Saffy’s Song

Sharma Taylor

Me nuh know what CC chatting sey. Mi soon turn 13. Old enough to soon get mi period and to have pickney if mi did want that, like some of the girls dem up the road. Smaddy could be calling me dem “Mumma” now. CC dry up and tough like. But ‘cause she is mi auntie, mi haffi respect her still. So mi don’t do nothing but cuss her in mi head when she look pon mi and sey mi too young fi go ah dance. She in the kitchen cooking mackerel and rice.

Young? mi sey inside mi head. Kim tell mi that Mrs Williams, wi next door neighbour, tell Kim that CC modda, who was mi grandmadda, used to complain to Mrs Williams how CC used to tief out ah night-time and sneak into dance when CC was my age. That was before mi grandmadda dead. Mi look pon CC now and think: CC, when yuh was my age, yuh did have mi cousin Kim. The same Kim now who ah night-time go ah dance with CC man, John, who is like wi stepfadda. Kim come back ah morning time and tell me how she did ah dance pon her head-top or cock up pon de speaker.

CC boyfriend, John, work with a sound system. But him is not a selector. Him help load and unload the speaker box dem, fix up the wire, and as him love sey, him is “a technician that work behind the scenes.” John think him is a deejay though. Him sey him can’t wait to buss. Mi sey to miself “buss what?” John well-well old. Him over 40. Sometime, mi joke with him and sey: “Yuh going buss wey?” or “Is wey yuh ah go buss go?” and then CC and Kim would laugh. Though we love give him trouble, John is not a bad man, but him mostly just do everything CC sey, like him don’t have no spine. Except that when CC tell John to talk to Kim boyfriend, man-to-man, to tell Biggs to leave CC “good-good girl-chile alone”, John don’t want to do it. And CC sey is ‘cause him fraid ah Biggs. But John sey Kim love life is none of him business.

“What ‘bout Kim?” mi sey to CC now, soft-soft, so she could hardly hear. “How come she can go?”

“Saffy, yuh know Kim is almost 19.” CC don’t sey nothing more. She always sey her word is law, ‘cause this is her house, and is true that CC is like mi modda, since mi real modda dead long time and mi don’t have no father either. 

One time, when mi was seven, I ask CC if she did know who mi fadda was and she sey I must go ask retired Deputy Superintendent of Police Lynwood “Fire” Johnson ‘cause is him and him posse who did shoot mi fadda dead, seying him was a gunman. Kim sey is not true about mi fadda. She sey she hear mi fadda was a fisherman, who love play domino, who used to make patty and sell dem at schools in the area and who did sometime make awning and furniture too. She sey Mrs Williams tell her The Gleaner report about the “police operation” sey him was “a 25-year-old labourer of no fixed address.” But anyway, two months after the police kill mi fadda, mi modda dead on September 3 at Victoria Jubilee Hospital when she pushing me out, so that is how comes her sister, CC, turn mi modda and feeling now like she can rule me.

CC go dance sometime too now, but is go she go to sell juice, peanut, popcorn, cheesetrix, cigarette and lighter from her likkle handcart; the same handcart she have at mi school gate ah daytime. The only difference is that she don’t sell the pickney dem cigarette, no matter how much the bad boy dem at school, who think dem is big man, beg, cuss or threaten her.

Since CC done talk, mi just roll mi eyes and kiss me teeth when mi reach mi room. At the door, mi hear her shout after mi: “And go do you maths homework!”

***

CC want me to be an accountant. She sey mi can be that or lawyer or doctor, but she know me have a good head with numbers. Every day, she remind mi how she taking up her good-good money to school mi, so mi don’t repeat her mistakes. She drop outta school just before Kim born. And Kim never like school, so she only leave wid passes in two subject. So is on me it fall to, as CC sey, “to break the cycle.”

“You don’t see how things rough, Saffy?” CC tell mi, “You don’t want a better life?”

Of course, mi want that. Mi tired to watch CC decide which bill to pay each month and mi nuh like how it feel to do school work by flash light ‘cause JPS turn off wi light. Or to bathe in rainwater we catch in drum or water that we get through a hose from the neighbour through the back fence ‘cause NWC turn off the water. Or to go school with a sardine sandwich and no money to buy a cooked lunch or even a beef patty.

