You Don't See Our Chains
(Originally a short story, but now the first chapter of the novel "Angry People Smiling" by Peter Ashley available from online retailers as an ebook and in paperback)
YOU DON'T SEE OUR CHAINS
I honestly didn't know she'd invited her friends round.
Maybe it's because we weren't talking, as usual. I don't even remember what we'd argued about this time or who'd started the argument. So I honestly didn't know...Huh!...And she didn't know that I'd asked the guys to come down, bring some drink and play some cards and maybe clap a few domino an' ting, y' understan'.
So that's how it started.
I was just there, in the front room, lying on the large floor cushion in my usual laid back style, watching the tv, waiting for the boys when the doorbell starts ringing.
I hear her open the door, and then, instead of the semi-silent 'Hi, how are you' type of greeting she usually gave my friends which is what I was expecting to hear, I hear these girlie type screams and yelps of semi-delirious welcome that she always 'specially reserved for her own friends.
And I just knew...I just knew it wasn't any of the guys.
And then, to cap it all, in walks her half-idiot friend, Marcia, with that false smile on her face. So we say our reluctant 'hellos', I smile at her and she smiles at me...You know, those smiles that disappear as soon as you look away from the person...And I turn my back and start watching the TV again.
I knew Marcia was looking at me, probably with a screw face scowl covering her ugly mug. No...That's not entirely fair. Although we didn't like each other and although the little half-idiot was many other things, she wasn't ugly. She was quite good looking really, slim waisted, but with too much make-up and a ridiculously long weave attached to her head. Made her look like a Diana Ross wannabe...In fact, really and truly, I don't know if I should even call her a half-idiot all the time...After all, I wouldn't want to offend any real half-idiots there may be out there.
Anyway, after hearing the door bell ring about three times and hearing those shrill screams and exclamations of excited welcome three times, well, let's just say I was getting a little bit peed off...Until the doorbell rang and I heard a semi silent 'Hi, how 're you?' type hello, and I knew it was one of the boys.
"Ossie, it's Junior," she said as she pushed open the living room door, "oh, and he's brought Dalton with him."
Her voice trailed off at the mention of Dalton's name, hitting that note of disapproval that told me time and time again that she didn't like Dalton; didn't like the man, would never like the man, and didn't want him anywhere near her house, let alone in her front room.
Dalton came in kinda sheepishly, almost knocking over the little statuette sitting on the side table near the door, a statuette that Miss Argumentative’s mother had given to her. Damn ugly thing. No, no, no, not the mother, the statuette. Although, when you think about it....
So anyway, the doorbell rings a few more times until there’s about ten people there, including us, five guys and five women. Them in the dining room chatting noisily and drinking out my drink and us in the front room clapping two domino an' ting and drinking the drink my Bros brought with them.
Everything was going fine until Marcia, who else would it be? Marcia decides that she's hungry and wants to order pizza. So the guys, as usual, do the done thing and volunteer to pay for it...Sometimes I think us guys must be fool-fool because our hands are always in our pockets, except for Dalton that is...Anyway we end up ordering pizza for everyone, despite the fact that my spar Mackie protests that he'd rather have a kebab any day.
So there was me, Mackie, Dalton, Junior and Half Idiot Marcia's brother Phillip in the one room, and them lot in the other. I'll tell you about Marcia later. Anyway, Mackie and Phillip had started their usual little game of trying to out- insult each other, but they were only having a laugh, there was nothing malicious in it.
Hear Mackie, "Your girlfriend's fat, man. She's so fat that when you introduced me to her the other day, I almost asked her if that was her arse, or if she was carrying her laundry in her back pockets!"
So Phillip comes back at him, "You can't talk Mackie. You're so ugly that when you were born the midwife looked at you, looked at the umbilical cord, looked at you, looked at the umbilical cord, got confused and threw you away! That's right, you're so ugly that when you were born the nurses had to stop your mum from swapping you with baby Eubank from the next bed. In fact you're so ugly, my arse has got a better smile than your face."
"Well Phillip, you're so ugly...You are so ugly that when you fart people think you burped. And your girlfriend' s so spotty, she’s so spotty she don't know whether to put her lipstick on her lips or use it to connect the dots, to raas!"
"Yeah, right Mackie. Anyway, I split up with her long time ago."
