The following story is reproduced with permission from The Black and White Museum, a new collection of short stories by Ferdinand Dennis to be published on 2 December by HopeRoad, who last year republished Dennis’s 1998 novel Duppy Conqueror. A copy of the new collection can be ordered directly from the publisher here.
Christmas was approaching and London glittered and sparkled with seasonal decorations, and songs and carols could be heard everywhere. That Saturday, Clive Stewart was walking along Morning Lane in Hackney when he spotted a shop selling coal-effect electric fires with ersatz wooden surround. They were advertised by a large colour poster of a family – parents and two rosy-cheeked children — gathered round a fireplace with a glowing flame, and next to them was a Christmas tree under which sat a pile of presents that had been wrapped with great artistry. The words read: Give your family a perfect Christmas. Clive Stewart decided on the spot to do just that. Such a purchase would delight his wife and thrill their two children.
He strode into the shop, made enquiries from a smooth-talking, unctuous salesman, who assured him that it would take a competent handyman less than a day to install the whole thing and recreate in his home a centrepiece for an unforgettable festive occasion. Clive was more than a handyman, he was a builder who had once owned his own company. So he went to a nearby hardware store and bought a wheelbarrow — an item he had been wanting for some time — placed the boxed fire in it, wished the salesman a very Merry Christmas, and left the shop feeling pleased with himself.
Pushing the wheelbarrow containing the large box along the crowded pavement of Saturday shoppers, Clive Stewart was a picture of happiness. He whistled and greeted strangers like a man on Prozac. In this buoyant mood, the journey to his home in Stoke Newington posed no threat. He was still under forty years of age and worked out at the gym three times a week; he looked remarkably fit, though a little neglectful of his clothing.
Near a junction on Mare Street, Clive saw a young woman squatting in a disused shop doorway. Hands outstretched, she was one of the many beggars who daily descended on this shopping area in its busiest hours. He was struck by her youth, her large eyes and ashen complexion, and saddened by the means by which she had been forced to live. He stopped, searched his pockets for some loose coins, and as he was about to give her some coins, it occurred to him that he could be far more generous: he would invite her home, provide her with warmth, shelter and the friendship of his family for the festive season.
Clive beamed his warmest smile on the young woman as he extended his invitation. She frowned with suspicion. But when he showed her the photograph of his wife and children that he always carried in his wallet, and told her she would have her own bedroom with a lock and key and hot baths whenever she liked, her suspicion gave way to belief and trust and she accepted his invitation.
Her name was Hilary. She was wore thick striped leggings, a man’s grey overcoat and green boots with multi-coloured laces.
Pushing the wheelbarrow and accompanied by Hilary, Clive Stewart set off for home. They talked as they walked.
‘What’s in the box?’ Hilary asked.
‘It’s an electric coal-effect fire, with the surrounds, everything. Going to install it myself, give my family a perfect Christmas.’
‘I can’t remember when I last spent Christmas with my family,’ Hilary said, sounding much older than she looked. She told Clive about Christmases at home in Leeds and the fireplace with the cast-iron coal fire, slate hearth and oak surround. The memory seemed to cheer her up and there was a visible spring her steps.
‘Well, this will be just as good, probably better,’ Clive said. ‘We won’t be able to roast chestnuts or marshmallows, but my wife bakes a great black cake. That’s what we Jamaicans eat instead of Christmas pudding. She’s been soaking the currants and raisins in rum since September. When you taste this cake, you won’t want to touch another Christmas pudding.’ Clive laughed heartily. A five-week holiday in Jamaica many years before was his only experience of the island, but he took great pride in asserting his Jamaican-ness.
Every so often, Clive stopped to rest. He would breathe in deeply and stretch his muscles. His arms were aching now but he was used to physical exertion. Picking up the handles of the wheelbarrow, he said: ‘That’s the problem with modern life. Not enough exercise. When I was younger I was an ace football player, a champion middle-distance runner. You’ve got to keep in shape.’
Hilary nodded, stomped her feet and hugged herself in a gesture intended to keep herself warm but which betrayed a feeling of ineffable loneliness.
Some yards after that stop, Clive turned onto Graham Road and, passing Harry Bovell’s house, he heard music and figured that Harry, a frequent party-giver, was having a gathering. They were halfway home, so Clive decided that this would be a good point to take a proper rest before continuing the journey. He pushed the wheelbarrow into the garden, then went to press the doorbell.
Harry Bovell answered the door. He was a small, stout, jolly-looking man. He appeared surprised to see Clive but greeted him with practised warmth.
‘Clive, long time, man, How you doing? I’ve been meaning to look you up, but you know how Christmas is. Family first, eh? What’s that you got in the wheelbarrow?’ ‘It’s an electric fire, coal-effect, plus surrounds. I’m going to give Ann and the kids a perfect Christmas.’
Harry Bovell cleared his throat, scratched his head and looked quizzically at Clive.
‘Yes, man. Perfect Christmas,’ Clive repeated. ‘Come in,’ Harry said.
‘Okay. But can’t stop for long. And this is Hilary.’ Harry greeted Hilary and Hilary greeted Harry. ‘She’s going to spend Christmas with my family, aren’t you, Hilary?’
‘Yes, yes,’ Hilary said.
Several guests, men and women, were in the long narrow room and they were sipping rum. A football game was in progress on the giant colour television screen. Clive and Hilary were introduced. Hilary accepted a glass of wine from Harry’s wife, Babsy. Clive refused alcohol, settling for water, and proceeded to make small talk with Harry’s friends, some of whom he knew.