But more than anything, mi want to sing.

I don’t tell CC mi going be a singjay, like Koffee. CC love to play ‘90s dancehall at home, she sey dem time music was “nice”. So, in between her gospel music, CC playing General Degree, Spragga Benz, Tiger, Terror Fabulous, Ghost, Baby Cham, Shabba Ranks, Sanchez and Pinchers. Dem song have a catchy beat that stick in yuh ear and tell a story. When she playing dem, Kim tell her she prefer Vybz Kartel, Mavado, Popcaan and Alkaline. Mi favourite ‘90s artiste is Nadine Sutherland. Mi love when she sing “Action; Not A Bag ah Mouth”. Mi love JC Lodge too when she sing bout “Telephone Love”. Dem woman know how to plait up lyrics like dem braiding hair. Like dem rest in the grooves in the melody. And in the song, dem give yuh dem heart.

John sey when him was growing up him grandfather used to play pure ska, rocksteady and farin R&B, jazz and blues song. John talk how him grow up on people like Highland “Dobby” Dobson, Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, John Holt, Brook Benton, Tom Jones… man dem mi never hear ‘bout yet til John play dem music fi mi. Him sey dem make yuh feel like is only yuh dem singing to and dem talk ‘bout love and pain like dem is yuh friend.

Though she love music, CC not going understand. Is like she don’t realize a good singjay can make money. But me also know that fi every singer yuh hear ‘bout and listen dem song on radio or see dem at stage show, you have another five hundred like John, who still waiting to buss.

Mi don’t want mi auntie to feel like mi is a failure and all her sacrifice is fi nothing but mi can’t help mi love fi music. She going see mi turn a success and the first thing mi going do is buy all ah we a big house.

And when mi dead and gone people can have mi song dem to sing and remember me. Mi don’t want to be just a newspaper clipping, with no picture, like mi fadda. Mi want mi voice to always live. And the thing mi can sey in mi songs is how it is to live in the ghetto as me see it and the importance of rising, and mi can combine the modern sound wid the mellow ‘50s and ‘60s song dem John always playing name “Motown Music”, people like Temptations, Drifters and Four Tops and man name Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. Dem old but dem fresh too ‘cause dem men talking ‘bout life and struggles people in dem generation experience. Real things. 

Once mi get mi own cell phone from CC, mi going put mi song dem on Youtube, SoundCloud and Instagram and get plenty likes. People from all over the world can hear me. All in far places like China and Germany and Australia and Japan. Mi plan that when Kartel outta jail, mi can go studio go meet him and record a duet. Look pon artiste like Shenseea. Mi nuh pretty and half-Chiney like she, but mi voice big. So big, when mi used to tell joke with mi friends at school, Miss Gibson, mi teacher, would turn ‘round at the board and sey: “Sapphire Jackson, why is your mouth so loud? Don’t you see me trying to teach mathematics?” 

Mi want to know how maths going help me in life. Why people have to learn it? That’s why people have calculator app on dem cell phone when dem can’t add up, divide, multiply and subtract the numbers fast in dem head like me. 

So, Thursday, maths class going on and Miss Gibson talking about isosceles triangle and something funny name “Pythagorean theorem” from some man she sey live in a place call “Greece” long time ago. Pickney raising dem hand to ask her to explain it again. Mi tune out ‘cause mi done figure it out long time. But I want to know what a old white man name Pythagoras have to do with my life right now in Jamaica and I wondering if this white man know what it feel like to have a dream so big you can’t see past it. So while Miss Gibson teaching, I sneak out a new exercise book and put it between the pages of my maths textbook. I did decide to put my songs in that book. I start write out the lyrics for the first new song mi going record for Kartel:

Saffy sey life in the ghetto nuh right, nuh right;

Saffy sey life can feel like a fight sometime.