The rest of us were used to it, but they still cracked us up every time they went into that ugly insult business…
The dominoes were clapping man. Clapping against a background of the sounds of the video that was playing in the room me and the guys were in, and the hip hop and funk cd that the women had on. Every now and again you'd either hear the volume of the music go up or down, or a cackling chorus of laughter coming from the dining room. I'd even forgotten they were drinking off my drink in there. I didn't even realise how long the pizza man was taking, and I'd even just blocked a game. I only counted double deuce, so you know that as far as I was concerned everything was sweet, you understand. Everything was sweet, that is, until the pizza man came.
The guys all dug into their pockets and gave me the notes to pay the man. And that's when it happened. That's when Mackie made the biggest mistake of the night.
Okay, I'll explain. I'm standing there at the front door, like we all do, trying to persuade the pizza man that he's taken more than a half hour to deliver so he should only be charging me a pound for each one because that was the deal I'd seen advertised, when I hear Mackie's voice behind me.
"Hey you lot, ladies, the pizza's here...Daaamn, the thing looks goooood...It's in the front room! An' if oonu noh want come eat it, me ah go nyam it orf!"
Typical. He's the bloody one who wanted a kebab.
And then I heard the stampede behind me from dining room to living room, so by the time I'd paid the man it was too late. There they were, the woman of the house Miss Argumentative, her friends and my friends all together in the one room.
That bloody Mackie. Sometimes I didn't know why we put up with the Brother, but we'd all known him a long time and...Well, we were his only friends.
Before I carry on, I don't want any of the women out there to be offended by the fact that I've got nicknames for all of Miss Argumentative's so called friends. In fact, I'm sure they've got nicknames for us too...But you're not gonna hear them from me.
Anyway, in any normal house there wouldn't be a problem, all of us being in the same room eating. In fact if my girl was any kind of a normal woman with normal friends, there wouldn't be any problem at all. But I knew almost instinctively that tonight.... Phhhh!! .... There were going to be problems.
So there we all are, eating pizza, when Half-Idiot Marcia suddenly, sadly, finds her tongue.
Before she could answer, "Junjo Teeth" Desreen, wiping a bit of loose pizza from the side of her mouth pipes up, "Still checking that white girl... Wassername? ...Susan?!!!"
Then my girl starts laughing and Half-Idiot has that half-idiot smirk on her face and Junjo Teeth sits there with pizza crumbs down her front with the look of the bewildered on her face, trying her best, in an overacted, theatrical way, to look as if it was just an innocent question...phhhh!...Yeah, right.
Dalton looks as if he's going to ignore the question until Sensible Sandra, egged on by Desreen, asks with fake innocence in her voice, "No...You still with that Susan? You mean you're actually still with Susan? We are talking about Sooosan, right?"
"Yeah.... And her name's Sian, not Sooosan!"
"Oh yes, yes, yes. Shaaarn...Shaaarn. I am chupid sometimes. Chupid me. Chupid, chupid me,” she replied in a Queen's Hinglish West Indian mum's telephone voice, shaking her head in mock regret as the words dripped out of her mouth.
The women, it seemed, were in piss-taking mood.
But then something none of us expected happened. Junior, quiet, softly spoken, sometimes silent Junior, spoke up, "So why don't you lot say what you're saying instead of trying to act the comedienne then? If you've got anything sensible to say that is?"
"I've got lots to say, but certain people in this room wouldn't like it so maybe it's best I keep my mouth shut," Junjo Teeth Desreen butted in.
"That's probably the most sensible thing any of you’ve said all night!"
And that was it. The man woman conversation had started...You know? The man-woman conversation .....Phhh!...Oh yeah.
Sensible Sandra just couldn't leave it alone, could she? ...Anyway, what he said to her was just like red rag to a bull, and she just couldn't resist the temptation to pry into the man's business. In fact if there's one thing I know about Sensible it's that she's in everybody's business all the bloody time. So she just had to ask another question didn’t she?
"Alright then, I've got something to say, but I want to ask Dalton a question first. You see, what I don't understand about you Dalton is that you're a good looking black guy Dalton......You got a good job, you drive a nice car, got a nice little pad and you ain't nowhere near being a care in the community case...Not yet anyway. So why'd you go get yu'self involve wid Susan?...Oh, mi sorry...... Shaaaarn!"
"Why 're you asking me that? Because she's a white gal innit?"
So then Half-Idiot has to get her pennyworth in, because she can't go too long without hearing the sound of her own voice yu' know, but all the sad little midget could come up with was a one liner she remembered from some BBC2 comedy, "White babe, white babe!"
Well that just set Dalton off. Set him oooorffff, if you catch my meaning.
Just like the rest of us in the room Dalton flitted between standard Patois, standard English and cockney, in some kind of language twilight zone.
