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Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson

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BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
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Lin
 

“Mister Lyncook?”

Lin looked up. He hadn’t been called by his English surname in a long time. Most people still called him Lin, including the police officers who frequented his store. Only his woman and his schoolteachers had ever called him Johnny. But this evening, he was Mister Lyncook to everyone here. His daughter had gone missing and she was suspected of murder and the police were now deferring to protocol, including this young man who now approached him, followed by the police girl who, earlier, had gathered his daughter’s wedding gown from the sand where it lay and handed it to Lin, gently, as if it might break.

“We’re calling off the search for the night,” the policeman said. Lin knew this officer. He was Bunny’s older brother. Lin had gone to the cockfights with this man’s father. He had watched this young man grow up. This boy used to call him Mister Lin. This boy used to be as narrow as a river reed.

Lin looked down at Covey’s wedding dress, balled up in his arms. Lin had hoped that this would resolve everything, Covey’s marriage to a wealthy man, but Covey had accused him of selling her to Little Man to pay off his debts. And now this. His daughter, running away in the only way she knew how, toward the sea.

“Couldn’t you…?” Lin began. “Isn’t there…?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Lyncook,” the policeman said. “Look at the sky.” Lin narrowed his eyes at the darkening canopy, listened to the thudding force of the waves as a storm moved in. Not even Covey could survive out there alone for very long. He kept telling himself it was too late, but what if it wasn’t? What if they were giving up too soon?

The policeman turned his back to the water and walked away, followed by Lin, who, dragging his shoes through the sand, head down, didn’t see two of Little Man’s thugs running toward him. Little Man Henry had been that powerful. His brother hadn’t hesitated to order an attack on Lin, not even with police officers present. It was a widely known secret that the police tolerated most of the Henry family’s illegal antics, anyway, helped along by strategically placed envelopes of cash. But this public ambush was going too far.

When the police pulled the thugs off Lin, he had only a couple of superficial cuts. But the officers didn’t lock up the hoodlums, they merely chased them off and warned them not to repeat their actions. Which, of course, Lin fully expected them to do. Lin retrieved his daughter’s wedding dress from the sand and shook it out. The rustling of the chiffon unleashed a faint scent of gardenia mixed with rum and sugar from the ceremonial cake. When her plate clattered to the floor, leaving a trail of cake and icing on her dress, Covey, like everyone else, must have been distracted by the bridegroom, who was on his feet, gagging and stumbling.

“She hated lilac,” Lin said out loud.

“Sorry, sir?” said the officer.

Lin shook his head and bundled up the dress again. Covey hated lilac and Pearl knew it, and yet Pearl had put lilac icing on the girl’s wedding cake. Lin looked back at the beach, now shrouded in twilight and storm clouds, and thought of where he’d seen Pearl earlier, standing just inland with a small group of onlookers near the pocked asphalt road that skirted the sand. They’d all been staring at the sea, leaning forward, as if willing it, like Lin, to send Covey back to them. But even Pearl had since abandoned her watch.

Pearl had spent more years with his daughter than the girl’s own mother had. She probably knew more about that girl than Lin himself did. And she cared for his daughter, he was sure of it. Lin thought of Pearl standing by the beach road, wiping her eyes with the hem of her skirt, and a disturbing idea began to pick at the edges of his mind.

Bunny
 

B
unny felt a spray of
seawater on her face. Not a good sign, so far in from the breakers. She stood on the beach road with Pearl and the others, scanning the choppy waters of the bay for a sign of Covey. Bunny knew that even a strong swimmer could miscalculate. But even in her haste, Covey must have understood what kind of wind was blowing, what kind of sky was taking shape. Covey would know that she couldn’t stay out there for very long.

And now Bunny tried to imagine her friend’s calculations. How far along the coast could Covey get before having to come ashore again? The police would have thought of this too, of course, but they had already come back in. They’d already given up on Covey. They didn’t understand Covey, or the currents, the way Bunny did.

