My name is Aleesha and I will be sixteen in a few months. I live with my brother Dipesh, he’s twelve, and my Mum and Dad, in a posh part of London, near the river. Lots of trees everywhere, and people walking dogs. Mum says she and Dad hocked their souls to buy our house so Dipesh and I could grow up in a nice place. She says we’ll be grateful one day. We came here when I was quite little so I don’t know where we were before or what it was like.
We’re the only blacks in our street. Lydia says her Dad wanted to move out when we came, but he changed his mind because my Mum and Dad seemed so well educated and talked posh. She says my parents speak better English than hers, and they are English born and bred.
We get on with the street. Dad is into DIY and football with the men, and Mum runs the book club. She started it when she finished her degree. The club’s moved on from Jane Austen. Took a while, Mum says, but she can bring out Toni Morrison now without anybody walking out.
In summer, there’s always a barbecue in one of the gardens, and then everybody gets pissed, and Lydia’s Dad goes all Brexity.
‘No offence Chandy, but we’re swamped with all these immigrants coming into the country and living off us.’
Sometimes Mum gives him an earful about what immigrants have contributed to this country, and he laughs and says, ‘Chandy your wife should be in politics.’
I get on with all the kids, except when they take the piss out of how I dress. I like black. What’s wrong with that?
Mum started studying when Dipesh was two. Now she’s a deputy head in a primary school in Westminster, the crappy end, poor people and refugees from everywhere. Every night she tells us how tough it is to teach children who’ve been damaged by war, and who speak all kinds of different languages. She’d really like to be in some old university teaching Shakespeare but she never gets shortlisted for those jobs. And Dad, Dr Ramchandra Mahase, PhD in history, teaches basic skills in an FE college.
Dips and I go to the local comprehensive. We should be at private school, according to Mum, but it’s against Dad’s principles. In any case, we don’t have the money. For as long as I can remember, Mum would give us extra lessons in English and maths at home so at school we were always ahead of what they were teaching. Dips and I get good grades without trying too hard. Actually, I’m ahead of all the kids in my class. The teachers don’t like that. They’re always complaining on parents’ evenings that I am cocky. Mum plans for Dips and me to go to university to study medicine, or law, but I want to be a singer, and Dipshit wants to be a travel writer (so he can shag a lot of foreign girls).
Our house is semi-detached, garden front and back. Mum does the gardening, always clipping and pruning. No bright coloured flowers in our garden, just purples and lots of white. Mum says we have to show that we have taste, even in gardening.
Dips and I have our own bedrooms. My wall has all my ballet certificates. His is plastered with girl pop stars.
Once a month, we eat out, usually at one of those places with unpronounceable food in toy size portions. Mum loves all that.
‘Rip off,’ Dad says but he likes to please Mum.
If she eats something she likes, she tries to get the recipe from the chef and then tries it out on us.
At weekends Dips and I get dragged round museums and art galleries, so we can top up on culture. Once a month we go to something at the theatre for the same reason. Dips always makes a fuss when we go to the ballet and tries to get out of going but Mum always has her way. Though she can’t convince Dad to sit through an opera.
In summer, we drive to France and go glamping in the Vendeé, or Brittany, and Dips gets all wanky because of the girls.
We’re a normal family, I think. At breakfast Dad is stuck to the Guardian, Dips and me are glued to our phones, and Mum to her laptop. We always know when it’s time for Mum to head to work, and Dad to take Dips and me to school before going to his college. It’s always the same but this Monday morning my left eyelid twitches. Always does when something big is about to happen.
The post arrives. I collect the letters and dump them in front of Mum. She sorts them, tossing bills at Dad.
‘One for you, Chandy. Another one for you Chandy.’
Then she goes all quiet as she picks up one of those old-fashioned airmail envelopes with the red and blue edging that I didn’t think existed nowadays. Her hand shakes, and she looks like she wants to disappear. Dad and Dips don’t seem to notice. She stuffs the letter in her bag and stands up in a hurry.
‘Chandy, I have a staff meeting tonight. Take something out of the freezer, will you.’
She picks up her briefcase and laptop and leaves without the usual cheek pecks, without telling me to come straight home from school or else, without asking Dips if he’s got clean pants on, without telling Dad that two pints is his limit and he mustn’t be late for dinner again or it’s divorce.