And mi don’t get no further than dem few lines before Miss Gibson grab wey mi exercise book and sey in her loud voice: “What did I tell you, Miss Jackson?” and the whole class look pon mi, including Big Forehead Syphillia McKenzie who think her doo-doo can make patty, though her name sound like one of the STD the guidance counsellor tell wi ‘bout in health class last week. Syphillia and her friends love listen to soca music, which dem sey better than dancehall. But what dem know ‘bout dancehall music?

Then, Miss Gibson sey: “Well, Miss Jackson, I’m sure you won’t mind me reading this to the class.”

Mi mind very much, yuh bitch, mi think but don’t sey. Mi feel the pain from biting mi tongue.

Miss Gibson read out the first verse of my song in her high-pitch, squeaky voice, and of course, it don’t sound good. At all.

When she done, she sey: “So, Miss Jackson, you sey ghetto life not right? Well, if that’s the case, I’d think you’d pay more attention in school, so you wouldn’t have to stay there.” And the pickney dem laugh, led by Syphillia McKenzie.

Mi just want to melt into the floor. I don’t even look up when Miss Gibson sey mi getting detention and she taking mi straight to the Principal office. Mi walk out of the class looking at mi shoes the whole time. Miss Gibson was walking behind mi when mi sey: “At least mi don’t have yuh face.” And when she sey “What?” mi sey: “Mi sorry. Mi behaviour is a disgrace.”

“That’s certainly correct,” she sey, “but it’s too late for apologies.”

Outside the Principal office, mi still can hear the girls dem laughing, though the classroom is far away. I know it’s just that the sound is stuck inside mi ears, seal up with wax. Mi stick mi finger in mi ear and pull it out, like mi plugging and unplugging a hole, like a drain for the sound to pour out. It don’t work. Mi shake mi head and the sound move around, and is like underneath the laughing mi can hear a kinda riddim, ‘though it low-low, and I try to ride that riddim in mi head. Mi try grab it with mi two hands in mi mind as it slide up and down. 

Same time, mi take out mi pen and a piece of paper from mi tunic pocket and write the second verse:

Saffy sey the youth dem must stand firm and fight;

Saffy sey only that can make it right.

Remember this when you feel yuhself ah dangle; 

sliding down the side of a triangle.

And the words blur on the page ‘cause of mi tears but once mi write it down, the sound quiet down to a hum.

When mi nearly reach the gate at home, mi wipe mi eyes, so CC can’t see mi was crying. If she hear mi wasn’t concentrating at school she going vex. She did promise to try and give mi a cell phone fi mi birthday. Mi is the only one at school who don’t have one, and mi know CC will decide not to give mi if mi giving trouble at school.

“How come yuh reach home so late?” CC ask mi as soon as mi step inside the house, but I don’t even have to sey anything ‘cause I see she not really listening for a answer. That’s ‘cause she checking texts on her cell phone… but then mi see is not her phone, is John phone; and mi can see from her face, she mussi find out that some ooman sending him nasty pictures again. Mi hear water in the bathroom running, so mi know John taking a shower. Mi sorry fi him when him come out. CC always figuring out him password. Is so man sloppy.

When mi in the bedroom, Kim come in, take one look at mi face and ask: “Is what do you?” Mi don’t sey nothing. She put her arm around mi shoulder and I lean back into her chest. Sweet-sweet Kim. Kim is the only one who would understand. Is only she mi could tell mi going be a singjay. ‘Cause mi know she not going laugh. Kim tell mi plenty time that mi smart enough to do anything mi make up mi mind to do. She is the only one who know Syphillia McKenzie bully mi at school.

When mi finally tell her what happen today at school, she sey: “Nuh mind dem. Dem jealous of you talent, Saffy. Let me hear the verses you write.” And she listen as mi sing and when mi done, she jump up off the bed and clap her hand dem and sey, “Girl, you voice is like magic.”

And that night, when mi go bed, with Kim snoring beside me, is like a new thing in mi ears, like you pouring out a jug of water and me is the glass. Is not Miss Gibson high pitch, squeaking voice; or the facety-girl dem laughing. Is like the words of my song bubbling up in mi insides, filling up mi brain and mi know I have to reach the dance that keeping up the road this Friday night, or mi head going burst.

