.”
She leans into Peaches and says softly, “Most of the families here would prefer a gal from Ireland rather than a colored gal from the islands. So behave yourself, you hear?”
She looks Peaches up and down, studying her face, her hair, her nails. She needs washing, styling and grooming before she is to show up at the Stuarts in two days time. They take the train to Brixton, where a woman from her parish cuts her hair and puts it in drop curls, telling her to sleep sitting up so she won’t muss it.
So starts her time in Foreign, with new hair, and two new hand-me-down winter dresses from Miss Jennie’s daughters who go to school in Canada. Miss Jennie presents them to her before she drops her off that evening at the top of the steps that lead down to her new cold water flat.
Everything in the flat feels moist. She stows her suitcase under the small iron bed and unwraps the thick brown butcher paper to reveal the two dresses, one plaid and one dark blue, both freshly pressed.
Mr. and Mrs. Stuart and their two small children are quite lovely. Wearing Miss Emmeline Hamill’s sturdy wool coat, Peaches takes the Tube into the city very early and works until it is dark. She rubs Vaseline into her cracked, dry skin. It greedily absorbs the salve. She imagines that her life was always like this.
The contentment can’t last too long. One day, Mr. Stuart meets her in the cloak room where she is putting on the threadbare coat, gathering her pocketbook and sliding her feet into the boots she’s had to line with cardboard. He suggests dinner, a show. Peaches is too stunned to answer. No man has ever spoken to her this way, both exciting and scary.
“Mr. Stuart,” she finally manages to say, “I don’t think that would be right.”
Dropping her eyes, she stares at the intersecting loops, the maze of flowers on the carpet of the cloakroom floor.
“Call me Alistair,” he says, leaning in to kiss her.
She thinks about that kiss the rest of the evening, and the next day, too, running the moment over and over again in her mind as she takes the children out for air, dresses them for bed, and retreats again to the cloakroom. There she finds a bundle with her name; inside, a pretty long-sleeved winter dress with paisley print. At nineteen, this is the first gift she has received from a man. Her stomach tingles with excitement.
At twenty-one, Peaches has become the type of woman who won’t demure about gifts. She won’t feign modesty or argue that they are too much and then give in to cajoling or pleading. She simply accepts them as they come, when they come, and is grateful.
One winter evening, a package comes as the late evening sun begins to sink in the sky. The bustle of children coming home from school and men from work has quieted as people take their evening tea. The delivery boy is from Harrods. Peaches tips 5p. Harrod’s deliverymen aren’t often in Brixton. As she shuts the door, she wonders if he was paid extra to come out of central London.
She pulls the crisp brown paper from the package. Inside are gloves, the ones Peaches saw in the shop window and stopped to admire before Alistair hustled her down the street. She tries them on right away, admires the way her arms look long and posh in the glass. Long, cashmere, and grey, they come up to her elbows and are fastened by small mother-of-pearl buttons. She puts on the old winter coat; the way the buttons glisten makes the coat look nicer than it is.
She puts the gloves away and reheats a plate of food the Stuarts’ cook has given her. She eats alone, just as she has each night the two years she’s been in England. The food—mushy peas, braised lamb—needs salt. She hears her neighbors moving around in their flats—mothers scolding their children, teenage girls singing along with the radio, the sound of a television set, the smell of fried fish. She has no books, no radio, and no television. She came all the way from Jamaica with one small suitcase. She listens to her neighbors in the evening, smells their cooking and pretends she is a part of the lives they live.
It is Friday, so tonight she will write her mother, putting in a portion of her weekly wages so that her mother can buy a little extra food, a new dress, a cloth for her table. It isn’t much, but there is no one else to give her anything, so Peaches does what she can. In the letter, she writes about the things that will surprise her mother—the high-pitched chirp of the train whistle as it pulls into the station, the depth and power of the river Thames, the way the trees bud so lovely in the springtime.
On Saturday, she meets Alistair in Kensington Park and thanks him for the gloves.
“It’s nothing,” he says. “You wanted them and so they were to be yours.”
In the park, he points out all that is new—new buildings, new monuments, everything ruined in the war. The bombs came down, destroying most everything that was old. He tells her he sold books of vouchers to help raise money for the RAF, helped hustle people into air raid shelters, waited patiently for his father to return from Germany. All this, and he was just a boy.
