Winnie’s words were still plaguing my mind. Why on earth did she think my life could be better? I pondered again and again what these words would mean to me now if I had to change my life. What would that look like? My phone was buzzing again. This time it was my friend. The “surrogate mum” to the kids, Gracie. She looked after them for me whilst I worked. Chantelle and Jordan loved her.
She was a beautiful dark-skinned woman of African descent, not quite old enough to be my mum but was full of wisdom. I was lucky to have her as she made parenting or co-parenting, in this case, a tidy responsibility. She was in her early 60s and had 2 children who were married and long gone. Looking after my children were her way of giving back and staying young. I met her one day when I was out shopping with the children about 5 years ago. It was quite a chore trying to get the kids to pay attention and do as told whilst in the shops. As little as they were, both under 5, they would charge off in all directions as soon as they were got outside the car. It would become a game of hide and seek, me shouting their names, running after them, trying to maintain order, quickly locking the car door and catching up with them but not all in that order. It was while trying to find them that I ran into Gracie.
She laughed at my confusion and seemed to understand my dilemma. She was not very rich but she had a large heart. Her greying curly hair locks were evident from the sides of her face which bordered the red but thinner lips but had a deep dark brown colour and shine.
The saying “black don’t crack.” held for her as her skin had a smoothness that was rarer for ladies of her age.
She was dressed in a long brown not-so-body hugging number with mixed coloured flowery patterns, as was more common with the “body-con dresses” of this age and she donned a pair of well-worn black shoes and I have to say she looked well for her age. She greeted me at the entrance of the store, having watched the debacle with the kids, she smiled and said “kids will be kids” and that.
We strolled around the store together after I retrieved the kids and put them in the two-seater pushchair which had made my unpacking from the car a little clumsy. After sharing opposite tills and chatting across them to the humorous reception from the kids, we parted ways but exchanged numbers with a promise to keep in touch. I think the kids were tired after I let them run up and down the store to spend their energy. So it was all I could do to put them both back in the chair as I headed back to the car. I waved at Gracie as she went in another aisle of the car park while we headed towards the child-friendly zone. It was an interesting encounter. A good job I had bought the kids some fruits and snacks to keep their mouth busy while I was driving. Gracie had asked me to keep in touch and keep in touch I did. Our friendship was to change the whole definition of nanny / child-minding for years to come.
A phone call to Gracie two days later on the weekend ended up in lunch at hers with the kids. She was such good company it was difficult to leave. The kids were rearranging her sitting room and seemed happy to unpack the old toys box sitting in the corner of her living room. She loved it too.
Then we all got on the oaken wooden floor which had seen better days and the kids didn’t mind that some of the toys were old. There were Lego pieces, plastic tricks, baby dolls and more. They happily played away while Gracie and I talked.
She wanted to know how I was coping with the kids and I revealed that I wasn’t coping at all. These kids were born as a result of my choice not to practise safe sex and worst of all; I did not even how to get in contact with their father. Men would come and go in Dick’s brothel and because word got out that I was the wild one I was popular among our clientele. So the range of men moved from lower-paying to higher-paying masculine species that would require me as escort to very dainty affairs as well hence the need to get help with the kids. Because of the irregular nature of out of town work, it was a challenge to keep a regular childminder. Gracie listened intently, with a knowing smile at times and I think she hid the fact that tears were at the ready too.
Her eyes were red when I began to tell her how the journey of my sexual experiences started. So what I had not told or shared with Winnie my long lost friend was relayed to Gracie.
Bode was very clever! My daddy’s usual absence due to long hours and travelling work commitments made it easy for his presence to flourish.
The second and top floor of our home housed the children’s sitting room. Softer to the feet because of the wine coloured thick carpeting and ready feet wear there was no danger of getting sharp objects into our delicate feet. The white painted ceiling showed a few cracks in the covering and supported a fan too.
It was more like an attic as it had a smaller size compared to the other sitting room on the ground floor. The walls had an off white/cream coloured paint and you could see the markings, drawing from permanent and felt pen from expressive children. I would use the wall as well as the ready-fitted small blackboard to pen messages to my parents, sometimes in the form of poems. It was a way to get help but I could not articulate what I wanted as I had been threatened with beating and all sorts.
