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Authors: Charmaine Wilkerson

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BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
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Short Shirt

ost people around town knew
Short Shirt Higgins, but until that moment, Pearl would never have thought him relevant to Covey Lyncook’s story. Short Shirt was as skinny as a shadow but tall, and that was how he got his nickname. The shirts that his sister had sewn for him when he was still in eighth form continued to fit his slender body as he grew into manhood, the hems inching
up, up, up,
until you could see the brown of his stomach.

For a poor
like Short Shirt, there were few options available but to work for Little Man Henry. Eventually, Short Shirt earned enough to buy himself two shirts that covered his torso, and trousers that reached all the way down to his shoes. But the nickname stuck.

By the time Short Shirt turned twenty-five, no one called him by his given name, except his parents and sister. His sister, though, hardly talked anymore. Earlier that year, she’d been beaten and left for dead under an oleander bush. The police said no one knew who had done this, but Short Shirt knew, and he was going to make the man pay.

Short Shirt’s sister had complained, more than once, about the persistent advances of Little Man’s brother, Percival. But what was Short Shirt to do, being in their family’s employ? At the hospital, his sis clutched his hand and whispered her attacker’s name before falling unconscious. After she left the hospital, she was shaky and slow-talking and given to occasional seizures, having taken the bulk of Percival Henry’s beating about the head.

Short Shirt’s mother had unwittingly supplied him with the solution. His mother had grown up among the ancient, forested hills and limestone caverns in the center of the island. She had taught her children to avoid plants like scratch bush, maiden plum, and burn wood. She had made them memorize the looks of things that they were never to put into their mouths.

One afternoon in 1967, Short Shirt was caught dripping water off the leaf of a poisonous plant into a drink that had been prepared for Percival Henry.
Short Shirt, of all people!
He didn’t seem the type. But this was what could happen to the heart of a young man whose sister had been treated like she was rubbish when, in fact, she was a princess.

No one liked the Henry brothers and their ways, but everyone agreed you couldn’t go around poisoning people unless you made sure you could get away with it. After his arrest, Short Shirt confessed and explained his motives, but he consistently denied his involvement in the murder of Little Man two years earlier. He hadn’t even been in town that day. Eventually, Short Shirt went to jail for trying to poison Percival Henry but was never taken to court for Clarence Henry’s murder.

Pearl knew that Short Shirt couldn’t have killed Little Man, but for Pearl, the most important thing was that his case had raised too many questions about the unsolved murder for Covey to remain the obvious suspect. The gossip around town was that perhaps Coventina Lyncook had merely taken advantage of the fatal collapse of her husband and run off without looking back. And who, they admitted, wouldn’t have done the same? Maybe one day, Pearl thought, Covey would be able to return home.

Pearl tried to get word to Covey about what had happened with Short Shirt, but her connections in Britain hadn’t heard from Covey for some time.
Please try and get in contact with her,
Pearl asked. Eventually, Pearl received word from them of Covey’s fate. There had been a terrible accident. Why had this happened to a child who had been through so much, a child who surely had merited a little bit of happiness? Pearl raised her arms in the air and railed at the God in which she had been taught to trust.


ntil word arrived that Coventina
Lyncook, traveling under the name of Coventina Brown, had been killed in a train accident in England, most people in her hometown hadn’t realized that she’d been alive to begin with. Those who had grieved Covey’s loss since her wedding-day disappearance into the sea were now doubly heartbroken, including Covey’s father and Gibbs Grant. Gibbs had been studying in England at the time of the rail crash and realized, only then, how close he had been to Covey all that time.

When Pearl told her about the rail accident, Bunny ran down to the beach, looking up and down the cove, wishing for magic, thinking that she might find Covey lying there, now, barely conscious but still alive, just as she’d found her on the night of Covey’s wedding ceremony. She should have gone with Covey to Britain, Bunny thought, or followed her soon after. Or maybe, it had all been a mistake, helping her to escape in the first place.