“I’m sure you don’t remember any of this,” he says. “You would have been just a babe.”
“My father,” she says quietly. “My father was a British soldier.”
He looks at her queerly, taking her hand in his and leading her through narrow pathways shaded by stately greens and foliage covered squares. They stop when they reach a small cottage tucked toward the Oxford Street gate at the park’s western corner.
“This is one of those relics,” he says, “one of those things that the Germans didn’t get.” He lifts the overhanging branches, wiping the glass at the door. Peaches looks in. Like a fairy tale, it is all untouched—covered by a layer of dust, a house left mid-morning twenty years prior, when the family ducked into an air-raid shelter.
“It’s wonderful,” she says.
By 1966, Peaches knows of other women in these relationships. They go to restaurants in the high street in Brixton, or in the west end. She once did these things with Alistair, but no longer. Instead, he now comes to her on the weekends and in the evening. She makes him oxtail soup and they sit upright in bed, slurping the hot broth. He eats everything, including the marrow, sucking it out of the bones, then asking for more.
“It’s good for you,” he says, and Peaches fills up his bowl, knowing that his wife doesn’t cook for him. She is careful never to bring up his wife, or his children. After he eats, they lie around in bed. There is nothing else to do.
In the six years they’ve been together, she has learned the way things work. She has traded her dowdy dresses for short printed mini-skirts. The boots are no longer lined with cardboard; instead, they are calfskins from a shop in the high street.
Instead of going to dances at the Brixton Academy, or the house parties that spiral out from Brixton, into Carnaby Street, and up and up and up into central London, she stays in. She spends her time with the other women like her—those working as maids, nannies, and shop girls, cutting off their time from anyone who isn’t kept as they are. They take tea together in the evening from time to time. But one or the other is always waiting, hoping that she can’t make it, that her Mister will come strolling down the lane with a tin of biscuits, or wine, or a new dress, or anything that makes her forget that she spends most of her hours alone.
She hasn’t seen Miss Jennie in four years, hasn’t seen her mother or the island in six. Her life is watching the Stuart children six days a week, and the evening and weekends when he comes to her, and that is all.
Peaches comes home the evening of her 25th birthday. A small portable television sits on the kitchen table. She claps her hands together, surprised. She’s never had a television. She plugs it in right away and adjusts the knobs until the fuzzy snowflakes on the screen form into pictures. The knob clicks satisfyingly as she switches between BBC 1 and BBC 2.
Two weeks later, when he comes to her, he pats her head like he would a small child.
“I’m glad you like it, darling,” he says. “I couldn’t bear the idea of you sitting here each evening on your own.”
“I like it very much.” She moves toward him and he hugs her lightly, mutters “love you” in her ear, then sits down at the card table and folds his hands together.
“It warms the place up a little, doesn’t it?”
“Yes,” she says, “it does.” Then she puts on the pot to make soup.
“How can you not know how to spell ‘surely’?” Alistair asks.
They are meeting on the banks of the Thames. It is a bank holiday, but he’s told his wife he has to work. Just last week, Peaches took his children there to play and picnic on the river’s bank.
Peaches left him a note inside his jacket pocket a few days earlier, and he arranged to meet her when he discovered it earlier that day. He pulls the note out of his pocket and shows her where she misplaced an h between the s and the u.
“I haven’t had much schooling,” she says.
“I can tell.”
He gives her a book.
“You need to read more,” he says. “I assumed that was how you passed your evenings in that flat, not filling your head with the telly.”
“I’m sorry.” She watches the Thames; the churning water looks as though it is racing through the city.
“Don’t be sorry,” he says. “Do better. You have the opportunity of a lifetime living in England. A chance to educate yourself.”
The next week the Missus tells her they will only need her half time. The children are in school; there is no need for her to come every day. Her weekly pay packet remains the same, and Alistair enrolls her in night classes—writing and history—and shows her how to take the bus to the adult education centre in the financial district.
In her classes she meets other women—some who don’t speak English, others who can’t read at all. She is the classroom star and the other students are impressed at her skills, even though she stopped her schooling after grammar school—there was always work to do and never enough money. But many of the other women, she learns, didn’t even have that much.
She gets a library card, reads books in the evening while taking her tea. She ignores Alistair’s television and pretty much everything else, falling asleep on the little metal cot she’s slept on each night for the past seven years.