"Yu' see you and you," he started, looking at the two of them," and even you and you," he continued as he caught the looks of Junjo Teeth Desreen and Timid Aileen, but mindfully not including the woman of the house in his assessment, "is 'ooman like oonu...woman like you why yu' would'a never find me ah deal wid a next black gal again!"
Well, who told him to say that! I just winced when those words came out of his mouth because I knew, I just knew that you couldn't say something like that in a room full of black women and a half-idiot and expect to get away with it.
Timid Aileen, she'd been quiet up to now. But her ears had pricked up straight away when he said that.
"What d'you mean when you say 'woman like oonu', ay?"
"I mean what I say. Ooooman like oooonu! Yu' noh understan’?" he drew out the words, making them sound more forceful and more angry than before, "you black women got too much attitude, or should I say too much bad attitude for my taste."
Well, Sensible Sandra, sharp as she was, she was having none of that.
"Yeah taste. Taste. That's a good word you know. That word taste is a good word. You think we don't know what you guys who check for the paler complexion woman have to...do...to satisfy her needs?"
She licked her lips slowly in an exaggerated lazy kind of way before poking her tongue out slurping and wiggling it around at her girlfriends, who cackled uncontrollably. Even Timid bloody Aileen couldn't help herself, squeaking like a bloody mouse in the corner.
If I'm gonna be honest I felt like laughing myself....But I didn't, because he's my bredren, know what I mean, and a Bro' can kinda get vex and upset if you diss his woman, even in the best of humour...And although everyone was smiling you could tell there was some tension behind the talk...It was kinda sensitive after all.
But there was a kind of half smile on Dalton's face when he looked up. And I was just about to change the subject before it became too uncomfortable when...Yes, you've guessed, bloody Mackie puts his foot in it again. But he's not the kind of guy who'll just put his foot in it...Not Mackie...No, he has to squelch his size elevens around until he's up to his neck in it all. Ohhh yeah!
"I don't know about you Dalton, but my tongue's for tasting food and talking and nothing else. Yu mooma neva teach yu say yu noh fi eat under table! Naaah man, daaaamn! The only hair you'll ever find on my top lip when I go to bed is if I haven't shaved that morning, you know what I'm saying!"
The women, especially Half-Idiot Marcia, they were loving it. They were rolling up, all of them cackling away like some kind of black cats choir.
Somehow, I don't think our Mackie gets the rules of this age old man woman argument game.
The problem was, Dalton had been riled up now, and instead of holding it down, which would have been the sensible thing to do, he just carried right on, "As for you Mackie, I'll just excuse you cos you don't know any better. Anyway, that's a laugh coming from you, the only guy I know who lives on a staple diet of kebabs. Bear this in mind for future reference Mister Mackie. When you're nyamin' those kebabs you don't even know what animal the meat in it came from, let alone what part of the animal you're eating....Yeah, that's right. Chah! For all you know you've probably nyammed a horse's pussy already and enjoyed it! Or even the local Tom-cats willy with onions and extra chilli sauce in kebab bread to raas!
And as for you women, me ready fi you now. Heh! See, that's what it all boils down to with you black women. Sex. Yeah, that's right, I shouldn't have to spell it out to you. ESSS - EEEY - EXXX, sex. You lot just can't bear to think that any white woman might actually be getting something that you lot might not be getting...and that she probably deserves it more than any of you. The fing is you lot don't know your 'istory, do ya?" he carried on, the cockney in him taking over.
Sensible Sandra, conscious hair in dreads sensible Sensible Sandra wasn't out to take that lying down.
"No Dalton, I think that you're the one who doesn't know his history. Anyway, is nasty yu' nasty or nah see yu' nah see?...Or both?"
But my buddy Dalton, he's on a roll by now, and the thing is he thinks he sounds more sensible than Sensible Sandra, so he just gives her a dirty look and carries on, "What you lot don't realise is that sex between the races is a natural thing man. It's even in the Bible. It's been going on since Samson an' Delilah."
"Yeah...And look what it did to Samson!"
"Anyway, you black women, you're always vex. She ain't got none of you lot's bad attitude. None of it. I mean, I get in from work in the evening and mi tea's on the table so I can just sit down and eat...Which black woman d'you know who's gonna have mi tea on the table when I get home, ay?"
"Tea?...You're right there Dalton, none of us black women's going to have your tea on the table...Seems to me that you've forgotten that there ain't no such thing as a meal called tea in a black person's yard....'Bout yu come 'ome from work an she have yu' tea 'pon table! Boy Dalton, you need waking up."