One of the guests was Ronnie Blake and he said to Clive, ‘Still working on the house?’
‘No, no, finished long time now. Put on a new roof, replaced most of the joists, re-plastered all the walls. You know these old Victorian houses, got to take care of them. Took me years though. Used to come home from work and get stuck in, worked into the night. But it’s worth it. You must come over at Christmas. Taste some of Ann’s black cake.’
‘Sure, sure,’ Ronnie Blake said, moving away abruptly from Clive to speak to someone else.
Clive was not fond of Ronnie Blake. They had once quarrelled, and he regretted having invited him to drop in at Christmas because while he couldn’t remember exactly what they had quarrelled about, he was sure there was still some enmity between them, otherwise why had the other man ended their exchange so suddenly? Clive mused on broken friendships for a moment then fell into conversation with another guest.
Hilary was having a good time. She aroused curiosity in this gathering of Caribbean folks and Babsy, Harry’s wife, was fussing over her. But mindful of the journey ahead, Clive pulled her aside and reminded her that they still had some distance to go, and should leave now as he wanted to get home before dark and make a start on installing the fire that would give his family, and her, a perfect Christmas.
So they set off again. When Clive found himself pushing the wheelbarrow through a crowded Ridley Road market, he regretted not taking a longer route around it. Emerging from the market, he spotted Vera Bolton, and as he had not seen her in ages and being a little tired, he stopped. He was sure they had once been good friends but couldn’t remember exactly when. Vera greeted Clive with chilling formality.
‘What’s with the wheelbarrow?’ she asked rather scornfully.
‘It’s a fire, an electric fire — coal effect. Mock wood surround. Going to give my family a perfect Christmas.’
‘Better than the one you gave me two Christmases ago,’ Vera said, sniffing the air and glancing at Hilary.
Clive suddenly remembered. ‘Oh, that’s such a long time ago. You know I couldn’t help it. Ann wouldn’t let me out of her sights.’
‘You could’ve called,’ Vera said. ‘I waited and waited and eventually drank myself to sleep. You bastard.’
Her voice had risen and Clive glanced around embarrassedly, while Hilary looked on, puzzled.
‘Look, I am sorry, Vera. I really am. Can’t you forget it?’ ‘No, Clive, no,’ Vera said, brushing past him. ‘In future when you see me on the street, don’t talk to me, because
I won’t see you.’
Vera hurried away, and Clive watched her for a moment before picking up the wheelbarrow and moving on. He walked faster now and Hilary had to make an effort to keep up with him.
Five minutes later, approaching the Caribbean Joint Restaurant and Take-away, where three men stood outside chewing the rag, Clive tried to hurry past. But he overheard one of the men say: ‘Isn’t that Clive Stewart? Heard he was having some family troubles. Looks like he found himself a new wife.’ And they all laughed meanly and lasciviously.
Clive stopped, left his wheelbarrow and Hilary, walked back to the men and gave them a good piece of his mind, which alluded to their laziness, worthlessness and habit of spreading nasty rumours. A fight would have broken out if one of the men had not acted as a peacemaker and urged Clive to continue on his way.
Clive returned to the wheelbarrow and Hilary in a state of extreme agitation, cursing the men.
Hilary now seemed uncomfortable. She said: ‘I don’t think I want to come home with you any longer.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ Clive said earnestly. ‘It will be a perfect Christmas. You’ll be in a family. We’ll treat you just like one of the family. You’ll even get a present and everything. And when you taste my wife’s cake …’ He rolled his eyes to suggest a delicious, even heavenly taste.
‘No, no,’ Hilary said, shaking her head and backing away from Clive as if suddenly frightened of something in his voice. ‘I’m not going anywhere with you.’
Clive stood and watched as she hurried away. He wondered briefly how she would spend Christmas and decided, with a measure of disappointment and resignation, that some people just can’t be rescued from their wretched state. Then he picked up the handles of his wheelbarrow and moved on.
His mood improved as he pushed the wheelbarrow containing the box with the electric coal-effect fire. He recalled hearing on the radio a weather forecast predicting snow on Christmas Day. The prospect of a white Christmas cheered him even further. If it did snow, he would make a snowman with the children in the back garden, a snowman with a carrot nose and potato eyes and wearing an old hat. As if in response to this thought, the sky spat a few snowflakes, and he whistled as he pushed the wheelbarrow.
Finally he reached the street where he lived. The thin rowan trees were bare of leaves and, with a few exceptions, the two-storey terraced houses, like everywhere he had passed, showed signs of the festive season. There were Christmas trees in the windows, some ablaze with electric lights, mistletoe dangling, and he could see holly wreaths pinned to front doors.
He was sweating as he approached his own house and felt relieved as he pushed the wheelbarrow through the gate, which made a loud creaking noise. He opened the front door, lifted the box out of the wheelbarrow and entered the house with it. He stepped on to a pile of unopened letters, placed the box down on the floor and wondered why the children had not run to greet him. Then he glanced at the shadows on the walls where pictures had once hung, and when the silence and desolation in the house struck him like a cold blast of air, he remembered.
The Black and White Museum by Ferdinand Dennis will be published on 2 December. To purchase a copy, visit HopeRoad.
Ferdinand Dennis was born in Kingston, Jamaica and spent the second half of his childhood in London. He studied at the University of Leicester and Birkbeck College, University of London. His work has been much anthologised, and he has contributed to many newspapers and magazines, including the Guardian, Granta, the New Statesman, and the Voice. He has also written and presented numerous programmes for BBC Radio Four and Three, and worked as a university lecturer in Britain and Nigeria. He lives in London.
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