***

So the next evening, Friday night, mi decide to tief out. I don’t see Kim, so she probably at her boyfriend, Biggs’, house. John was working a dance in Clarendon. Mi know him glad to be gone since him and CC had a big fight ‘bout the texts on him phone. CC had a all-night prayer meeting at church, probably praying for Kim to leave who CC love call “no-good Biggs” who she think is nothing but a bad boy and probably a gunman. 

Mi was watching and waiting for night to come from before the sun even start set. In the distance, the mountain range look like giant fingers did pinch dem like the edges of CC’s plantain tart. Dem look kinda like creases in tissue paper. And the house dem on the hill seem like dolly house with all the browns and reds and yellow colours and zinc reflecting light off it. Over Kingston Harbour, mi see a plane what look like one dry-up leaf blowing in the wind.

When it finally get dark, mi open the door and peep out. The lights off over Mrs Williams house. She probably inside her house sleeping or at church with CC. Nobody on the road but two mangy dog and de mongrel dem not even barking, like dem listening to the music too. Mi sure everybody and dem granmadda at the dance. Mi can hear the sound clear-clear, is like a pulse mi can feel under mi feet. Something happen when the music hit. Is like something lodge in mi head and can’t come out.

The air sharp and fresh. And mi wearing a short blue skirt and strappy, shiny top mi borrow from Kim and mi jean jacket throw across mi shoulder. Mi and Kim wear the same size shoes and mi did find a high-heel boot that mi know Kim wouldn’t let mi borrow, so mi glad she not home.

It hard to walk in the high-heel shoes, ‘cause the heels thinner and higher than mi used to and the road surface rough and uneven with pothole. Mi doing more wobbling than walking, like a calf that just born. Even though mi nearly drop two time, mi love how the heels make me feel tall-tall.

And mi singing the first line of the final verse of my song in mi head:

“Saffy sey sometime yuh have to take a chance…”

And mi think back to the sound of the baby fussing on the bus when mi was coming home from school that evening. So mi wrap my lyrics ‘round the riddim of that low wailing, and wait for the rest of the lines to come to mi brain when dem ready.

When we nearly reach the dance, mi can hear the selector playing “ring the alarm, another sound is dying.”

Inside the dance not like anything mi ever see before. Is not like what you see on TV when dem cover the  big stage show where people spread out all over the place. Here, everybody crammed into this small space in the open land beside Mitsy’s bar and is like dem all moving as one. The crowd is just one giant, living breathing thing with plenty arms, legs and heads, except for every now and then when you can see a piece of the crowd part, and then mi can see girls in batty rider shorts and sneakers showing off dem wining and men in Clarks and merino showing off dem moves. And is like everyone is this one massive, unending wave heaving up and down like we at Hellshire beach.

This place don’t even look like the open land no more. Mi can’t picture the boy dem running up and down playing football on the grass. Mi don’t see any other pickney here. And mi wondering how mi going tell mi fren dem at school on Monday that mi go dance on Friday night. I going make sure tell dem when Syphillia McKenzie around, so she can hear. 

Now, the selector bigging up all the massive and crew and the smell of weed stinging mi eye and the place smoky too. Mi blink real hard and when mi look is who that mi see but Kim? Kim in a gold and black bodysuit and red mesh tights wining on a man who is not her boyfriend. Unlike Biggs, this man tall and skinny. Him in a brown Clarks boot and is like a broom wearing shoes. 

Mi run up to her and spin her ‘round by her shoulder.

“What yuh doing here?” mi sey. “Mi think yuh deh ah Biggs house.”

“Me?! What you doing here, Saffy? And why you wearing my clothes?! How you even manage to walk in dem shoes?!”

“Kim, cool nuh man. Is borrow mi borrow yuh clothes and shoes dem. Yuh going get dem back.”

“Take off mi shoes before you twist you foot. Matter of fact, go home right now and take off mi clothes. Is mad you get mad or what? Mummy going kill you when she find out.”

“She don’t have to find out. We don’t have to tell her nothing.” 

She raise a eyebrow and pause. 

