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A Legacy to Live For

Mawuena DaCosta

ORANGE HOUSES WITH WHITE PAINT

 

“Tar baby” was all Charlotte seemed to hear from Jensan, her class’s bully, as she left the school compound and headed for the bus stop. She resolved never to allow his taunts to affect her.  The bus stop had a roof with freshly painted white benches, so unlike Hackney's where the roof was gone and there were no benches to speak of.  She waited for the bus that would take her close to Hackney as no driver wanted to risk venturing into Hackney for fear of burglary or gun shot wounds. Her soft  black hair lay neatly curled on her shoulders giving radiance to her amber brown eyes, set in a startlingly angular black face. As the bus slowed to a stop on the smooth tarmac, Charlotte took her favourite seat by the window, cruising through the suburban village of Villisville with neat rows of orange and white houses, surrounded by sharply cut hedges, where growls of pedigree dogs could be heard just over the pretty, white picket fences. She often dreamed about living in houses like these and consoled herself with the thought that one day she would be a real estate agent and own even bigger houses. 

HOME

The bus screeched to a halt near Hackney. Charlotte looked over the sagging bus stop; what had once been seats were now metal grills upon which Miss Mattie sat. She called out to her as she walked by. Her arms fell in front of her open legs as beads of sweat ran down her face, a contribution from the roofless bus stop where she  hovered protectively over her goods: an assortment of toys and sweets.

 “What a way you look neat inna yuh St Joseph uniform,” she said as she eyed Charlotte with her one good eye. 

“She ave mannas dough," Miss Mattie said, to no one in particular. Charlotte started to walk towards Hackney. ”Ah hope dat wen you grow big you memba poor Mattie in ar old age.”  She let out a resounding belch that any boy would’ve been jealous of. “Di gas a tek mi in a di evening yah,” lamented Miss Mattie.  Charlotte did not hear her belch; she was way down the road just entering Hackney. Her yard was littered with almond leaves and the tree itself shook from the breeze. The leaves skittered along the dusty ground stirring up clouds of dust. As she pushed open the gate she heard her sisters quarreling.

“It’s mine!” Joan cried.

“No!” screamed Mary,

“Let go mi things!” Joan demanded.

“Yuh want everthing fi yuh self!”Mary said as she vainly tried to pull the doll away from Joan.

They were fighting over a thin rag doll which looked as if it’s hair was made of cooked noodles dipped in blue coloring; Margret stood by unconcerned.

“Since you don’t know whose it is, I will be taking it,” Charlotte interrupted, which instantly brought frowns to their round faces heightened by big brown eyes. Margret, Joan, and Mary were Charlotte’s sisters; product of their mother’s first relationship, and bore a starling resemblance to her. Margret was eleven years old, Joan seven, and Mary five. Charlotte loved her sisters dearly and sighed as she placed the doll on top of their glass-less cabinet. She quickly changed her uniform, then went to the four walled zinc kitchen behind their wooden house to prepare dinner. The walls were black from the smoke. Charlotte lit a wood fire and laid the grill over it, she fanned the flames to life as it roasted their last bit of cow tripe which they would enjoy with white rice.

YARD FOWL

After dinner, Charlotte retreated through the open gate unto the street. “I’m going to the shop,” she called to her sisters,“don’t leave the yard.” The whiteness of the clouds looked pretty against the turquoise sky; she felt happy that she could care for her siblings while their mom “worked” to take care of them. Mom never discussed her work with them, she was away most evenings and returned home early mornings. Charlotte was content that they never went hungry; Patrice Walker was a good mother. She walked down the dusty road ignoring the catcalls and whistles from the boys she passed.

“Yuh shape good eeee Charlotte, mi cyan come ah yuh yard fi some ah di dinner?” chirped Sceva,  his pants hanging below his waist.  She made her way to Miss Madge’s corner shop. “Hot party keeping down at river tomorrow night, yuh fi come.”

“Miss Madge you know I don’t go to those events.”

“Yes cause yuh coop up inna di house like yard fowl, even though Patrice wi let yuh out. You ah young girl, yuh fi enjoy life,” Miss Madge said with deep conviction. She took Charlotte’s order.

