The morning was warm and startling, a heavy summer setting. The garden had been neatly transformed into a scene of delicacy and elegance, with a large wooden table running through the middle of it. About thirty gentlemen and ladies sat around in suits and colourful summer dresses, politely scoffing and laughing in all the right places.
Francis was still getting used to the American heat, having only been there for a month. She felt the sun press down against her so fiercely that she thought the very fabric of her dress would melt and run down her into puddles. The adults around her made her nervous, especially as her mother and father had pressed the gravity of forgetting manners. They had given her speech after speech on how to sit correctly, how to eat correctly, when to laugh at the jokes she didn’t understand. Amongst all the chatter, the elderly lady next to her had drifted off to sleep and Francis was left to amuse herself with her own thoughts. The fish smelt different to the one she ate back at home and the sandwiches had fillings she’d never heard of. Every now and again the boy with the black face would lean across and pour more of the bubbly stuff into her glass, even though she didn’t want it. He had a friendly face though, and didn’t talk and giggle like the others.
“Don’t be startled by him, dear.” The woman next to her had awoken from her nap. “He won’ do anythin’ he isn’t told to; he’s seen what’ll happen.”
Francis looked at the boy. His dark skin made him stand out amongst the yellow and pink fabrics lining the table. She wasn’t startled by him. The fact that he was the only one there that looked anything different comforted her slightly.
“So dear, how d’ya like the States compared to yaw England?”
“It’s perfectly pleasant, thank you.” She hated everything about it. The hot, sticky wind, the fact that the trees were a wrong shade of green, the oversized shoulders of the lady’s dresses, the fact that they had to eat in the garden every Sunday. Down the other end of the table she could see her father laughing hysterically at something she knew he didn’t find funny.
Across the field she saw the plantation. That unexplored part of the south that everybody kept telling her was the pride of their nation, yet she was never allowed to see it for herself. Brown and grey specks were revealed to be horses trotting up and down, asserting their dominance over the bodies below them. The sun created a translucent wave that would eventually pierce the skin of those with bare backs. The silvers and pinks, and yellows and creams hurt her eyes compared to the deep greens and browns of down there.
“That down there is our empire.” The elderly woman was following her gaze. “We work hard to create all this.”
Francis looked back over the field. She imagined the shade of the high plants above her. Imagined stroking the soft skins of the horses, the tribal hymns of the workers all colliding to make a perfect rhythm. Something of the colours made her think there was fruit down there, bananas or pineapples like she had heard came from hot places. A soft snore brought her back into the garden. The elderly woman had her eyes closed with her chin pressed to her neck. Francis took the opportunity to leave the dinner, with the adults deep into their fancy fish and business chatter.
Through the open white doors she entered the hallway, the one she and her family were greeted with when first stepping onto the plantation. The house had a heavy smell that reminded her of burning leaves, as if someone had tried to cover the natural woody air with incense. She had noticed the kitchen door on the left when she first entered, and knew her parents would never let her in there. As if just breathing in the same confined air as those of a lower class would contaminate them. The room looked empty, so she walked in. A small, detailed ceramic pot lay on the stove, and lifting the lid slightly she finally felt hungry. There were no yellows or pinks, just a brown liquid bubbling over rice. She spooned in a mouthful and savoured the bland colour of each grain. The sound of breath behind her caused her to drop the lid shut. The boy with the black skin walked into the room and placed a pile of dirty dishes on the side. Francis took another mouthful, knowing he couldn’t stop her. He eyed her nervously, keeping his head bowed to avoid full contact.
He looked so different to the help they had at home, and none of the boys she had ever met back in England had appeared so rigid and tense. She wondered whether he was just shy or if this personality had been forced into him. She wanted to speak to him, to know if he spoke about politics and empires and made unfunny jokes like the others.
“Do you like it?” Silence. “Here, I mean.” She was aware she had a power over him and that made her nervous. She didn’t want it. She tried to form her sentences tenderly as not to shy him away, but she found a natural harshness in her tone that everyone seemed to adopt when they spoke to the boy.
“I am treated well.” His accent was deep and strained.
“But do you like it here?”