Something’s up because Monday isn’t one of Mum’s staff meeting nights. She would have told us on Friday if it was, and the kitchen would be covered with a million post-it notes about when to nuke our dinner, for how long, and to make sure we wash up afterwards.
She revs the car real hard and speeds off.
Dad notices. He puts his paper down and frowns at me over his glasses.
‘Oh dear, did we do something wrong?’
Our kitchen is always neat and spotless. Shining stainless steel sink, ordered racks of spices, sparkling china and glass on the shelves, burnished copper pans hanging from the beams next to strings of garlic and bunches of dried herbs, and stacks of cookery books from all over the world. Everything has a place and there’s hell to pay if we muck it up.
Dips and I wash up the breakfast things. Dad rummages in the freezer.
‘Hmm, what shall we have?’
The freezer is chock full of stuff, from Lancashire hotpot to boeuf bourguignon. No curry, though. Mum doesn’t cook curry because she says it stinks out the house and clings to our clothes and makes us smell. When we eat curry, we go to a restaurant. Everything in the freezer is labelled with the food name and the number of portions, and stacked so that you have to eat your way through meals by date order. Every Saturday afternoon, Mum cooks a batch of stuff and puts it in there. She doesn’t believe in us coming home and frying sausages, or fish fingers, like all my friends do. She says that just because she’s a working woman her family shouldn’t have to starve. If ever there was a famine in London, we wouldn’t go hungry.
We don’t answer. Dad takes that as ‘yes’ and puts a container out to defrost. He grabs his briefcase.
‘Let’s go, people.’
As he goes to the car, I run upstairs and stuff some things in my bag. When I get back, Dad says, ‘Aleesha, what’s in the bag? You look like you’ve packed for a holiday.’
‘She’s got …ouch … that bloody hurt you skank,’ Dips says.
‘It was meant to dipshit. Better stop or I’ll tell what’s under …’
‘What’s under where?’ Dad asks.
‘Oh, nothing Dad,’ we say together.
Dips has a heap of porn mags under his bed. I know he looks at them and wanks when he’s in bed. He glares at me and I glare back. He elbows me and I elbow back. We keep this up till just before the school gate, and Dips asks to be let out. He doesn’t want to be seen walking into school with me because it’s not cool to be seen with your sister.
As he gets out of the car, he says, ‘Dad, I’m staying over at Barnaby’s tonight. Mum knows.’
‘Right. Have you got clean pants?’
Dipesh makes a face. ‘Dad!’
‘Just being your mother, son. See you tomorrow.’
When we get to the school gate, I give Dad a hug and a kiss.
‘Dad, I’m gonna be late. Detention.’
‘Detention? What did you do? Did we get notice about that?’
‘Oh, I cheeked Miss Hall. Mum knows.’
‘So straight home after, eh.’
‘Can I go to Lydia’s after? For a little bit, please? She said I could come and listen to her new tapes. Can I Dad? Please.’
‘OK, but get back before eight. Your Mum’s sure to be back by then. I’ll go and see Fred after work since you’re all abandoning me.’
Fred means the pub and darts.
I scan the school grounds for Ben. My heart flutters when I see his red hair. He’s carrying his guitar today because we’re auditioning for the summer concert. He and I are going to do David Bowie’s Space Oddity (I’m singing the countdown). Everybody’s into Harry Styles but Ben is old school. Bowie is his idol and he looks like him, too – thin like he doesn’t eat, pale like a vampire, and tall like his body’s reaching the sun.
‘Right, Leesh?’ he says when I get close.
But I can’t speak. My voice often gets stuck in my throat when I’m near Ben.
We don’t get chosen for the concert and Ben stomps out of school. I catch up with him on the road outside.
‘Bunch of tossers. I’m going home. You coming, or what?’ he says.
Ben’s home is a council house, on the other side of town from us. Ben says his grandfather bought it in the big council sell off, and his Dad inherited it. I like hanging out at Ben’s. It’s like being in an ark under permanent construction. His Dad, a builder, is always doing something to the house. Ben’s Mum doesn’t seem to mind.
Ben’s an only child and his Mum is always hugging him and ruffling his hair. She ruffles mine, too. Often says, ‘You should dye it red. You’d look good with a red afro.’
My Mum loathes Ben. ‘Boys like him are only after one thing.’ She goes all kinds of shitty when Ben comes round. Makes us sit in the living room instead of letting us go to my room.
