Independence by Cecil Foster - Excerpt

a novel by Cecil Foster


This is the first time I recall being confused about my best friend since birth.

“Stephnie, girl,” I call into the darkness, Whuh you doing out there so late in the night?”

“Mind yuh own business,” she shoots back.

Yuh too fast. You should be in yuh own bed sleeping getting ready for school tomorrow.”

“I ain’t sleepy,” I call back. “I waiting for Grand and you Grandmother to come home from church. I thought you did be gone with them to church tonight.”

“I din’t go to no church,” Stephanie says.

“But when I saw you washing up your face and hands this evening I did think you was going to church too. Where you coming from at this hour o’ the night?”

“That’s my business. I goin’ inside now. I’ll see you in the mornin’ for school.”

“You cryin’?” I ask, “’causin’ your voice sound a little funny liken when you does be cryin’. Somebody hit you?”

“Leave me alone,” Stephanie shouts.

“You okay?” I persist. She’d always shared everything with me up to now.

“Mind yuh own business and leave me alone,” she says running for the paling gate. “That is what is wrong with boys like you, always asking too much questions.”

“I think you was cryin’,” I shout back. “Somebody must be troubled you.”

But there is no answer. I hear the hinges of the door creek and then the rattling of the latch as she closes it behind her. Then, a scratch from a match, and a small light comes out of the darkness. Through the glass panes in the window of her house, I see what looks like a shadow of Stephanie moving around. Grandmother had said that is one reason she does not like about having two houses so close together. Nobody could have any privacy as anybody could stay in one house and know what is happening in the next. In that way, she said, your next-door neighbours always know your business even before you feel like telling them. You had to be real careful to keep a secret to yourself. And that is why she was always telling me to stay out of big-people business. Even now at my age, 13, there are some things in life I do not know and would not understand, for that is the way with boys and even the mens. Particularly, she says, I should stay out of woman talk and their doings.

To tell the truth, this is the first time I can remember Steph talking to me this way, as if there is some real difference between the two of us, as if there are some things that quite naturally I cannot understand. With Stephanie now trying to sound so much womanish now, talking as if I am still a little boy to her. But somehow I am not fooled. I know Steph too well, maybe as good as I know myself. Or at least that is what I thought until now.

I remain standing at the front window looking into the blackness beyond the edge of the light from the window. A thought strikes me and I feel kinda foolish for thinking something bad had happened to Stephanie. I tell myself that she must have been out training for the cross-country race at school in a week’s time. Sports Day. That is the big event to ring down the closing of the school term. Stephanie must be troubled really bad by Ursula Payne, the only girl in the whole school that is any competition for Stephanie when it came to running. Maybe the talk Ursula is looking good this year and she might beat Stephanie is forcing her to practice late into the night. Everybody knows Ursula joined a sports club somewhere up in the country and is out training hard morning, noon and night. Everybody expects a real ding-dong race this year. More than that, as the competition heats up, Stephanie and Ursula stopped speaking to one another, something that I gather is even more important than when boys stop talking to one another or when men disagree and even fight. And maybe, I think, that is why her voice sounded funny. Stephanie was out of breath from all the training and practicing. Otherwise, there would not be any reason for her voice to sound so different.

The kerosene light flickers as a breeze passes through Silver Hill. The flame in the lamp’s chimney starts to soot and some of it comes out at the top and adds to the residue already spreading on the cardboard overhead. There it makes its own stain, along with those of the rain water that come in through the many holes in the galvanize roof. The soot is spreading, Grandmother had said, like all the evil that comes out of goodness. Like how her roof was mashing up bad but she did not have the money to fix it. The roof and ceiling are getting it from both sides: the rain on the outside and the soot on the inside. If she did not act soon, Grandmother is always saying, the entire roof, or the part without a new hole every day, will soon be as black as hell. As black, I am thinking, as this night out of which I saw Stephanie walking so dejectedly only a few minutes earlier.