He was silent. She was glad that she had found someone else who hated this place. Ever since they had arrived in the country she felt that everybody had smiled too close to her. Not the warm kind of smile that her grandmother always wore when she saw Francis wearing her hair in plaits. Everyone here seemed to have a distorted, toothy smile, as if they wanted her to see their fleshy pink gums, and it made Francis think that teeth were more important in America than people.
“How old are you?” She was speaking more freely now, the need for the harsh tone had melted away.
“Fifteen.” He was older than her, he looked it, and the suspicious look in his eyes told her that he’d experienced things that would make a child grow up too fast.
“When is your birthday?”
“I don’t know.” The boy didn’t appear sad with his last words.
“What do you mean you don’t know when your birthday is?”
“Nobody has ever told me. And I don’t remember.”
Francis suppressed a laugh. He must be really stupid, she thought, like some of the children from her school at home.
Now staring directly at him she inspected him more closely. He seemed ever so slightly hunched, the bumps of his spine creating tiny mountains across his bare back. His head was tilted towards the floor, even when looking at her he strained his scared eyes upwards, never daring to stare directly. Francis thought he was beautiful. From the way his lips were chapped and dry from the relentless sun, and the way his fingers twitched nervously at his sides, his arms straight like a military man. She noticed a thick, white line curving beautifully around his neck, into his closely shaved hair. She stepped closer.
The boy flinched slightly as she moved her hand towards him. Gently, she followed the line with her finger, carefully feeling the rigid bump the scar made on his flesh. He grabbed her hand, forcefully at first, pleading with her to stop. Had he forgotten the strange sensation of skin on skin? His hand felt rough on hers. She could feel the cuts buried deep at his fingertips. He held her hand onto his face, allowing her to feel the heat the sun had given him.
For a few seconds she thought they finally understood each other. No words were needed between them, they both craved human intimacy and had found it in an unlikely companionship. It would be a beautiful thing, she thought, if the whole world were like this. Like bland coloured rice and tiled kitchen floors. Like imperfectly perfect skin with cracks and cuts to show you are human and don’t belong in a world of suits. Like not knowing when your birthday was so every day became your birthday, or no day was your birthday and you would never have to grow up. Like being so incredibly different that you must be the same because nobody is like you and therefore the whole world stares and watches with an amazed eye that twinkles with jealousy. That would be beautiful, she thought.
The moment lasted just a few seconds too long. A new face was at the door, then a yell of horror and confusion. More hands were grabbing at her but they were all cold and pale. The ceramic bowl was knocked to the floor in the fury, rice and brown liquid seeping into the gaps of the tiled floor. Someone pushed her face to the side, hiding her eyes from the bruising and scarring, yet her gaze was focused on the tiles. The brown liquid mixing, swirling, with fresh blood. Hard to scrub from the gaps.
It is a hard thing for a child not to ask questions, the mind seems to work double time. Everything seems much more intricate and more vibrant, with the smallest of things creating a world of mysteries that need to be answered immediately. Francis knew not to ask the questions she now wondered. She knew she had done something wrong but everybody was treating her as if she was the victim of some sort of attack. There was a noise that she couldn’t forget. A sound like a stick being dragged fiercely through the air, forcing the wind to separate either side and cry out in pain. She heard it that day when the ceramic bowl had been smashed, and sometimes she felt as though she could hear it outside, late at night when the air was so still that there was hardly any wind to separate. She could not get the thought of the ceramic bowl out of her mind. Its beautiful, intricate pieces being ripped apart like limbs from a body, allowing the insides to spill out like vomit. Once a whole thing that meant so much in the moment now lay meaningless in the foreign dirt. If only she could fix it, place piece after piece back together, then everything would be alright.
Now she stands, with her body neatly wrapped between her parents’ arms, beneath a line of the wrong coloured trees, all beautiful in the shade. She knows more scars have been added, more white lines for nobody’s fingers to trace. Bodies dance above their heads. The twitching starts and the pink dresses cheer and whimper. The suits clap hands and congratulate each other, her father included. An elderly voice, one she recognises, can be heard relating her misfortune of having to buy another to a crowd of eager listeners. Tomorrow there will be another dinner, with the same conversation as before. The fish will be brought to their plates again, this time by somebody new. But no one will ask his name. There’s no point. Way across the landscape she sees the plantation, the brown specks still galloping, as if nothing has changed.
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