That Sandra. She's a funny one. You know, one of those people that stays in control when she's vex. She just carried right on. "Anyway, what's a white woman got to be vex about? Everything's set up for them. They don't have to have all the qualifications, but them still get di job. They get all the promotions at work. You see them every day in the newspapers, in the glossy magazines. They don't have to be able to sing to get a song in the charts. You turn on the television, they're in all the adverts...You'd think we don't spend money in the shops. I swear sometimes when you watch those adverts it's as though they're trying to tell us that we don't count."
Dalton shook his head, "But you can't blame them. This is a white country. The adverts have got to reflect that. Besides it's not who's in the advert that's important. The important thing is that the products you see advertised on the box are for everyone."
Hear Marcia, "Oh yeah...Which black woman do you know who can wash an' go then?"
"You look like you did," Phillip cut in. The guys laughed. The women didn't.
Then even Timid Aileen piped up, "Yeah Dalton, which black person d'you know who actually thinks that 'Success on a plate' is nothing but a mess on a plate?"
And then Mackie butts in, "Yeah, it's true. Last black woman Dalton went out with boxed the man in his head you know. An' I bet her hands that did dishes weren't as soft as her face, yu' get me!"
Dalton's looking up at the ceiling by now, no doubt trying to think of what there is handy to stuff in Mackie's mouth to stop him from chatting Dalton's business. If that's what he was thinking then in all truth I'd have to tell him that there ain't nothing big enough in the house to stop that mouth.
Anyway, I was determined to keep out of it. There was no way on earth I was going to get myself mixed up in this argument. I was just gonna have a laugh, and when the last of them went home that evening I was just gonna close my front door and sigh a sigh of relief. Remember I was living with Miss Argumentative at the time, so there was no way I was going to take sides in any man woman argument. Yeah....I'd just close the front door when they were gone and that would be that.
But then, woe betide him, Junior pipes up that he doesn't see anything wrong with what Dalton's doing.
And then, on top of all that, Timid Aileen starts getting bright. Now you've got to believe me, Timid Aileen's the kind of person who can hardly put two words together at the best of times, and here she was getting bright on us guys, laughing and trying to talk at the same time. She could hardly get the words out, but being a black woman, she did.
"So...How come you're jumping to Dalton's defence so strong, ay Junior?"
Junior looked kind of sheepish. Hesitated just a little too long before responding. And they picked up on it straight away.
"You ain't doing the same thing as old Dalton over there, are you?"
"...So you're still with that red skin girl with the Indian hair then?"
"Yeah...Well...Sort of. And she's not red. In fact she's darker than me."
Junior was fidgeting about by now. He had that look on his face, you know, like someone who was waiting to go to the toilet or something.
So then Half-Idiot jumps in because, like Mackie, she just doesn't know any better, "What d'you mean "sort of." Yu' either wid di gal or yu' noh deh wid her!...What kind of thing is that?...How can you be sort of with her?"
And then Mackie, who like I said before, doesn't understand the rules of this game, and who I sometimes suspect must be one of Half-Idiot's long lost relatives, has to go stirring it again, "The chupid gal noh gone an’ lef’ 'im again!"
"Fuck you Mackie, man. How can you go and chat my fucking business like that man."
"Cool noh man. Daaamn! Ain't no big deal anyway. Loads of girls have left me. It ain't done me no harm. In fact I'd say it's made me what I am today."
"What Mackie...You mean that's what turn' you stupid?...At last. At last we know why you're like you are. It's woman turn you fool-fool!" Junjo Teeth Desreen laughed, "Anyway Junior, why she leave you? She catch you wid a nex' woman? "
Junior hesitated again. I must tell him not to do that in future, because them black women, they're sharp.
Bloody Timid Aileen almost choked trying to get the words out of her mouth, "Naah Junior, no, you mean she actually caught you...You know...In bed....With another woman!" Her nose screwed up as though the thought of it carried a bad odour.
"No, she never actually caught me in bed with anyone...Not actually in bed. I might as well tell you, because Mackie's probably gonna tell everyone anyway." He shot Mackie a 'kill yu' if I catch yu' glance as he continued, "I wasn't actually in bed with the girl she caught me with. We were kinda like on our way to the bedroom from the living room when she just turned up...So we weren't even doing anything...Yet...And besides, that happened years ago. She said she'd forgiven and forgotten, but the thing that really broke us up was that she couldn't forget...She just couldn't get past it."
Hear Mackie, "The key word there my friends is 'yet'. It's funny though...The bwoy get catch ‘not doing anything yet’, and 'im galfriend gone lef ' him! I always say it's the quiet ones you've got to watch."