We’re sitting on Ben’s bed, and he’s singing, ‘Can you hear me Major Tom …’
His voice sounds lonely and like it’s coming from far out in space. It makes me want to hug him. He turns as if he knows my mind and kisses me. Lip peck at first, then we’re in each other’s mouths, sucking, probing, and my world is all him, his hand on my breast. I start to feel warm and wet below. I hear him moan ‘Leeesh’, and I am so gone. We lie back on the bed. I feel him hard against my thighs, then I hear my Mum:
Boys like him …
‘No Ben, geroff.’
‘It’ll be all right. I’ve got some things.’
We tussle for a bit, then he rolls over. ‘Everybody’s doing it Leesh. Get on the train.’
‘Have you done it Ben?
‘Mine to know.’ He picks up his guitar and starts playing.
I should go but can’t seem to leave his side. ‘Shall we go to the park, Ben?’
He keeps plucking chords, doesn’t answer, then says, ‘Yeah, come on.’
In the park, we play silly games rolling down the hill and running up again, then we lie under a tree and watch the sunset. Ben lets me puff on his cigarette and I pass him the bottle of vodka I swiped from our cabinet. The sunset turns more beautiful.
‘Can I touch you?’ Ben asks after a while.
I let him, and as his fingers rub and knead, and my skin turns to fire, something better than sunset happens throughout my body.
‘Touch me, too.’ His hand guides me.
I hear him cry out and then all is still, and dark.
All the lights are on in our house. I sneak in the back to the kitchen. As I let myself in, Mum and Dad are standing there in the doorway. Mum is still in that undertaker’s suit she wears for school.
‘And where have you been young lady?’ Mum’s voice oozes menace, and I know I’m in for it.
‘Sweets, you should have phoned,’ Dad says. ‘We were so worried we called the police. You could have been run over or taken.’
The smooth liar in me doesn’t hesitate, ‘I’ve been at Lydia’s. We’ve been listening to music and I forgot the time.’
Mum’s not having it. ‘You bunked off school. We know. Mr. Samuels called. You left school at lunchtime. And you were not at Lydia’s. I spoke to her Mum. Where have you been?’
‘Shit Mum, why the fuss? It’s only nine.’
Before I know it, my cheek is stinging. She’s never hit me before.
‘Don’t talk to me like that. And it’s nearly midnight.’
‘It’s so unfair. You never tell Dipesh off when he comes home late.’
‘Dipesh is a boy. It’s different. Where have you been?’
Dipshit gets away with murder. One time he sneaked out to see The Rocky Horror Show at our local theatre in Mum’s bra, suspenders, stockings, and sweater dress. He crept back into the house through the kitchen, and I got the blame for mucking up her clothes.
She is under my nose, a petite thing to my lumberjack, and I’m wondering what would happen if I hit her back if she whacks me again.
‘You’ve been with that boy, haven’t you? I can smell him on you, and you’ve been smoking weed, too, haven’t you?’
Dad gets between us. He stinks of beer and cigarettes as he does most evenings. He doesn’t get drunk, just has a few beers to take the edge off things, he says.
Mum starts to cry. ‘All this effort we put into you, and you’re going throw it all away and get yourself pregnant.’
Dad puts his arm around her waist and tries to kiss her. His lips land on her ear. He turns to me, ‘Sweets, you should be concentrating on your studies. Make the most of your education before it’s too late.’
‘And look how she’s dressed.’ Mum is shouting now. ‘She was born to disgrace me.’
Dad takes in the head-to-toe black attire I changed into at Ben’s, and my graveyard make-up. ‘Sweets, you look like a funeral.’
‘Everybody dresses like this.’ Trying to make an escape, I pick up my rucksack. The vodka bottle rolls out.
‘Oh God.’ Mum crumples.
Dad holds her up. ‘Don’t get into such a state, darling. You’ll only get a migraine.’
‘I have one already. Caused by my underage daughter drinking and having sex.’
‘I am not having sex. And we didn’t drink much. See, the bottle is almost full.’
Dad walks Mum up the stairs. ‘Come let’s get you into bed and I’ll bring you some paracetamol. I’ll deal with Aleesha.’
‘Don’t be soft with her, Chandy, she needs a firm hand.’
After Mum is in bed, Dad says, ‘Is there something you want to tell me, Aleesha? Where were you tonight?’