Alistair quizzes her about her classes, leaves notes in her pockets with words she must look up in the dictionary. They see each other less and less. Eventually, she takes a second job cleaning up after an older woman who lives close to the Stuarts. Peaches misses him, and still waits for him on evenings when she doesn’t have school—cooking the pots of oxtail soup, hoping he will come to her soon.
She hasn’t seen him in almost a month when he turns up at her door during the first snowy day with a stack of books and a request for evening tea. He doesn’t say anything to her until he’s eaten, unlaced his boots, and made a fire in her potbellied stove.
“I’ve missed you,” he says when he finally comes to her on the bed and strokes her hair. “Have you missed me?”
“Yes,” she says, softly. “I was wondering when you’d come back.”
“How is school? Are you enjoying it?”
She brings her books and papers out from the cupboard and spreads them across the bed. She recites the things her teachers have said and tells him about her favorite books, and for a little while he listens. Then he pushes the papers aside.
Though it takes her four years, Peaches completes her secretarial certification. Weeks will go by when she doesn’t hear from Alistair. As the months pass, she grows larger and larger until one day the Missus pulls her into the pantry.
“Are you pregnant, girl?”
She is no longer a girl, almost thirty, which is clear in the way her belly bulges out. She only works for the Stuarts twice a week now, looking after the children when their parents go out in the evening.
“Well that’s just unacceptable, totally unacceptable.”
She pulls an envelope out of her pocket and presses it into Peaches’s hand.
“Go. Just go now and don’t come back.”
She gets on the Tube and begins her ride back to Brixton, trying to imagine how she will manage. She opens the envelope on the train and it is crammed with several hundred pounds of bank notes.
Alistair telephones her in the evening.
“I’m going to send you some things,” he says.
“And you? When will I see you?”
The things come, mostly from deliverymen. Peaches tips them what she can, pressing coins into their hands as they set up a crib, a changing table, a wing-backed chair.
When it is time for the baby to come, she calls one of the Jamaican women she has met in her adult education class. The woman arrives with her brother in his car, and they take her to the hospital, where she gives birth to a little boy with curly blond hair and brown eyes. She is there until the next afternoon, when her friend’s brother returns to take her home.
When she opens the door to her flat, Alistair is there, waiting. He takes the baby from her, places him on the bed, unwraps him from the swaddling.
“He’s quite lovely.”
“Yes,” Peaches says, “he is.”
She feels like she is about to cry and turns away from him. She puts on the kettle for tea.
“I can’t stay,” he says. “I won’t be taking any tea.”
He wraps the baby up, kisses his cheek, and turns toward her. She knows he is there to give her money, and she knows he won’t be back.
On an evening in the late winter of 1980, in a chip shop in Paddington, Peaches learns that Alistair has died. It is a small article buried in the middle of the paper, next to an advertisement for ladies’ stockings. She would have missed it had it not been for his picture.
She goes outside, puts her curry down, and sits on the curb. She hasn’t seen him in almost nine years. Heart failure; his wife found him in bed, cold, his eyes wide open. He’d been the son of a barrister, his family titled; he’d been a barrister himself. The paper talks about a case he’d won in 1971, close to the time their son was born. A landmark British case, the paper said, that had made immigration from the colonies much more difficult. She has trouble understanding the particulars. Suddenly she feels sick. She puts the paper inside her coat and walks away without the curry.
Sunday is her only day off. She wraps her thin coat tight around her. It is so cold, and she has lost almost two stone this winter alone. It seems there is never enough money, even though she makes much more now working as a secretary inside an office in central London.
When she reaches Notting Hill Gate, she walks up and down the street, past the house she knew so well. The handle of the front door draped in black bunting, she thinks about crying but can’t bring herself round to tears. When she realizes the tears won’t come she gets on the Tube, back to Brixton.
She walks toward home to make her weekly call to her mother and son back on the island, to tell them things are fine here, to make promises. She will tell her son how much she loves him, how much she misses him; how she will see him soon, even though she has only seen him twice in the eight years since she sent him away. She’ll promise him sweets, toys, books, a new pair of flared trousers, any and every gift he wants, gifts she’ll wrap in thick brown paper and send to the island, where his friends will marvel at his fancy mother in Foreign.
But first she’ll take a bath and run the faucet at a trickle to keep the water warm, reading again and again about Alistair and his life, until the steam makes the paper soggy.