It had been calmer the other day, during their last swim together. They had pulled easily through the warm water, then sat on the sand to dry in the sun, licking the salt off their lips, braiding each other’s hair, saying nothing. There was nothing left to say, after their tearful discussions, after their
what-if
s. Bunny’s heart had cracked a little every time Covey had whispered to her of her plans to follow Gibbs to England, but Bunny would have taken anything over this, this forced marriage to another man, this smothering of Covey’s dreams.

Through the growing twilight, Bunny saw that the storm was coming in quickly. Covey would know this, but Bunny was no longer certain that Covey would have time to swim to safety without being cut up
on the rocks, or forced out to sea. This was not about strength or speed. This was about being made of flesh and bone and blood. This was about having respect for the power of nature. And, just like that, Bunny understood what Covey might try to do.

Of course,
Bunny thought. Of course. Bunny grabbed Pearl’s hand and pulled her all the way to Covey’s house.

Pearl
 

“She’s not dead,” Bunny told Pearl. “I don’t believe it.”

Pearl looked at Bunny. She felt a softness in her heart for this girl. She had known her almost as long as she’d known Covey.

“Bunny,” Pearl said.

“No,” Bunny said, and the stubbornness in her voice brought Pearl close to tears. Bunny, like Covey, had turned into a young woman overnight. Bunny was still a little thing when she first ran into this kitchen with Covey to show Pearl her first swimming medal, waving the bronze-colored disk at Pearl and sending potatoes rolling off the counter and onto the floor. She still tended to trip and knock things over, that child, but she had grown as big and strong and beautiful as a tree.

Bunny’s mother told Pearl that the clumsiness had begun with a fever. Sometimes, Bunny still got the aches and, when she was tired, she limped. The fever had left something in her, Bunny’s mother said, but nothing that couldn’t be managed if Bunny would only concentrate. The swimming had helped her to do that. Now at seventeen, Bunny towered over Pearl, her shoulders broad and square, a look of clarity in her eyes.

“Pearl, if anyone can survive out there, Covey can,” Bunny said. But more than four hours had passed since Covey’s disappearance and the last traces of peach had left the sky.

“That big race you were training for,” Pearl said, “were you girls ready for it?”

“Almost, yes.”

“And how many hours would it take to swim it? As long as she’s been out there now?”

“No, less.”

“So, how could she manage out there alone, and with a storm coming in?”

Bunny shook her head. “I don’t think she could, Pearl. But that’s my point, don’t you see?” Bunny said, banging her elbow into a pot behind her and sending the cover clattering onto the counter. “I don’t think she would even try.”

Pearl put her hands on her hips and shifted her head to look at Bunny with her good eye. “What are you saying, Bunny?”

“There’s a place we know,” Bunny said. “Close to the shore. If she’s there, she might be all right,” Bunny says, her voice cracking.

Without another word, Pearl handed Bunny a battery-operated torch, a modern luxury from Mr. Lin’s shop. She put a canvas ice bag on the kitchen table and stuffed it with a towel, dry clothes, and food. She left the room and came back with a small wooden box with bank notes inside. The box was the only item of value Covey’s mother had ever had, a beautiful thing with carvings around the border of its lid. After Mathilda left, Covey used to sit on the edge of her parents’ bed, holding the box and lifting the lid then letting it drop, lifting it then letting it drop, over and over again.

Pearl tore a strip from a sheet of brown paper and wrote down the name and address of someone who could be trusted. She was someone who could be trusted because, like Pearl, her value was largely unrecognized, except by certain influential women who had come to rely on her. She was someone whose name was never pronounced in the company of their husbands, whose presence they pretended to know nothing about.

As Pearl handed over the ice bag, Bunny knocked the flashlight into a bottle of oil, sending it toppling.

Concentrate, Bunny,
Pearl thought.

“I’m so sorry, Pearl,” Bunny said, grabbing the bottle of oil as it spilled its contents on the counter.

“Leave it,” Pearl said, picking up a rag. “I’ll do it.” Pearl couldn’t trust Bunny in this kitchen but she knew that she could trust her to get to Covey, if Covey was still alive. Bunny knew the coast as well as Covey did.