‘In the park, Dad. Just walking and talking and watching the sunset. We didn’t do anything bad. We auditioned for a music thing at school and didn’t get a place and Ben got mad and I went with him.’
‘Did you two have sex?’
‘No, Dad. We just kissed and touched.’
‘Sweetheart, that’s how things escalate. We talked about this. And where were you when all this happened?’
‘Um … at Ben’s house. And then at the park.’
‘My God, girl. What were you thinking?’
‘I like him, Dad. A lot.’
‘But you’re young, sweetheart. If it’s real, it will keep. We can’t police you but we hope you won’t ruin your future.’
My Dad’s lovely and I wish I hadn’t upset him. He’s tall and gangly with thick, floppy hair. He’s always running his fingers through his hair to keep it out of his eyes. He’s a little bit vain and he makes quite an effort when he goes out, co-ordinating his shirt and sweater and polishing his shoes till they shine. I guess he’s kinda handsome because women smile at him all the time. Lydia says her Mum fancies him, but Dad only has eyes for Mum.
Dad’s not my father, though. He’s Dipesh’s, and I’ve always known that. My real Dad is somewhere out there, like Major Tom, probably. I’ve never missed him because Chandy is the Dad I’ve always known, and I’m his favourite. When I was little, he used to read me bedtime stories and drink tea from my doll teacups and we would both hide behind the sofa when I got scared of something on TV.
He picks up my bag now, and the vodka bottle. ‘Sweets you shouldn’t drink this stuff. It rots your brain.’
‘We only had a few mouthfuls. I didn’t like it.’
‘Good. Now go to bed. We’ll talk again tomorrow.’
‘Why does Mum hate me?’
‘Whatever gave you that idea? She doesn’t hate you. She just doesn’t want history repeating.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s late. We’ll talk again in the morning.’
‘Not now, sweets. It’s been a long day.’
My bedroom is across the landing from Mum and Dad’s. I hear them talking and creep across to listen.
‘Oh God Chandy, she’s behaving just like I used to do. I can see the signs. I see how she is when she’s around that boy. I was the same with Holly.’
Dad says something but it’s a mumble, and then Mum starts sobbing.
‘It all came back with that postcard. Why has he made contact now after all these years?’
‘Maybe he’s been afraid. Maybe he’s been thinking about it all this time. Maybe he wants to see her. She’s his daughter after all.’
‘She’s your daughter Chandy. You brought her up.’
‘Blood is blood darlin’ you know that.’
‘What am I going to do? I never said he was dead, but I never said he wasn’t either.’
‘We’ll just have to come clean. We’ll do it together. She knows we love her.’
‘I should have told her the truth long ago.’
‘She wouldn’t have understood. Better now.’
‘Oh God Chandy I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t rescued me. I was so young. Too young to have a baby.’
‘I love you girl, always have.’
I stand there at the door thinking of breaking in and demanding to be told whatever it is Mum should have told me years ago. Instead, I creep back to my room wishing Dips was around so I could torment him, take out whatever this is that I am feeling on him. I look out at the garden shed half expecting to see Ben leaning against the wall. At night, sometimes, he throws pebbles at my window and I creep out of the house and we sit in the garden shed and talk, or go to the recreation ground and play on the swings.
I can’t sleep so I go down to the kitchen for a glass of milk and a biscuit. Mum’s briefcase is on the kitchen table. I realize that what drove me downstairs was to see if I could find that letter. It’s tucked away inside the briefcase, and my hands tremble as I pull out the envelope and take out what’s in it. It’s a postcard with a picture of a tree with strings of pink flowers hanging down. On the other side it says ‘Bootlace tree, Botanic Gardens, do you remember?’ In the space for a message is a drawing of two ants with their antennae entwined. On the lines for the address, there’s a telephone number. I sit for a long while turning the card thinking about who sent the card, and wondering why Mum was so upset. I find a post-it and write the telephone number down, then I put the card back just the way I found it and go back to bed.
Jean is a Trinidadian living in London. Her writing has appeared in various anthologies including Spread the Word, and the Arvon Foundation. She is currently working on a novel.
I was looking through some old family letters and papers one day and discovered a whole lot of mysteries about relatives. All of them had been immigrants in various places. I already had a story in my head about a woman with a secret, so The Postcard took shape with a fragile relationship between an immigrant mother and her first-generation daughter.