“You is a nice girl, not like the ghetto fowl dem. You know Shanique?”

 Charlotte nodded.

 “Just laas week dem ketch im an di bwoy Sceva inna river!  Yuh kya imagine? After eeh mada stretch an suffer fi sen har gaa school she go poil up her self wid dat woklis bwoy."  She shook her head in disbelief then continued,  “ Minister Williams, you know him? He offering $50,000 fi di best essay inna St Thomas. Mi know seh yuh ah good pickney and bright too, after all you deh pon scholarship a St Joseph, ah sure you wi win.”

“Thank you Miss Madge, I will try.”  Charlotte turned to leave.

 

“Tell Patrice fi come ya. Mi wan si har."

 “Yes Mam,” replied Charlotte.

Returning home Charlotte decided that she would  write about something that could benefit the country.  $50,000.00! That would be a life changer. She drew up an essay outline and got to work.


                                               

THE COMPETITION
 

The energy in the  packed auditorium was  infectious, warm and full of vibes. Charlotte wandered around until she found the seats for the competitors. Three weeks earlier she’d sent in her essay, three weeks of fretting and hoping. The pressure was tremendous, because if she won she could pay for her subjects and save for college; if she lost St. Joseph’s Secondary could be the end of her educational pursuit.

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Justin Williams First Annual Essay Competition," the announcer bellowed. He was a short, stout man with a receding hairline that made him look bald. 

“It is my pleasure to present the contestants, seated to my right at the left wing of the auditorium are: Monique Stewart, Richard Norris, Ashante Smith…..”. Charlotte stood when her name was called, together with nine other contestants. They were the top ten finalists as there were  63 entries.  She felt lucky to have been selected. The MC went on to introduce college scouts, presenters, performers and other significant guests. When the performances and greetings were over he again bellowed…

“And noooooooow the winners of this year’s essay competition! In third place we have Richard Norris...  In second place..." Charlotte gripped the edges of her seat afraid to even breathe!  She was praying real hard silently in her head, “Dear God, I need this, I need this!“  

“Marlon Prince,” piped the announcer.

“And in first place a young lady who has this country’s best interests at heart,

Let me hear it foooooooor Charlotte Vaz!!”She was stunned when the announcer spoke her name.

The auditorium shook from the applause that followed. Loudest of all were her sister’s and mother’s cheers. Charlotte did not move, she seemed transfixed to her seat, her head reeling from the reality her brain was now trying to process. “Charlotte, you won!" Her mother shouted, gripping her arm and pulling her to her feet. Charlotte climbed the wooden steps to collect her prize in a daze of wonderment  Her head spun as she shook hands with the presenters. It was a moment most surreal.

“We now present,” the announcer was saying, “Charlotte Vaz, the winner of our annual essay competition $50,000….” she barley heard the names of the sponsors and smiled as she held up the cheque. Charlotte said her thank you’s and hurried from the stage into the arms of her mother. “Mummy, I can get to college now,” she said jubilantly. “Honey you will need a lot more money than this to get to college, but this is a start.”

“We can get sweetie too,” her sisters chirped. Charlotte laughed and rubbed their coarse hair.

“Not today,” joined mother.

EXAM

 

The wind blew the leaves of the blossoming mango tree in the school’s court yard as Charlotte looked up from her paper and glanced out the window to see them fluttering by. It was June, and CXC exams were being administered, a month after the competition. The desks were evenly spaced and the invigilator walked quietly among them, occasionally stopping to answer a question from one of the students. She flew through the rest of the exams that week, finding them easy. She was grateful, she had anticipated a more challenging Examination. Summer crawled by and as September drew near she found herself anticipating the result. They were to be posted in the newspaper on the second of the month.

GONE ABROAD

The second of September 1997 was a day of rejoicing in Hackney, one of their own Charlotte Vaz by name topped the national CXC scores for that year.  She was one of five students who received distinction and a scholarship to study at the Ashton College in England.  Patrice had reason to dance and shout as she joined the parade of jubilant neighbors: Miss Matie, Miss Madge and others clanging pot covers, tin pans and the like as they converged noisily on her dwelling in songs and dances. Her daughter will go to college after all!  She was to leave for Aston College in January to pursue a degree in real estate.  With the money she had won from the competition she was able to process her travel documents, purchase the things needed for travelling and leave some funds for her mom and sisters to invest.