And then Kim laugh. The kind of big laugh full of teeth the way she always do. She finally sey: “Alright, you can stay but make sure stay right here, where mi can see you and keep a eye on you.”

And I see from the way him looking at her that Mr Brown Clarks in love with Kim’s laugh too. And him go back to letting Kim wine on him as him press him groin into her bottom and grip her waist with him two skinny hand.

And the music that washing over this Crowd Wave washing over me too and I hearing in mi head the rest of the lines in my song. I take off Kim’s heels ‘cause the straps was eating into mi foot. I swaying to the songs the selector playing and feeling the damp, cool grass under mi feet. And the riddim that was in mi head from yesterday in Miss Gibson class releasing slowly; and now mi riding it like the riddim is a bull, or a wild horse, like mi is one of dem American cowboy John love watch on TV, who skillful in the saddle. And mi don’t know if this is what it feel like to be high. ‘Cause the weed smell not choking mi again and is like mi can hear my song playing now over these same loud speakers and everybody in the dance moving to my song. Dem dancing, swaying, singing and loving it. And I dancing too ‘til mi forehead, back and armpits wet with sweat and mi clothes sticking to mi.

And I telling Kim I know the final verse of my song and I going sing it for her when we reach home and she smile. Brown Clarks smiling too when we hear a voice sey:

“Tek yuh nasty hand dem from offa mi woman!”

And I know the voice belong to Kim boyfriend, Biggs, and is so the trouble start.

Brown Clarks stop grinding behind Kim and look like him want the Crowd Wave to swallow him up.

Next thing, I feel Biggs’ body push mine outta de way and I on the ground looking up at the stars in the sky and Biggs shouting out:

“Dutty bwoy, yuh think yuh can disrespect big man?”

And Kim face freeze; then is like she realise what going happen next so she unfreeze it fast and start begging Biggs no, don’t do it.

And the gun come out of Biggs’ pants’ waist quick and is a blur ‘cause the Crowd Wave now like it crashing on the shore.

“Bumbo-” was all Brown Clarks sey before Biggs fire the gun. It louder than the boom of the speakers.

I feel like I going piss miself. ‘Cause it sound like the shot explode inside mi head and not out here in the open land. It happen fast but slow at the same time. 

The gun look like push up right in my face but is a mile away too. And mi could see that Biggs not really aiming the gun at Brown Clarks; Biggs pointing it just above Brown Clark’s head, almost up into the air, to frighten him. But once the crowd see the gun is like the one big Crowd Wave splinter into a million little waves, ‘cause after Biggs fire all I see flying past mi face while mi on mi bottom on the ground is red and blond weave, hand with watch, long chain, hand bag, boot, jacket and things.

The selector run gone leave the dub plates and box dem. Him equipment turn over.

Brown Clarks take off like jet and leave Kim. Biggs running after Brown Clarks through the crowd like a current in a stream.

Kim on the ground too and mi wonder if is push smaddy push her, but mi see her grabbing her right ankle and is then mi realize the bullet mussi somehow do what mi hear on TV dem call “a ricochet”, probably off a zinc fence or the side of Mitsy’s bar, and hit her. That time the crowd did already scatter wey like rocks, so the way was clear for me to crawl over to Kim on the ground. I press my jean jacket over where the blood was pouring out from her ankle. Kim start moan.

“Yuh going be alright, Kim,” mi hear miself sey, but mi not too sure what mi seying is really true ‘cause mi scared too. Mi never see nobody get shot before. Mi never see nobody bleed so yet. And if the period thing that Kim was telling mi about is anything like this, then mi don’t ever want it. 

Mi help Kim to her feet and when she stand up, she lean her body weight on mi and we start hopping. Overturned crates and blood stains on the grass. Broken glass from beer bottles on the ground cutting up mi foot-bottom ‘cause mi forget mi did take off Kim’s shoes, and I don’t know where the shoes gone and I don’t care. Mi just want Kim to live. Mi will give anything for Kim to live. Mi have to act big for Kim, who sniffling now. 

“Hush Kim, is ok,” mi sey. I hope she believing mi although mi voice unsteady.