I tried to get daddy’s attention as he hardly ever smiled and seemed quite cold and aloof at times. You never wanted to get on his wrong side because what quickly followed was his wrath in addition to beating. When I say beat, I mean punishment aided by “cane” a plank of wood, a soft stem of a plant, a belt and about anything handy at the time of action. The room boasted of 4 heavy-duty chairs, arranged circularly with a thick black leather-like covering, decorated with 12 round buttons in a beautiful array in a longitudinal fashion, when not damaged. But as you can imagine, some of these lovely buttons had been plucked out during play! There was a central coffee table as long as the length of those two chairs put side by side and it was in this setting that these lessons took place. The only glass metal barred windows opened outward to look down at the garden and thankfully the metal frames prevented us climbing or falling out of it. As we were located higher in the house building, it would take two flights of stairs on the first cemented and carpeted floor to get there. It was quite easy to tell when someone was coming that way.
He knew when and how to get me on my own, make excuses for me and show my parents he was a good “big brother” helping me with homework.
Only that these sessions filled me with dread because as we sat down in the children’s sitting room upstairs, out of others view, he would slip his hand under my dress and reach more my underwear and then begin to rummage in them and touch my private area. He would put his hand over my mouth to prevent me from squealing, crying or calling for help; always with the usual warning that no one would believe me. I can’t tell you how long this ordeal lasted each time except that his ears were at the same time peeled for movements, voices and footsteps that suggested anyone was coming round. He was never caught.
Homework turned into horror work because I could never take in any new information after this interference.
If anyone came upstairs, his hands would be quickly replaced on the book and his demeanour would change with him asking the same question, “you understand?” Whenever my siblings were involved in the homework session (which happened infrequently because they had other interests outside the house – sports, dancing and swimming classes) he would send them off with pieces of exercises to do. I hated the way he stood so tall above me. He had wide thick hands which probably got their texture from working with sand and plants on a farm. His fingers, brown and shorter than dad’s were, well-manicured as he took pride in his appearance too. He always smelt good and that was part of the problem, I think. So I developed an affinity for good smells too. Maybe I was developing some kind of attraction or affinity for him too.
A gasp came from Gracie. And I saw tears fall down her face and her eyes were so red.
I think she was trying so hard to stop herself from crying. I could see her body posture had changed from sitting with her back fitting into the curve of the chair to her leaning forward. She had her right hands reaching out to hold my left hand as I was seated in the comfy sofa next to hers.
“Oh Cici,” she said as her voice broke into what sounded like a whisper with a lot of care, love and understanding.
Did she really understand my troubles? How could she? She only just met me. For a moment I had forgotten about the kids.
They had gone quiet. Perhaps they had heard the emotion in mummy’s voice and not knowing how to handle it they had retreated into the far side of the living room and found the soft sofa so welcoming that they had curled up and slept. I smiled when I saw the biscuit crumbs on either side of my boy’s mouth. They had taken to chewing the goodies we had brought back from the shopping. Kids eh… At least they were OK, more comfortable than I would have expected.
I was about to rouse them out of sleep when Gracie says, “leave them, dear, let’s make some dinner and wake them up to eat!” What I thought were a few minutes discussion was now turning into a life story sharing with a strange lady, only not so strange.
We had both gone into her kitchen. This old but tidy room boasted of gadgets stretching from one generation to another. There was an old very well used and almost browning white cooker with 4 unequal burner sizes in the left corner of this rectangular-shaped kitchen.
Then there was wallpaper which was browning from what appeared to have been a lovely shade of magnolia with a few tears around the edges and holes. I wonder why I was taking this all in. She had a drain for plates and they were white strong framed not like the plastic ones you have today, sitting close to the sink which was a little low for my 5ft 8 frame.
It was a clean room and it was lit with one of those old type bulbs, not the low energy ones we have now.
The room opened into what could be considered a larder or food store were tins, packets and cartons of fish – tuna, biscuits, pasta, and cereals were stacked in no particular order. As my eyes were sweeping around the room, she said, “Put the kettle on.” It was more of a statement than a request but firm in her soft voice. I looked at the rounded metallic gadget with a stout that had no plug hole. Trying not to embarrass myself, I filled up the kettle and guessed that it probably belonged to the cooker? She answered my thoughts by saying, “put it on the small burner at the back.” It will soon be whistling she added. Next, she was moving slowly towards what I would call a medium-sized fridge and she opened this to reveal stacks of food containers.
My goodness was she organised? She rummaged a little in it as she held the door open with one hand while the other was searching for something. A few seconds later, armed with tomatoes, a plastic container with grilled or fried beef, onions from the bottom fridge drawer she proceeded towards the sink to get a frying pan. I watched her put some oil into it, season it with some concoction that smelled like a mixture of herbs then adds chopped onions in.