The morning of her departure was tearful, neighbors and friends had wished her the best of luck. Her emotions were a mix of sadness and joy, joy for the life she hoped to create and sadness on leaving her family behind.  At the airport her Mother soberly counseled: “ I never got this opportunity, so make the best use of it, you hear me?” Then drew her close into a long bear hug with her sisters hugging her too. Patrice started coughing loud, wheezing coughs.

“Mummy, what happened?  Do you have the flu?”  Concern spread across Charlotte’s face.

“I'm alright, don’t worry,” replied mom as she straightened Charlotte’s collar.

She grabbed her suitcase as the intercom announced her flight. She didn’t look back, she knew she’d cry. Her mom and sisters waved farewells and blew kisses as she departed the Donald Sangster International Airport. It was not an easy parting as this would be the first time she was separated from her family. They each knew in their hearts that it was for the better.


NEWS FROM JAMACIA


The morning air was cold and ominous as she drew the bed covers even more tightly around her shoulders.  It had been four long years and she had worked very hard to maintain top grades. Her family called every two weeks, filling her in on what was going on in Hackney. The photos exchanged showed Margret had grown to become a beautiful teenager and Joan a charismatic young girl. Mary still had the baby look in her eyes.  Mother however, had grown skinny with her hair all fallen out. Charlotte sent her fish oil tablets but that did not seem to help. As she began to doze off  for the remaining 20 minutes before the alarm clock was set to chime, the phone rang. She glanced at the caller ID, the call was from Jamaica. This was weird as two days prior she talked to her family. Even more unusual, Miss Madge was  on the other end of the line. It was usually her mother who placed the calls. Miss Madge’s voice was raspy as she spoke,

“Charlotte weh you deh ya now?”

“I’m in my dorm Miss Madge, is everything alright? Where’s my mother?”

“Si dung Charlotte, you si dung yet?”

“Yes.”

Miss Madge drew a deep breath “Dem fine yuh madda dead last night, ‘seh she jus drop down an dem bawl out an sen fi mi an mi call e doctor an dem rush har go haspital. She neva mek it douh.” Her voice broke as she continued “She was a good lady, neva do nobody wrong.”

Charlotte felt faint,  her mind reeling. The brown walls closed in on her. Her sight was fuzzy, made worse by her sudden migraine. Some how, she mustered the strength to ask, “What did they say killed her?”

The answer blew the wind out of her, “AIDS, dem seh ah AIDS kill ar.”

Charlotte hung up the phone and began to cry. Big, fat tears ran down her cheeks and splashed onto the carpet below. She never saw this coming. Of course there were signs but she never thought… She dried her tears, remembering her exam. Puffy-eyed she walked to the auditorium and sat down to take her test.

REMINISCENCES

It was now the year 2013, twelve years since the death of her mother. Charlotte was now thirty-five and owner of the prestigious Orange and White Real Estate Company in London, England, with several branches throughout Europe. She attended the funeral and two years later had sent for her sisters from Hackney. Now each of them owned their own business and were doing well.  Charlotte sent a cheque to both Miss Mattie and Madge every month, she never forgot Miss Madge’s generosity in organizing the funeral and wake. She had established the Patrice Walker Scholarship Fund (in honour of her mom) which awarded scholarships every year to 50 deserving students. Charlotte built a low income housing complex in Hackney to benefit its citizens. The first few years after her mother’s death were hard - very hard - but she fought her way to the top, her few sprouting gray hairs a testament to sleepless nights and rigid planning. In the end it was worth it. She looked back at the past and extracted two important lessons: bad things happen to push you toward the good, and sorrow lasts only for a while.  She was to be married soon and would pass on her legacy of perseverance, courage and tenacity to her children;  those who knew and admired her, and the many who would benefit from the scholarship fund she founded. This is truly a legacy to live for.

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