“You know I can’t go with you, Bunny,” Pearl said. “Little Man’s people are all over the place. You’ll have to go on your own. Just act normal-like, Bunny, and if you find her alive, don’t stay with her, just leave her these things and go. And walk slow. Be quiet, don’t trip on anything.”

Pearl jabbed at the name written on the piece of paper. “You make sure Covey understands she’s not to talk to anyone, except this person here. They will know what to do.” She pushed Bunny toward the door now.

“And under no circumstances are you to come back here until after daylight, do you hear me?”

Covey
 

C
ovey was cut up and
bloodied by the time she crawled onto the sand, dressed only in the slip she’d worn under her wedding dress. First came the nausea. Then she blacked out. When she woke up, she was being pelted by rain. She burst into tears. What had she been thinking? Where could she go? Who could help her? She’d heard the voices coming off the beach that afternoon. Covey had run off. The police assumed that she had murdered Little Man. Her only advantage now was that everyone would think she was dead.

Covey had watched her father earlier, as she lifted her head above water behind the rocks where she’d been hiding. There was an opening in the stone where she could come up for air. Where she had let Gibbs kiss her more than once. Where she struggled on her own, grabbing at things that cut and stung, dropping below the water line when the search boat approached. The boat slowed but didn’t enter the hollow. Everyone knew that no one could withstand the surf near the rocks for very long, that their body would be spit out of the space like a clump of uprooted seaweed.

Covey watched her father turn his gaze from the water, then lower his head and walk away. Holding Covey’s wedding dress balled up in his arms, he stopped to look back, then walked, then stopped. When Covey came up for air again, she heard a shout. She saw two men knock her father to the ground, but Bunny’s brother was there to pull them away. They must have been Little Man’s men.

Her father bent down to pick up her dress again. He looked sorry.

Pa.

Well, too late. He had no one to blame but himself. Johnny Lyncook should have thought twice before going to those cockfights, before going into debt, before selling her off like a sack of red peas. Yes, let them all believe that Covey was dead, Pa included. Her father had stolen her destiny from her, and now she was going to steal it back.

Covey started. There was someone in the dark. She held her breath.

“Covey!”

It was Bunny.

Of course!

Bunny was the only person who knew how well Covey knew the cave, except for Gibbs. But Gibbs was too far away now to be of any help.

“Don’t stay until it’s too late. If you change your mind,” Gibbs had said, as Covey clutched at his shirt, weeping, that last day together, “send me a letter, come and find me.” But she couldn’t, not now. She couldn’t even place a long-distance call. She was a fugitive from the law. If she had any chance of getting away, if she wanted to protect the people she cared for, she would have to close the door to everyone and everything she knew.

Bunny was standing over her with a flashlight, which she turned on, then promptly turned off. Dear, dear Bunny, with a towel and dry clothes, with water and food and money from Pearl. Bunny, with the address of someone who could be trusted. Bunny, who loved Covey enough to make sure that she would get away.

London
 

C
ovey looked out the bus
window. She could see the university coming up. She rang for the stop and stepped outside, her legs quivering. The campus was a sprawling thing of angles and columns and greenery. London could be funny that way. So much stone, then so much life. Covey found a bench across the way and sat down, scanning the crowds of people coming and going. She pulled her cardigan close around her body and watched all those faces, chatting, laughing, frowning. People she might have been, lives she might have led.

There were other brown-skinned people here, people who looked like students and even one who must have been a professor. Gray hair, corduroy jacket, an air of well-being. Still, she was sure, she would have no trouble spotting Gibbs. He would be taller and darker than most. And he would recognize Covey, she was sure of it, even with her ponytail cut off, even with her curls tucked under a hat, its brim pulled low. She let herself imagine that Gibbs would sense that she was here, that he would have felt her arrival like a current breaking over a reef, that he would be walking straight toward this bench where she sat, her heart hammering under her sweater.