Bunny walked into the sea, still in her street clothes, and swam straight for the horizon,
pull, pull, pull.
She imagined Covey just ahead of her, told herself that nothing had changed, but after two hours, she was forced to come back to shore and face the truth. She ran all the way home, weeping, her wet clothes clinging to her like long strands of seaweed, and climbed into bed.

The following year, Bunny was sitting on a bench at the swim club, wrapped in a terry-cloth robe, scrunching and stretching her toes in
her rubber sandals and waiting for the coach. She moved her head to a rocksteady hit by Johnny Nash that was coming out of a radio on the coach’s table. After a year of grieving for Covey, Bunny had come to understand that she needed to go on without her friend, and if she truly wished to honor her memory, she had to walk through the door that Covey had pried open for her. Bunny had a gift for swimming in the sea, her coach told her. One day, she could be famous, he said.

Another woman, a few years older than Bunny, walked into the pool area. It was that police girl the newspaper had been talking about, the first in their town. Patsy
She’d been down at the beach with Covey’s father on the day that Covey disappeared. Bunny’s brother, who was also on the police force, said this Patsy girl was all right. The police girl looked at Bunny and nodded. Bunny nodded in return and the warmth spreading up the back of her neck made her think of Covey.

Bunny would continue to think of Covey every time she pulled her goggles over her face and set out on a swim. Bunny belonged in the sea, where Covey had first led her. In the sea, despite her fears. Her swim coach had found her a second instructor for the distance swimming and it had been a revelation. Bunny understood, now, what she might be able to accomplish.

In the worst hours, she would draw courage from imagining her friend just ahead of her in the water and in time, it would no longer bother her so much that Covey had looked happiest not when she was with Bunny but when she was with Gibbs Grant. In time, it would comfort her, simply, to remember that Covey had once been happy.

Bunny herself had struggled after Covey’s departure. Only the swimming had helped. The swimming and Jimmy, who had been fixing local boats alongside his father since his primary school days.

Later, it would be awkward to explain to Patsy how she could let a man kiss her and make love to her. Hers was not a case, as with so many women, of being coerced into her first time. No, Jimmy had been a cheerful, joking kind of man, a good worker, and a good friend. He had always encouraged Bunny’s swimming. He had never suggested, as
some people had, that a woman who took to the open seas the way Bunny did was an
abomination to the Lord.

“That boy has a crush on yooouuu,” Covey teased Bunny once, when Jimmy agreed to use his motorized canoe as a safety boat for one of their swims. Bunny had cut her eyes at Covey but she’d known it was true.

Jimmy had never questioned Bunny’s dreams, and since it was the normal thing to do, Bunny didn’t resist when Jimmy wanted to court her, wanted to hold her in that way. The heat of adolescence made it easier for Bunny to behave like other women, and Bunny felt comforted with Jimmy’s arms around her. She assumed that it was only the absence of Covey, the loss of Covey, that made all sentiment, all desire, pale in comparison. It was only when she met Patsy that she realized she’d been wrong. And Jimmy realized it, too.

They had just stopped seeing each other when Jimmy was killed in a country bus accident. Jimmy and some other lads had been clinging to the outside of the bus as it drove off. As the vehicle barreled along a pocked and dusty road flanked by sugar cane fields, Jimmy lost his grip and fell. Bunny understood then that she had felt a kind of love for Jimmy, even though she could never have been his wife. There were different ways to love a person, and losing someone you cared for still hurt. That hurt made her more certain of how she needed to live.

By the time Bunny realized that the problem with her thickening middle was not the food she was eating but an advancing pregnancy, she and Patsy were preparing to leave for England together and arranging for Patsy’s brother, still a young child, to join them when the time came. Patsy had made it clear from the start that she had promised her pops, the only parent left, that she would take care of him, and Patsy’s loyalty had drawn Bunny even closer.

Back then, it was normal for two single women to live together. Back then, it was even expected. Back then, it was easy to let neighborly gossip spread the word that your new baby’s father had died back in the islands. And here you were now, faced with navigating a new life
abroad on your own. And wasn’t it fortunate that you, at least, had a roommate from the same country to keep an eye on you?