Now Mackie was always one for pushing his luck, no matter how many times it rebounded on him. He was just one of those people who couldn't learn from his past mistakes. So when Junior responded, I wasn't surprised.
"At least I ain't playing around with my mate's woman behind his back."
Now the penny didn't quite drop at first...You know, it took a little while for it to sink in. Do you remember how I told you earlier on that we were Mackie's only friends...Mmmmmmm? So while the conversation between Dalton, Sensible Sandra, Timid Aileen, Junjo Teeth Desreen, Junior, Mackie, Phillip and Half-Idiot went on to the women's favourite topic of how ''all you black men are the same"...Well, the mathematics of it all started to sink in.
If we were Mackie's only friends...And Junior's girl had left him...Then whose woman was he messing around with? But nobody else seemed to pick up on it.
It's funny, but for the first time I noticed how quiet Miss Argumentative, my girl, had been all evening. Usually she'd have been in the thick of this kind of argument. Usually she'd have been in the thick of any kind of argument. In fact, normally she was the kind of woman who could start an argument in an empty room!
'Noooo, it couldn't be her,' I started to think to myself. 'Naaah! No way.'
And then I caught the conversation.
You see Mackie couldn't help himself...Remember how I told you before that he always managed to put his foot in it...Well, he managed to do it again, didn't he? And remember how I told you how sharp black women were, and that you couldn't expect to get away with saying certain things in room full of black women and a half-idiot. Well, these black women and the Half-Idiot were so sharp it's a wonder everybody neva get cut up and di room neva full up o' blood to raas.
The thing is, by this time, Mackie had started boasting about sex, about how him and this girl were at it all the time, like he was some kind of stamina-daddy, when the truth of it, according to Miss Argumentative’s sister who used to go out with him, was that he used to be so premature when he was having sex that he used to come when he was putting his Delay cream on!
Hear him, "Yeah man me and this girl have it all over the place all the time dread. Daaamn! In the bathroom, in the hallway, in the living room, in the kitchen, anywhere..." and he's laughing his head off.
And all the time I'm thinking, 'Is he laughing at me?'
So then Half-Idiot says, "Boy, Mackie, you're nasty. You're nasty bad. You mean to say you had sex in the kitchen!...I'd never eat at your place."
And Mackie replies, "No, it wasn't at my place, it was at hers. And to be honest I wouldn't eat round there anyway. She can't cook. Daaaamn! The girl don't even rinse her plates when she washes up!"
Well, who told him to say that in a room full of sharp black women and a half-idiot?
All of a sudden...Ping!...You could have heard a pin drop, it went so quiet.
And then out of the blue came Half-Idiot Marcia's voice, "White babe, white babe!"
Yu' eva see a black man blush? Well, Mackie did. He's the blackest man on the planet, but I swear the bredda went red.
All hell broke loose friend, everybody laughing except Mackie. Well, except Mackie and Dalton...And come to think of it Junior was a bit quiet too, I suppose because his business had been blurted out for all and sundry to hear it.
As for Phillip, he didn't laugh, but that was just out of some misplaced sense of fraternal solidarity. So when I say everybody was laughing ......When I say everybody was laughing what I really mean is all the women were laughing. And to be honest I felt like laughing myself, but I didn't because thems my bredrens, know what I mean...On top of which I'd picked up on something that none of the rest of them had sussed.
Like I said before, we were Mackie’s only friends. And if Junior's girlfriend had left him like Mackie said she had, and Phillip had split up with that girl Mackie had said was so ugly...Well, that meant me and Dalton were the only ones left who actually had girlfriends...And if Mackie was messing around with one of his mate's girlfriends like Junior said he was...And if the girl he was playing around with was a 'white babe', which meant there was no way he was messing with my girl, Miss Argumentative, who was certainly a black woman...Well...Let's just say that, so far as I could see, Mackie'd been cooking pork in Dalton's kitchen...If you get my meaning.
You know, when they all eventually left that evening, Miss Argumentative actually apologised to me for our argument earlier that day...Said she was glad to be with me...Said I was a positive black man.
Then she said something like, "The thing with us black people is that nowadays you don't see our chains...But we're still wearing them."
She never told me why she said it, and at the time I was just shocked that she'd apologised in the first place and paid me a compliment in the same breath...phhh...Ohhh yeah.
But now, when I think about it I suppose she could have been having a go at my friends.
Or maybe she was having a go at her own friends?
Why?...Well think about it.
Make your own mind up.
And if you do start to think about it, then perhaps this isn't the end of the story, it may just be ......