Mi not hearing the riddim in mi head no more. Me don’t know where the bull and wild horse run gone. There’s just a ringing in mi ears piercing mi eardrum and nothing to hold on to. I calling out for help but nobody not here to pay mi no mind.

A little way up the road, Kim see one of her taximan fren dem and him take wi to KPH. The doctor tell Kim she going be ok, the bullet went right through, but she have to stay in the hospital for one day for observation then report to the clinic every other day for dem to dress the foot. After the doctor sey Kim ok, but dem will monitor her and based on how it heal she may need something name “physiotherapy” fi a while.

Mi so relieved mi can barely stand up; mi so glad is like mi heart going come straight through mi chest.

Blood on mi clothes and mi don’t know where it coming from. Mi was so numb that mi never realize the bullet graze a finger on mi left hand until the doctor tell mi. A nurse bandage it up. “Yuh going be alright,” she sey.

“Did you see who shot you?” the doctor ask Kim, “We have to report this to the police.”

Kim shake her head. “Mi don’t know is who,” she sey. “It was at a dance… during a gun salute.”

“You want me to call CC?” mi ask Kim and she shake her head.

Well, it look like the news travel fast ‘cause next thing, mi look up and boops! is CC that in KPH, coming down the corridor like she is a hurricane all by herself. She moving people outta her way, even people in wheelchair and people in crutches.

And I bracing for what going come. Questions like: Why you at the dance, Saffy? How you end up there? Is not you I leave in the house? Is not you I tell that you too young to go to dance? How Kim end up get shot? You see why dance not for children? And it wasn’t me who always telling Kim that Biggs is no good? You see what happen? You see?

And it seem to me like whatever happen tonight, this is a house that I build with mi own two hands when mi decide to sneak out and so now I just going have to live in it.

But when CC see we, is like the hurricane calm right down ‘cause she just throw herself on Kim neck and hug her and hug me and start bawl and sey: “Thank you, Lawd Jesus!” with tears rolling down her face and wetting mi and I so shame that mi never listen to CC. Is then, inside CC’s hug, mi really feel like a likkle pickney.

The next morning, after she give mi breakfast, CC tell mi that mi under punishment and that mi not getting no new phone fi mi birthday and mi can forget ‘bout hanging out wid mi fren dem on weekends. She sey mi haffi earn back her trust and that is the part that make mi feel low like dog. Like mi lose something mi ‘fraid mi never going get back. Her voice calm-calm and mi hear the sweetness in it. Mi just look down into mi cornmeal porridge and nod.

Since Kim get shot, nobody don’t see Biggs in the community and John sey when Biggs come back him “ready fi de dutty bwoy”. Mi never see John vex so yet. CC haffi hide the machete, knife dem and icepick.

When we bring Kim home from the hospital, we prop up Kim foot with pillow and leave her in the room on the bed and John did make sure build some kind of contraption from wood and wire that Kim can press and it ring out through the whole house when she want we to come or if she in pain. After I help Kim go to the bathroom and get back into the bed, I take up my school books. 

And after mi finish Miss Gibson maths homework, I find a corner of the kitchen as CC boiling some chicken foot soup for Kim. CC face wet wid tears as she cutting up the yellow yam. 

Something like cement in my chest when mi realise that mi can’t afford to fail with this music thing. Mi going give it mi everything. This time, the riddim come as a whisper, low but strong, and is a new feel to the riddim. A layer of something in the middle of it, pulsing out of mi brain, flowing through mi belly  and tingling mi arms and legs. 

Mi take out mi exercise book and start write down the rest of the lines to my song:

Blood surely thicker than water;

Saffy sey when yuh feel yuh going under,

yuh nuh alone, somebody at yuh shoulder;

press on yute, 

yuh is a soldier.

A Jamaican living in Barbados, Sharma won the 2019 Bocas Lit Fest/Arvon-supported Johnson and Amoy Achong Caribbean Writers Prize for Fiction, the 2020 Frank Collymore Literary Endowment Award and the 2020 Wasafiri Queen Mary New Writing Prize.

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