Now there is quiet: in this house as I await the return of Grandmother, and next door too, where Stephanie is also awaiting her Grandmother and, like me, ultimately the return of our mothers from over-‘in’-away. After all these years me and she have not given up hope. But on this night, there is still no sign of their return. Tomorrow, we will wait some more and keep and eye out for Postie. Maybe, he will bring a letter. On this night, I sit by the window looking out into the darkness and hoping this new breeze across the land will not blow out the lamp. That would be nothing short of a disaster. I would be faced with a seemingly bad choice: to sit in darkness until Grandmother comes home or to let my clumsy self get me in trouble. Then she will yell at me for sitting in the darkness like some moochine idiot, saying sometimes boys could act real foolish, like they’ve never gone to school or have no common sense, especially when they are already a high school boy. She would say it was not right for her to have to come into a house full of darkness, not when she has a box o’ matches and a big able boy chile who should be able to relight a lamp if the wind blew it out. That I have to realize I am getting big and there are some things I have to learn to do for myself and to take the initiative. So she would say I was taking no time since she left church a few minutes ago for me to lick out of her soul the little grace and inspiration she did get from church. And that she has to keep wondering why boys are always so much trouble to raise, why my mother could not have left her with a girl to raise, one who can help herself and do the chores around the house. “’Cause boys are different: they cause too much trouble to bring up. Not like Stephanie, who is always helping her grandmother and who would have the good sense to light the lamp so Mrs. King would not have to bounce her foot at the door step or inside the house when she comes home. Girls always understand things more better.”

In my head, I hear the conversation. The breeze is stronger, like one of those winds that has rain on it, that produce the swaying songs from the cane fields and the clammy-cherry trees behind the house, that cause the bleached flour bag curtains at the window to shift, and the light in the lamp to splutter and soot some more. When everybody knows rain coming.  I decide to close the window. True, I could relight the lamp in the darkness if it goes out. But I know myself. In my fumbling around is even bigger danger. I might find the chimney too hot when I try to lift it off the lamp. The heat would burn my fingers, even if to hold the chimney I use my shirt-tail, or the end of the crocus bag that is the mat at the door. As everybody done know, I can’t take no pain. Grandmother is always among the first to be always telling me so: how I am always crying at the first lick or bounce; that I am still a cry baby, and she wonder what I would do if I was a girl and had to deal with pain every month. So I know if the chimney burns my fingers, I might just drop it. Bradung. Crassshh. I would be just clumsy as usual. I would end up breaking Grandmother’s chimney, the one my mother sent back from over-‘n’-away these many years ago. That would be more than a disaster. My bottom and not only my ears would pay the price. Except for the picture on the side of the house, and of course me, that would be the last of anything as a reminder of my mother in this house.

As I close the window, my eyes again catch the greenish light coming from the front house across the road from us. Must be the television set. The light had intrigued me all night long. Mr. Lashley, whom the grandmothers referred to as Lashie, had come back home earlier in the day from working on the overseas program. He had arrived on a big truck with so many barrels on the back that we gave up counting them. Mr. Lashley had asked Mrs. King to get the house wired for him when he was gone. This was so, Grandmother had explained, because Mr. Lashley’s mother lived too far away and did not want to keep having to come up by us to look after the house. Mr. Lashley’s mother was a town woman, did not like the people in our village and could never hide her feelings about us. Mrs. King and Stephanie looked after the house when Mr. Lashley was working overseas and when he wrote and said he wanted the house wired for electricity we all knew what was coming. Over the last weeks, Basil the electrician had been busy getting the house ready. With all this talk about wiring and electricity, we knew Mr. Lashley could only be thinking of bringing back one thing: a television.

Mr. Lashley did not disappoint us. Among the barrels and suitcases lifted from the back of the truck was a big cardboard box with the words RCA Television on the outside. Earlier tonight Mr. Lashley went to Enid’s rum shop just as he always did the first night back. This time, there was a difference: as Grandmother and Mrs King were leaving for church, Mr. Lashley and his drinking buddies were coming back to his home. Soon, I heard them laughing and joking in the house across the road. And the greenish glow remained with the house. Then, the noise in the house grew quiet, so much so all was silent for a long time. I was reading my school text books when I heard footsteps in the night. I opened the window and saw Stephanie.

Now, except for the music of the wind, all is quiet once again. It is just like any night in early December, like any of the nights I sit at home and wait for Grandmother’s return. The exception is the glow coming from Mr. Lashley’s house. Progress has come among us. The village has its first television, making us just like town people. Now we have something else to look forward to tomorrow. Whether Mr. Lashley knows it or not every child in the village will be visiting him as soon as the sun sets. I plan to be one of them. Tomorrow.



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