Next, she was tossing in pre-sliced tomatoes and some pasta.
She asked me to get some rice from the food store. There was a variety of them. Easy Cook, Uncle Bens, Jasmine to name a few. I chose the Jasmine one. She asked me to pull forward from the right corner of the kitchen what looked like a rice cooker and asked me to cook two cups of rice in it. So we were both cooking. She asked if she could add chilli to the sauce in the frying pan and I said a little was ok. It smelled so nice, the stew.
We chatted a little while the food was cooking, exchanging recipe ideas and tips in the kitchen. Gracie always had some hot water with a slice of lemon. I could not understand it but she loved sipping at it frequently. It was fun to watch. The aroma could have woken anyone from a coma I think, as it did the trick for the kids. It was past 8, quite late. I watched in amazement as she multi-tasked with preparing what looked like Jasmine rice as well with a rice cooker that came with a metal basket for vegetable so these would steam up while the rice was cooking.
It was a fun night afterwards as I walked away from the kitchen aroma towards the other end of the room where toys were sprawled across the floor and the kids have taken their comfortable positions for sleep. Rousing them out of sleep seemed punishing as they seem to be so much at rest.
Son, it’s time to eat I said softly as I tickled his right ear, available to me as his face was away from the hollow of the furniture. A stretch of his arms and legs and the words, “Mummy?” signalled he was awake. “I’m hungry,” Jordan said as he rubbed his tummy as if that would quell the hunger pangs.
His sister was still sleeping soundly and I kind of felt bad that I had to wake her.
“Darling?” I said as I tried to rouse her out of sleep too. She was rubbing her eyes and looking at me and around as this seemed pretty strange compared to her bedroom. She was a very particular 7-year-old and liked her bed.
“Time to eat,” I announced as though I would get some dancing in response. At this time I was feeling emotionally exhausted but relieved I could talk to someone about the past. It felt good to not be judged.
I was beginning to feel liberated and thankful that perhaps I had found a friend. A true confidante this share my journey and struggles with.
“Are the kids ready?” Her voice interrupted my thoughts and sounded quite calmly patient as it awaited a response.
“Coming!” I replied as I found the way to the bathroom in this new house that would become a haven or second home to the kids and me. They followed me straight to the small dining table in the middle of the kitchen. Grace did not have a dining area let alone one of the Flat screen-wall -mounted TV as we had at home.
It made a change though because we all sat around a table ate and looked at each other instead of, up at the screen like we did at home.
The children ate without much persuading, surprising really as there was a little bit more spice in the garnishing stew. Or maybe they were eating out of politeness. Gracie was very quiet all this time, only breaking her momentary silence to pay the kids a compliment on how well behaved they were. For a moment I realised they had not washed their hands but then decided it was probably too late to take them to the bathroom so I had reached for the time-saving hand wipes to ease my conscience, really.
The children fed; next, they wanted to know when we were going home. It seemed they were well fed as none of them was asking for sweeties after dinner or ice-cream. Gracie must have served wholesome food but they were just regular portions. Maybe the children were being on their best behaviour. Usually, after dinner, they would be fixated on the TV until I insist on seeing their school homework after which they would be asking for afters. I was feeling peaceful, heard and comfortable that I had not noticed when Gracie popped into the kitchen to prepare some food packs for the twins to take away. I just heard her call my attention as the kids went to the bathroom before our leaving. I was so surprised and thankful for the food packs that I hugged her.
She smiled and said, “we need to talk some more…” and seemed to hold back more of what she wanted to say and moved towards me not sure if she should hug me or what.
And that was how my friendship with Gracie began. I found myself confiding in her and calling in, initially once a week at weekends with the kids. She seemed to look younger, smile wider and laugh more. She was happier with our visits.
The children began to call and refer to her as NanaG. It got to a point that kids would say NanaG says “we don’t use the word can’t”, NanaG says this and that. And soon they wanted to stay longer when we visited NanaG. Then she would teach them to make small sandwiches, and quick wraps/meals. Funny though, they began to pick up her accent and speak like her when we were at hers. She made dumplings and they loved her jerk chicken; curry goat also rice and peas!
The seasoned fish was something to live for. So my children were getting so fond of this Jamaican woman and I dare say her silver hair was turning darker… or maybe it’s just me. She was so good with the children and one day the kids asked if they could stay over but not directly.
This was an excerpt from the book: Love at First Byte