Covey’s arrival in England already seemed years ago, though it had only been the previous autumn. She recalled the dark ribbon of water that had separated her from the ship as she counted down the minutes to her escape from the island. She’d kept glancing over her shoulder as she followed the crowd of passengers up the ramp, but she needn’t have
worried. Everyone back home thought she was dead. They would never think to look for her here, on the far side of the island, on a ship that was bound for London and Liverpool.

The British Nationality Act 1948 granted citizens of the Commonwealth free entry into Britain. Covey had just turned eighteen in the fall of 1965 and was traveling under her mother’s surname as a nanny to the children of someone who knew someone who knew Pearl. A family with the means to ensure a smooth transfer for Coventina Brown, despite the newer legislation that was now limiting migration from the islands.

In exchange for passage and forged documents, Covey had promised to work for her employer for at least one year. The family who had taken her on were not aware of the risks involved. They only thought they were helping the young relative of a friend of a friend to gain new opportunities overseas. And they were wealthy enough and light-skinned enough to be spared close questioning by the authorities. But Pearl’s contact in the capital had reminded Covey of the danger of being caught, and of her responsibility to those who had gone out of their way to help her.

“Is not a hundred percent
conventional
what we doing for you, you know,” Pearl’s contact had said. Covey only knew her as Miss Eunice. She never did learn her full name, only that she was a midwife with a knowledge of traditional remedies who was consulted by women from all over the island on “questions of a female nature.”

Miss Eunice reminded Covey that there were laws against forgery. There were laws against traveling under an assumed identity. There were laws against helping a murder suspect to escape. Trying to find Gibbs, trying to contact Pearl or Bunny, even socializing with the wrong people on the cruise ship, any one of these things could get her into trouble, along with anyone who had tried to help her or who had ever cared for her.

Miss Eunice’s advice was explicit: “You never know who around you could be a
blabba mout,
right? Don’t forget that you going to a
place where the people dem not all black. You a woman from the islands and you need to behave better than dem.”

Covey was to keep her hair and shoes tidy, keep her dresses at the knee or not too far above. She was to stay away from the dance halls and the concerts. She was to stay away from the street demonstrations. There were more and more protests in Britain, these days, by colored people tired of slumlike housing, tired of being hit with police clubs, tired of receiving training and then being turned away from jobs. She should avoid the big market where islanders liked to shop. She was to reduce the chances of running into someone from back home. Be discreet, Miss Eunice said. Keep safe, stay out of trouble.

In other words, Covey thought, be lonely.

But Covey understood. She needed to stay as far away from Little Man’s family as possible. Stay out of sight, let time go by. Eventually, she might be able to resume her studies overseas. Eventually, she might be able to look for Gibbs. On the bad days, on the nights when she couldn’t sleep, Covey thought of all the plans that she and Gibbs had made together. But she couldn’t risk trying to contact him too soon; maybe one day. Maybe not.

Not being able to swim made everything more difficult to bear. Whenever she could, Covey would go out walking and the surprise of her surroundings helped to distract her. She had grown up seeing photographs and news films of London and thought she knew the city, but now she saw that she’d had no idea what it would be like. The traffic, the advertisements, the brick-walled shops. The living mannequins, young women, modeling clothing from inside a window. Office girls walking down the street in short-short skirts, even in winter. The lead-colored river slicing through the heart of it all, the smell of coal almost everywhere.

Once in a while, Covey would come across a block of crumbling buildings, piles of rubbish spilling onto the sidewalk, and people, white and brown, bracing themselves against the cold in a level of squalor that she had never seen in her hometown. It made her think of all those
things that she could no longer enjoy. A warm, silky feeling to the air, a hint of ripening fruit, the sweet-salt smell of the Caribbean Sea. On some days, she missed even the tang of cow patties drying in the sun, the sound of flies buzzing around. It would take some time for Covey to get used to her new surroundings.

And time to get used to being stared at.

To being muttered at.

To being ignored altogether.

To being treated like a woman from the islands.

Living this way for months softened Covey’s resolve to keep to herself. It wasn’t long before she made the acquaintance of other young women like her, girls from the Caribbean who warmed to the sound of her familiar accent. There was a large house where people from various countries would gather to socialize and swap information, though, thankfully, no one from her own small town.

