Be With Me Still, by Christina Barrett-Jones

Tick by tock, by tick-tock, with me she wanders still. Born inside each other, past and future lives colliding, I am she who is me myself and I, the sum total of all the things I did and did not do.

The echo of a small young voice asks me: What did you want to be when you were little? The reply is a reverb. “A good girl” is all I hear.

And she who is me throws sand up in the air and takes note of where each grain falls, and like sandcastles in the rain, they sink where they land, melting and changing the lines written in sand, creating figments made from memories. And I can see her again in profile, picture and sound. It is my mother as she stands over me demanding that I take heed.

Pay attention

A woman, she, my mother, having flown free from Jamaica like a bird escaping a cage to land on an isle that captured her for over 50 years. She flew up so high and so fast to step beyond the bars of her childhood story. To fly away and come and taste the newer, fresher fruits of opportunities which had been promised. Not once did she think that life would betray her again because she had flown up and out to a new land to become master of her fate.

Don’t talk to people.

Don’t follow people.

When you finish school come straight home.

Life is too short to get blamed for someone else’s crime.

Don’t get yourself mixed up in other people’s business

Do your work and come straight home.

She could do anything, my mother, just not change the world.

When you work hard, you will be rewarded, because the world never forgets.

Don’t give the world a reason to fail you.

Make sure you work so hard they can’t find fault.

Work harder and deeper and longer and stronger and make sure your work is good.

Give them twice what they ask for and look them straight in the eyes.

Don’t look down, look up, hold your head high.

Respect your elders.

Save your money.

Make sure you get a place that belongs to you.

Rely on no man, and make sure you put something aside for the family you will have.

Are you listening? Are you listening to me?

Yes Mama… yes I’m listening…

And her words linger with me still.

Did she mean what she told me all those years ago? Does Mama truly believe them even now?

All good girls do as they’re told, I tell myself, just as I did at eighteen years old.

I’ve been working since I was fifteen because I decided I wanted more. To move from the world of the small and safe, of school and home and college and home again, getting back home in time, just as I had been told to do. A world seen only from the window of buses and occasional strolls along well-walked streets. I moved from the world of simplicity and anonymity into the world of the vast. A world of curious side streets and alleyways, red lights and broken bottles, of languages heard and new slang uttered and so many great people with so many strange ways.

I sold books on a Saturday for two years; then knock-off fake perfumes door to door. I settled naturally into retail because that was what was available at the time, and went from working in a little shop selling specialist men’s shirts in Chelsea on the King’s Road, to being prepped to work in the highest and largest retail business in the known world. It was a world of fashionable clothes with confusing price tags but I learned fast. So fast, in fact, that they wanted to move me, to send me to Knightsbridge and to the building of twinkling rich and the famous stars wearing garments of wealth that I quickly learned to recognise with ease.

I got noticed, not for being the trendiest mannequin on the shop floor, but because I helped. I always loved to help and to listen. They, the other workers on the shop floor, would come and tell me their stories of drunken escapades, confused passions, and bad nights out and they would make me laugh so loudly that the floor manager would lift his head, frown, and pretend to look annoyed.

And I made friends. Good friends. I learned to drink disgusting bottles of beer and dance in nightclubs with strange new rhythms and beats and continuously smiling sweaty faces. Camden punk and Camberwell reggae parties now joined with Soho disco and Hackney raves. London expanded beyond home and work and home again to that of new zones and night buses and strange street names and freedom. I had money in my pocket and could say yes to invitations. And I discovered other people’s stories.

Don’t follow people. Don’t trust them. You don’t know who they are.

Stick with your own.

Tick follows tock follows tick-tock, tick-tock…

I, who am her, stare into a picture of myself as a child.

I look just like my daughter does now, six years old and full of anticipation.

The girl in the picture is looking back up at me shyly but not yet confined to the possibilities never to be spoken.

My daughter tells me she dreams of dancing and becoming a builder of houses with nine kitchens and seven bathrooms. She says she wants to be a nurse and an artist and a teacher and a designer, a writer and gymnast and a hairdresser and maybe go into space from time to time. My older self tells my daughter that the world is hers to be anything and everything she wants to be. But my younger self says otherwise. The younger me throws the grains of sand into the air and says again and again: “Not always.”