“You what?” Bunny’s new coach said, when she told him. He had been the one to arrange her move to England.

“How do you think you’re going to manage to train, between a child and a job?” Coach said. His face softened now. “You’re not going to let me down, are you, Bunny?” He was staking his reputation on this young talent he’d brought over.

“No, sir,” Bunny said.

“And pick up your head, young lady. What kind of champion lets her head hang down like a piece of fruit?”

Bunny laughed.

“That’s more like it.” Coach stepped in closer so that Bunny, tall as she was, had to tilt her face down again to look him in the eyes.

“There are a lot of people counting on you, Bunny, you hear? But the only thing that really matters is you, and whether you can count on yourself when you’re out there. This is no joke. That Channel will shred you to pieces if you don’t treat it with respect.”

“Yes, sir.”

There were others waiting to put their support behind Bunny, people who were charmed by the distance swimmer from the islands, despite the times, despite the rising tensions between residents and immigrants over housing and other privileges. Despite her dark skin. Because they saw that Bunny’s freakish talent and stunning smile would surely add luster to the image of the Commonwealth.

But first, there would be those iron-colored waves to conquer, colder than anything that Bunny had ever experienced, that anomalous drift that kept pulling her off course, the nausea, plenty of nausea, and the deep despair that struck Bunny at times, when she wasn’t sure if she could manage the Channel crossing, all the while knowing that she was not fit to live any other life.

Bright Future

he new Eleanor Douglas had
finally stopped looking over her shoulder wherever she went, afraid of being recognized by someone. Her new job was near the port in Edinburgh and her room in a bedsit was not far from the water. She was still walking with a limp when she arrived and she felt that the sea air did her good, even though the water there was so cold, she doubted she could ever swim in it.

Her supervisor at the trading company had been quite supportive. He’d given her a day to settle into her lodgings and learn the bus route. The other clerical workers looked at her shyly, spoke softly, at first. They would have heard her story, she imagined. How she had survived a train crash. How she had lost a friend in the same accident.

This new city was, like London, a jumble of traffic with oversized buses and gray streets and mostly pink-faced people, but it was different, too. There were bursts of color among the buildings. There was that broad, low hill that looked like a huge, green wad of discarded bread. There was that big castle up on a rise, what a place! But there was also a yawning sense of loss, the absence of everyone and everything that had been cut out of her life. She tried not to think of Gibbs and when she did, she whimpered herself to sleep.

Eleanor’s new supervisor told her that she was off to a good start. He said that she was a capable woman, not to mention a very beautiful one. He stayed late at the office to show her the bookkeeping routine. He told her that this would allow her to advance in her position. He
told her that she had a bright future ahead of her. And after a while, Eleanor allowed herself to believe it.

Until her supervisor stood too close.

Until he tried to kiss her.

Until he put his hands there.

Until what happened next stunned Eleanor into silence.


enny stands up, shaking her
head from side to side.

“No, I can’t,” she says, walking out of the room.

Byron leans forward and puts a hand against his forehead. He looks as though he could weep.

Mr. Mitch bows his head. If only Eleanor had been able to tell her family about this before. For as long as people have been mistreating other people, women have been subject to this kind of violence. It’s high time they stop having to feel ashamed about it.

Benny walks down the hallway to her parents’ room. She picks up a small framed photograph that sits on the nightstand by her mother’s side of the bed, a Polaroid that was taken of her mother and father outside a government office on the day of their wedding. She uses her thumb to wipe a bit of dust off the glass. It could have been a photo of any special occasion. Two smiling faces, a pale shift dress, a brown suit, a small bouquet of peonies.

Benny studies her mother’s face. At some point, her mother met her father. At some point, she fell in love again. At some point, Ma was happy, wasn’t she? A person can still be happy after everything that her mother went through, can’t they? Benny needs to believe that they can. No, she needs to know for sure. Benny puts the frame back on the nightstand, walks back down the hallway, and goes back into the living room. Without looking at Byron or Mr. Mitch, Benny sits down and pulls a cushion to her middle.

BOOK: Black Cake: A Novel
2.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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