As Covey listened to their stories, she came to understand how fortunate she had been with the family that had hired her, with the boots and gloves they’d given her to shepherd her through that first damp, frigid season. Covey’s employers gave her books to read from the family’s library. Instead, other girls had struggled to find accommodations, had been turned away from doors with
Rooms to Let
signs out front, were paying much more for a room with a washbasin than the white girls at work.

Covey’s employers talked to her as if she was someone because they were friends with a well-placed government man whose connections went all the way back to Pearl. The government man’s wife knew Miss Eunice, and Miss Eunice, it turned out, was the former school friend of the wife of the wholesaler who sold supplies to Covey’s father and other shopkeepers. None of the men had ever heard of Miss Eunice, but each of the women had turned to her for help at some point in their lives. And all of them had purchased or tasted Pearl’s black cakes.

Unlike Covey, most of the island women she’d met planned to go back to the Caribbean as soon as they’d completed their studies or saved enough money to return, but the reality was, few would have the
means to do so. Some would fall in love and still others would disappear, the rumor being that they may have gone off somewhere to have a child.

“And Judith?”

“Judith? Haven’t seen her for a while.”

Then silence, a nod, a few looks exchanged. They knew not to ask more than once.

Each of the women talked about their lives before England. Unable to tell the truth about her own past, Covey spoke, instead, of a childhood that she had invented. Without a chiney father, without a runaway mother. She painted a vague picture of growing up with a grandmother who had lived much longer than her own grannies had. She spoke of living in a rural part of the island that she’d never seen.

Some of the women had been recruited from the islands to study nursing.

“The National Health Service is always short on nurses, you know,” one of them told Covey. “You should think about it. I could help you.”

Soon, Covey was convinced. She would leave the nanny position to enroll in nursing school. She wasn’t sure that this was the profession for her, she only knew that she would do whatever it took to move forward, to take control of her life. She thought of her father. Her father had lost control of his life and here Covey was, paying the price.

Covey had wanted to come to Britain, but not this way. The loneliness hit her hardest at bedtime. Sometimes, when she was too upset to read, she would sit on the edge of her bed and run her hand over the top of her wooden box, its ebony lid as smooth to the touch as a child’s arm, its carved edges tickling her fingertips. She would lift the lid and let it fall shut, lift then shut, over and over again, thinking of her mother. Thinking of home.

All that Covey had left of the island was this box and whatever she could keep closed away in her head and heart. She tried not to think too much about whether she would ever see Pearl or Bunny or Gibbs again. She told herself that, sooner or later, things might change and she would be free to live her life again. But until then, her life was not only
hers to live. Covey had ended up here not only because of her father’s foolish ways and Little Man’s cruelty. She was here, too, because of the kindness of others. She owed it to them to stay invisible.

But as the months went by, she found it harder to resist the awareness that Gibbs was out there somewhere, that they were back on the same piece of land. Sometimes Covey would say she was going to the cinema when instead, she rode the bus line up to the university where Gibbs was supposed to be studying, staring out the window as it pulled up in front of the old quadrangle and taking her seat on the bench to search for Gibbs among the students who followed the paths that led toward the green.

Covey came back to the campus several times, and on each occasion, she would scan the crowd for Gibbs. But she also dreaded the possibility of finding him. How could she see him and not call to him? How could she speak to him and not touch him?

True, Gibbs had told her to contact him, but when you came from a small island like theirs, everybody knew somebody. When you came from an island like theirs, you grew up hearing stories of big men around town, like Little Man, who could find other men to hurt the people who had crossed them, even on the far side of the ocean. How much was legend and how much was truth, Covey could not be sure. She only knew that she couldn’t afford to find out.

A young man sat on the bench near Covey and opened a book. She wondered if he could hear the dry churning in her stomach. Finally, she stood up and crossed the street. A bus going back in the other direction came to a stop in front of her. She waited until everyone else had boarded, took one last look at the university green, then stepped into the bus, her hope folding itself up inside her.

BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
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