The younger me wants to tell my daughter that sometimes the world is not ours, that it does not belong to us. “Be satisfied with the small and the simple: that way she can never be hurt by it,” is what she says. But I cannot find it within myself to repeat those words any longer, so she comes and stands close to me, the hair is still cut short and unlocked, the body still taut, not yet changed by childbirth, her face is of my own only finer. My younger self takes my hand and it fits perfectly, symmetrical lines and heartbeats matching, she brings my hand up towards the bruise over her heart and speaks:

“Did you know that every grain of sand comes from a lost civilisation?

They come from ancient kingdoms ground down and made soft by the hard falling of wind and rain, becoming nothing more than simple grains of sand.

Did you know that every single one of us has within the blood ancestry of kings and giants? We are of royalty, rulers, and conquerors but it was the immeasurable time that diminished our size and reduced our memories from mountains into rock into crushed stone. Would you like me to retell it?” she asks me.

“Would you like me to retell the story of how I came to be?

Of what it was that made me the way I am,

diminished specks of sand?”

So she speaks and tells me again how it started with the whispers, those low, hushed voices. Concession workers, staff from other outside companies being plucked out and discarded. How any staff member who was working in, but not part of, Harrod’s staff, were being re-vetted.

Re-interviewed.

Questioned.

All for quality control.

To be sure that all workers were suitable of course.

For excellence and outstanding service.

For the image of Harrod’s.

For the greater good of the world’s greatest department store.

It started first on the ground floor and worked its way up.

The whispers becoming rumours.

“They are getting rid of everybody,” they said. “It’s a purge, a purge. Be careful, Christina, they’ll be coming after you too.”

“But I’ve done nothing wrong,” that’s what I said to them. And they nodded as they always did.

Except…

The Indian lady on the chocolate counter on the ground floor.

The black guy who sold the gold watches.

The Asian girl in jewellery.

“Have you heard, Christina, have you heard? There was a woman on the first floor working in the clothes dept, but they didn’t want her to work here anymore. She was Asian too. Then that African guy–”

“He’s gone as well? I really liked him. He used to sit by the window in the canteen.”

“Be careful, Christina, they’ll be coming after you.”

“What for? I work hard, I do well. I have nothing to worry about.” And besides, I was being reassured by my colleagues and my managers.

“Just be yourself and let them see how great and knowledgeable you are. You’ll be fine,” they said. “Just fine.”

And I was, until my time came and went. Until I was called into the office a few days later and told that I had not passed the interview.

The way you look, they said. Holes in your clothes…

…clothes?

Seen to be coming to work late…

…late?

Never being at your station…

…station?

They’ve been watching you for some time…

…watching me?

They say you stand around chatting and laughing…

…laughing… but–

–don’t worry, the main boss of Ted Baker is going to appeal and fight on your behalf. He knows you’re a good worker… don’t worry about anything, we’re going to sort this thing out…

But…

…there will have to be changes just so they don’t have anything to come back to you with. You will have to change the clothes you wear. You will need to be more formal in this informal space. You must not talk to the other assistants who stand chatting nearby. You must make sure you are always seen working and looking busy even though we are in the heart of a recession, a recession which sees no customers on the shop floor and most importantly: you cannot laugh so loudly that you bring attention to yourself. They will be watching because they don’t like to be challenged so make sure you give them nothing that makes it easy for them to be right.

Later they rest of the department told me how lucky I was.

“If it wasn’t for your manager and boss, they would have got rid of you,” they said.

“Just like all those other workers… workers of other colours.”

My younger self takes my hand away from the bruise covering her heart.

Our mother came. She gave birth to us here, she taught us here. We were educated and raised here in the civilised Kingdom, but still, the betrayal goes on? How hard did I need to work? How much did I try? How much did I listen and respect and obey? How much did I not gossip or speak badly of people? I spoke like everyone else. I worked like everyone else. I took pride like everyone else. I turned up day after day after day like everyone else. I respected my elders, I made sure to listen to commands, and yet I cannot change the way I look.

I am a black woman who did as she was told but this world does not match up with the world I was asked to believe in. I have done nothing wrong. I have hurt or injured no one. I have insulted or cursed no one yet my face causes offence. My hard work insults, and my laugh is offensive. What can I do in a world like this?

What are you going to tell your daughter when she asks about me, your younger self? Will you tell her the truth? Tell her about how the world broke your heart? Will you tell her our mother’s story and then ours, that we are a living replication? Are we destined to turn into our grandmothers watching each generation go through the same stuff again and again and again?

Tick by tock by tick-tock, with me she wonders still. Born into each other, past and future lives colliding, I am she who is me myself and I, the sum total of all the things I did and did not do. I am the result of you.

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